Four Highpoints: Jazz Principles for Teamwork Excellence

Three days later I’m sitting in my office and can’t stop thinking about how we, as members of working teams, can learn from jazz improvisation.

Three days, 60 concerts, jazz, and other improvised music. It was my first time at the Jazzfestival Saalfelden. The days were hot, and the music was intense. Experiencing the bands, most of them trios, performing with excitement and total immersion into their art, made me wonder why we often find it so hard to work together in teams, why we are not experiencing this child-like joy of co-creation.  

My body was feeling the bass and drum, while my mind was astonished by the finesse of melodies that emerged during intense improvisational moments, in the here-and-now, through musicians that seemed totally embedded in something bigger than a trio.

Those musicians had all their channels in receiving mode, while at the same time creating something completely new, something unheard before.

Three days later I’m sitting in my office and can’t stop thinking about how we, as members of working teams, can learn from jazz improvisation. And how those lessons could bring more enjoyment to our work in teams.

My reflections are summarized in the following four highpoints, derived from observing jazz players during phases of intense creativity, my own amateurish and limited exposure to playing in bands, and further reading on how to apply the art of improv to business. 


1.     Radical Receptiveness
Great jazz players are great listeners. “Jazz musicians seek to live lives of radical receptivity. Human beings are at their best when they do the same—when they are open to the world, able to notice expansive horizons of possibility, fully engaged in skillful activity, and living in contexts that summon responses that lead to new discoveries.” (Barrett, 2012).

In teams, radical receptiveness goes beyond listening to the audio track, the spoken word. We know today that non-verbal communication such as body language, facial expressions, gestures, posture, eye contact, etc. makes up 80 to 90% of communication.

All-channel listening allows you to better understand the unsaid, the elephant in the room. Conflicts can be detected earlier, and appropriate solutions developed faster. A good guidance to develop the appropriate mindset in team communication is to “look for, where the other might be right”.


2.     Let others shine
You might have noticed how most jazz songs provide space for soli by every instrument. Spotlight is shared. The drums, the bass, the sax, every instrument gets its front-stage moment. The others mute down, they make space, but still provide enough structure (rhythm) to support the solo artist’s needs.

Another quality of jazz solos is that you won’t hear a bass player trying to play a vivid clarinet solo, or a grandiose trumpetist attempting a rhythmic drum solo. The quality of the solo comes from taking advantage of the authentic intrinsic features of the instrument. It doesn’t mean to stay within the known. Great solos explore the unknown but are always rooted in the “nature” of the instrument.


Apply this attitude to a work team and you’ll quickly identify the core ingredients of psychological safety. People can bring their Whole to the team; they let go of their social mask and are not afraid to show vulnerability.


Great teams know the strengths, weaknesses, desires, and dreads of fellow team members. Members are encouraged to bring their full self to the task and support each other’s needs to become the best version of themselves. It’s about building more bridges and less walls within teams. (“We build too many walls and not enough bridges” – Sir Isaac Newton)

3. Let go of your mastery

Have no doubt, jazz musicians are masters of their instruments. They know the scales, have spent countless hours optimizing their embouchure, and are experts in song structures and standards. But in the creative moment of improvisation, co-creating with others is the focus. And in this specific moment it’s time to let go of any rigidity and weight that might come from all the knowledge, tools and frameworks. Follow Pablo Picasso’s advice to “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist”.

The same is true in business, at least when you’re involved with the human side of things (e.g., team dynamics). To be able to take full advantage of the moment, you have to first be a true expert in the field. Only then can you let go of rules and theories to find groundbreaking solutions. The difference here is that in business, the time for improv performance may come as a surprise. It’s often triggered by external and unforeseeable factors.  “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth” (Mike Tyson). Become an expert in your craft, then you’re ready to master the improv moments.


4.     Be significant

“There is no great jazz that’s average”, is an Oxymoron.
“And there is no progress without difference to the status quo”, is one too.

As a jazz musician you want to bring new, significant ideas to improvisation moments. Something people will remember. It won’t always work, failure is inherent. Miles Davis famously said: "If you’re not making a mistake, it’s a mistake.” 

As a team member you create value through providing new perspectives. Being significant allows you to find new paths, new solutions. You elevate your co-workers. By pushing boundaries and proposing fresh ideas, you inspire your colleagues to explore new avenues and approaches, to foster creativity and continuous improvement. And rest assured, you’ll make mistakes, but most doors are two-way doors (Jeff Bezos), there is a way to reverse those decisions.


If you’re interested to learn more, have a look at these books:

·        Barrett, F. J. (2012). Yes to the mess: Surprising leadership lessons from jazz. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.

·        Kulhan, B. (2017). Getting to “Yes And”. Stanford University Press.