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What jazz musicians know about business that you don’t

Katherine Shao
VP Sales Enablement Practice
Why is it so hard to think and act in new ways in business? When we tackle change and adaption at Oxygen, we take our cues from jazz.
January 12, 2021

If you’re responsible for helping teams and people adapt to new realities in a changing world of work, you’ve probably asked yourself the question: Why is it so hard to think and act in new ways?

There is a lot of complexity behind this question and part of the answer is mindset. When we tackle change and adaption at Oxygen, we take our cues from jazz.  

To explore how musicians use their jazz mindset to adapt, I spoke with Kevin Harris and Steve Langone—two jazz musicians from the Boston area who have been performing together for the past 20 years. Harris is a pianist and Langone is a drummer; both collaborate with other musicians in the robust jazz scenes of New York and Boston.

No matter what they play—an odd-meter composition of Harris’ or a standard like Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train”—to hear them together is to be taken on a musical amusement park ride. They start with a riff or a theme, play off each other, have a musical conversation, and share many cool, creative moments. These moments are punctuated with their grins, surprised looks, or knowing glances, as if they have their own set of running private jokes.

Steve Langone and Kevin Harris

You can imagine how successful business units also work like this. The deal-winning sales team that expertly navigates changes within their account; the product innovation team that is able to pivot quickly toward a better solution when their industry is hit with a crisis—both manage intricate details and surprises at pace, while staying focused on their larger strategic goals.

Whether over the course of a quarter or for one night at a club, experiencing a performance of masterful improvisation is at once intensely spontaneous, surprising, and edifying. And though it looks fluid—often effortless—there is a complex invisible structure in place, which the performers can read and participate in without speaking. In the case of Harris and Langone, they draw upon a vast library of music theory, ear-to-muscle coordination, and years of practicing bits, riffs and turnarounds that have now become second nature. What are the salient characteristics of improvisation that musicians like Harris and Langone believe are most important to their craft?

“You have to always have a sense of flexibility,” said Harris. “To improvise means that you are always ready for change, but at the same time you know the rules. To get yourself ready for that kind of flexibility—where you’ve put the time into your instrument, so that when the moment comes, you’ll be able to call on what you’ve learned, and know how to push the rules—requires practice.”

In the business world, while we hear a lot about change, we also know that embracing it is a constant struggle. In all industries, customer expectations have shifted, leading to different types of demands from business leaders, executives, and peers. The push for adaptation is unceasing: new ways to offer products and services, shifts in the sales force, restructuring, and down or up-sizing. With all of this movement in an organization, what kind of mindset is required on the part of those who must not only execute on change, but also get breakthrough results?

When Harris and Langone talk about their jazz mindset, they sound like business innovators.

“Neither of us will settle for the status quo” said Harris. “We think, ‘Been there, done that,’ and have studied the way it’s done—but then we strive to break away from it. The challenge I put to myself is always: How many new ideas can I introduce?”
“To be good at improvising, you have to be willing to ask the questions that nobody else asks. Why is that tune in that meter? How would it sound if we played ‘My Romance’ [a slow ballad] in a Brazilian rhythm?”

Curiosity. Experimentation. Willingness to make mistakes. With these ingredients, along with the commitment to flexing certain mental and physical muscles, musicians like Harris and Langone are the very embodiment of the change-ready individual. Of course, Harris is a pianist, not a Field Readiness leader for a large high-tech firm. Langone is a drummer, not a business leader designing enablement for the 2000 salespeople about to join his company.

If a Field Readiness leader or a Sales Enablement VP has 20 years of experience, then what’s holding them back from a breakthrough? Maybe it’s time to think like a jazz musician and challenge the status quo.

At Oxygen, we’ve done lots of work with clients that requires people to confront change and complexity, and seen some individuals embrace it, while others resist mightily. We believe there is an adaptive mindset that is instrumental to helping businesses execute their strategies. The jazz mindset is open to change, curious about new perspective, and eager to solve big problems by making lots of little mistakes and course corrections. The jazz mindset seeks to improvise, invent, and innovate—or to respond in kind when called upon.

It’s the only mindset that Harris and Langone know when it comes to creating musical experiences for their audiences. The world of business has a lot to learn from these masters of their crafts. Catch a tidbit here.

Many thanks to Kevin Harris and Steve Langone for the pre-show interview and wonderful outdoor performance that contributed to this post!

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