November 2, 2016

Why Web Design Management Should Look Like Jazz

Website design planning meeting at Push10

By adding improvisation skills like those of jazz geniuses to organizational learning, you can make your leadership more effective and flexible.

Natalie Nixon is the Director of the Strategic Design MBA at Philadelphia University, and her TEDx presentation on learning leadership lessons from jazz geniuses is pure, unfiltered awesome. Find it here.

Loving the abridged version as presented by Nixon, we found ourselves digging deeper into the idea of using jazz improvisation techniques in design management and organizational learning.

Organizational improvisation isn’t a new concept – there are even improv troupes that consult with C-level executives from big corporations teaching them how to be flexible and think on their feet. But there’s something a little more poetic and…(no pun intended)…musical about using the techniques from jazz geniuses’ jam sessions to create harmony between business leaders and their employees.

So what does jazz improvisation have to do with managing people?

Frank J. Barrett, accomplished jazz pianist and Professor of Management at the Naval Postgraduate School literally wrote the book on the subject, and in his masterful hands, the two seemingly disparate topics collide beautifully into a set of useful skills for anyone leading a team.


Jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman said, “Jazz is the only music in which the same note can be played night after night, but differently each time.” Improvisational jazz performers never play exactly the same riff twice. To keep their performances fresh, they try new things as situations arise; their output depends on the band, the crowd, the night, the venue, the mood.
In a typical business environment, which is often ruled by outdated and worn-out procedures, growth is all about shaking things up. We’re all guilty of falling into the autopilot trap – we repeat inefficient behaviors that don’t yield good results because we haven’t actually thought about them in ages. Challenge your assumptions. Disrupt your norms.

What It Means For Leaders
Good leaders identify negative or inefficient routines and encourage their employees to break out of them.
Notice the word is “encourage”, not “force”. Forcing people to work a certain way never pans out. That’s why it’s important to sample new ways of working and let each person determine which feels right for them. The idea isn’t to impose your definition of productivity, it’s to create the space that enables your employees to find their own definition.


During a solo, jazz musicians don’t overthink their next note. They let their minds do their thing and surrender to the creative flow. In hindsight, they can see how the notes and chords came together; in the moment, they just did what felt right. And each musician gives the others the freedom to do exactly that.

In business, this concept translates roughly to letting go of the compulsion to control everything. Play is no less valuable than work, and often a healthy dose of flow can stimulate better ideas than heads-down churn ever could.
Some companies (like Google) have famously embraced the flow with the 20% rule – employees spend 20% of their time (which equates to one full workday a week) working on their own stuff, indulging in their passions, and dabbling in something new. It helps get them out of their own heads and allows great ideas to emerge. In fact, rumor has it that Gmail was born from this Flow model.

What It Means For Leaders
The key to this method is making sure your employees know that it’s okay to fail. It’s okay to be wrong and to let their minds wander. As the great Miles Davis says, “if you’re not making a mistake, it’s a mistake”. Give your employees the freedom to explore, and the flow will reward you.

Think Positive

According to bassist Percy Heath, “Jazz is letting everybody do his or her thing with the music.” Jazz musicians don’t stop in the middle of a song when an unexpected note comes from a band member. They roll with it and explore the new direction. Maybe it’s not what they anticipated…but it’s what they have, and they’ll make the most of it.
This “work with it” mindset is fundamentally different from a lot of the things we experience in business. How many times have you found yourself lamenting the tool you’re using or the project you’re working on? Instead of trying to change the state of affairs, assume something positive exists within the opportunity as it is and concert your efforts toward finding it.

What It Means For Leaders
Being positive as a leader is key, and it’s important to make the most of what you have. Leaders have to see the potential, the absolute best in their employees rather than their inevitable imperfections. Spotting someone’s strengths – even in the moments when they may be falling prey to their weaknesses – isn’t easy, but that’s what separates the great leaders from the mediocre ones.

Take Turns

Watch a jazz band play. You’ll see one musician step forward, belt out a killer solo, and step right back into formation. Nobody steals the spotlight for too long, and nobody plays the supporting role exclusively.
In organizational learning, this idea manifests itself similarly. The most effective businesses know there are countless approaches to solving any given problem. As such, they embrace the unique perspectives that each team member brings to the table. Their teams can self-direct and take turns heading up projects as opportunities arise because they’re all more interested in finding a great solution than worrying about who it came from.

What It Means For Leaders
Being a good leader means helping others lead, too. By knowing your team well, you can find the right fits for the right people, giving them a chance to step up and lead a project or task that they’re well suited for. Promoting autonomy and cultivating leadership is more important – and more sustainable – than playing head honcho.


Times they are a-changin’, and holding on to stagnant leadership methodologies is no longer an option. Organizational improvisation techniques, as learned by jazz geniuses, can have a real and substantial impact on the success of your leadership and the way your team performs. Like Max De Pree says, “Jazz, like leadership, combines the unpredictability of the future with the gifts of individuals”. And who doesn’t want that?