CODA: Creativity and Improvisation in Jazz and Organizations: Implications for Organizational Learning

Barrett, F. CODA: Creativity and Improvisation in Jazz and Organizations: Implications for Organizational Learning. Organization Science, vol. 9, n. 5. (sept-oct. 1998). Pp. 605-622.

We must simply act, fully knowing our ignorance of possible consequences.
Kenneth Arrow, economist

I think the fear of failure is why I try things … if I see that there’s some value in something and I’m not sure whether I deserve to attempt it, I want to find out.
Keith Jarrett, jazz pianist

Jazz band and jazz improvising as an example of an organization designed for maximizing learning and innovation.

The nature of improvisation

Improvisation involves exploring, continual experimenting, tinkering with possibilities without knowing where one’s queries will lead or how action will unfold.

Learning to improvise: Preparing to be spontaneous

  • Too much reliance on learned patterns (habitual or automatic thinking) tends to limit the risk‐taking necessary for creative improvisation
  • Too much regulation and control restrict the interplay of musical ideas

Provocative competence: interrupting habit patterns

Because of the temptation to repeat what they do well rather than risk failure, veteran jazz musicians make deliberate attempts to guard against the reliance on prearranged music, memorized solos, or habits and patterns that have worked for them in the past.

Organization learning theorists have noticed that organizations also are tempted to rely on past successes and repeat stock phrases.

Ordinary learning in organizations tends to lead to stable routines that perpetuate and become fixed even if they are no longer appropriate or detrimental, as if they are playing themselves automatically.

Competency trap
The tendency for an organization to become competent and specialized in a routine that was successful, thereby squelching experimentation.
March, 1991

Organizations  should nurture small disruptions and incremental re‐orientations to keep learning processes vital and handicap inferior routines.

Provocative competence
Making deliberate efforts to create disruptions and incremental reorientations.

  • the interruption is affirmative: holding members as competent to meet the challenge
  • do more than just disrupt habit patterns: create alternative pathways for action
  • interruption is incremental. The foreign contexts are scaled to be challenging, but not overly disruptive

We need to expand our definition of leadership to include creating conditions that encourage members to bring a mindfulness to their task that allows them to imagine alternative possibilities heretofore unthinkable.

Embracing errors as source of learning

Errors are a very important source of learning.

Organizations need to adopt an “aesthetic of imperfection,” an acknowledgement that learning is something that often happens by trial and error, by brave efforts to experiment outside of the margin.

It suggests distinguishing between errors that are the result of carelessness and those that are the result of caring deeply about a project.

Rather than simply rewarding managers for “fixing” problems, perhaps organizations should consider the way that managers persevere and make use of mistakes as points of creative departure.

If organizations advocate ad hoc action and serendipitous learning, then there are times when members must be willing to release one another for consequences that they could not predict, for errors of trespassing and over‐extension.

Minimal structures that allow maximum flexibility

In an effort to guarantee consistency and efficiency, organizations often attempt to systematically avoid changes and ambiguity through creating standard operating procedures, clear and rationalized goals, and forms of centralized control.

One organizational equivalent of minimal structure might be credos, stories, myths, visions, slogans, mission statements, trademarks.

Under traditional norms of organizational design, prototypes are often the exclusive property of design engineers, kept separate from manufacturing, marketing, and other groups, not to mention the customer. Many brilliant designs never get produced, or worse, different engineering groups work on their parts separately, only to discover in the final stages that their contributions, however brilliant and innovative, do not fit together.

Rapid prototyping, regular updating and changing of design prototypes: such a practice would allow cross‐discipline communication so that people can create while knowing how and where their ideas fit into the whole evolving system.

Rapid prototypes function like the loose framework of the song: they leave a great deal of room to depart and deviate; andyet there is enough structure there to give players enough collective confidence to play together.

Distributed task: continual negotiation toward dynamic synchronization

Features that make up a distributed task:

  • shared task knowledge
  • horizon of observation
  • multiple perspectives

Most of our studies of organizational behavior have a rational‐cognitive orientation.

Organizational learning theories in particular stress rational, adaptive modes of inquiry.

Reliance on retrospective sensemaking as form

Organizations tend to forget how much improvisation, bricolage, and retrospective sense making are required to complete daily tasks.

In an effort to control outcomes and deskill tasks, they often attempt to break complex tasks down into formal descriptions of work procedures that can be followed automatically.

Given that many tasks in organizations are indeterminate and people come to them with limited foresight, members often need to apply resourcefulness, cleverness, pragmatism in addressing concerns.

Many jobs in organizations require this kind of bricolage ‐‐ fumbling around, experimenting, patching together an understanding of problems from bits and pieces of experience, improvising with the materials at hand. Few problems provide their own definitive solutions.

Hanging out: membership in communities of practice

To foster learning organizations must see beyond conventional, canonical job descriptions and recognize the rich practices themselves.

Essential to organizational learning is access to legitimate peripheral participation, understanding how to function as an insider.

Alternating between soloing and supporting

In spite of the increasing popularity of empowerment and employee involvement, organizations often have difficulty supporting participation.

The deceptively simple practice of taking turns creates a mutuality structure that guarantees participation, inclusion, shared ownership without insisting on consensus and its unintentional hegemonic consequences.

Beyond a model for sharing leadership through turn‐taking, it also offers a model of followership.

Given the complex and systemic nature of problems that cross conventional boundaries, managers, as knowledge specialists, cannot be solo operators: they need one another’s expertise and support in order to arrive at novel solutions.

Perhaps organizational innovation would thrive if members were skilled at giving others’ room to develop themes, to think out loud and discover as they invent.

Organizations tend to reward individual performance and achievement rather than supportive behaviors.

This emphasis often leads to excessive competition and hesitancy to acknowledge the limits of one’s knowledge.

Implications for non-jazz contexts

To pretend that improvisation is not happening in organizations is to not understand the nature of improvisation.

Organizations must face a tradeoff between servicing efficiency and stewarding attention as a scarce resource to be focused where needed.

Boost the processing of information during and after actions are implemented

Within the ongoing flow of everyday organizational activity, people retrospectively make sense or construct a story or justification for what they have already done. These stories can become the seeds for greater discoveries and inventions.

A view of planning as play or as a “practice field” in which managers practice thinking ahead, predicting, and guessing future moves within various constraints.

Cultivate provocative competence: Create expansive promises and incremental disruptions as occasions for stretching out into unfamiliar territory

Provocative competence is a leadership skill that involves challenging habits and conventional practices, challenging members to experiment in the margins and to stretch in new directions.

Potential downsides to disruptions:

  • when people confront environmental jolts, they fall back on habitual modes of action
  • there might be a tendency to escalate commitment to a wrong course in the context of a threatening interruption

One way leaders practice provocative competence is by evoking a set of higher values and ideals that inspire passionate engagement.

Ensure that everyone has a chance to solo from time to time

When self‐directed work teams are performing well, they are often characterized by distributed, multiple leadership in which people take turns leading various projects as their expertise is needed (Guzzo 1995).

Cultivate comping behaviors

Organizations must go beyond merely inviting new voices, but must also create processes that suspend the tendency to criticize, judge, express disbelief that might kill a nascent idea.

Create organizational designs that produce redundant information

Overlapping knowledge creates redundant sets of information that permits people to identify with and take responsibility for whole processes rather than parts of the process. Designing more interdependence into tasks increases members’ responsive capacity.

Create organizational climates that value errors as a source for learning

Organizational learning, then, must be seen as a risky venture, reaching into the unknown with no guarantee of where one’s explorations will lead.

Since errors are indispensable in the creative process, organizational leaders can create an aesthetic of imperfection and an aesthetic of forgiveness that construes errors as a source of learning that might open new lines of inquiry.

Cultivate serious play: too much control inhibits flow

The people who come to be masters of management do not see their work environment only in structured, analytic ways. Instead, they also have the capacity to see it as a complex dynamic system that is constantly evolving.

This suggests that we re‐visit the conventional separation between work and play: legitimate play as a fruitful, meaningful activity, one that enhances the sheer joy of relational activity.

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