7 Business Lessons From Jazz

Author: Barbara Palmer       

natalie nixon

In jazz, it is common for individual performers to alternate between lead and supporting roles in a single performance. Businesses employ a similar approach to develop their employees and bring new thinking to the forefront.

PCMA Convening Leaders 2018 keynote speaker Natalie Nixon has integrated the insights of jazz musician and management researcher Frank Barrett, author of Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz, into her work, adding her own perspectives:

Natalie Nixon

Natalie Nixon

Provoke competence: In jazz performances, members vary their sounds and provoke others to respond, creating new music through collaboration. Similarly, in design there is constant ideation and creation to disrupt the status quo, efforts to simplify the complicated and generate new ideas.

Embrace errors: There is no such thing as a mistake in jazz. Musicians build off wrong notes and changes of pace to create new sounds. Organizations should also embrace errors and accept new possibilities as they adapt, solve problems, and improve inefficiencies.

Minimal structures: Jazz follows a basic chord progression, with a simple beginning, middle, and end. In design, we also start with minimal structures when designing for users. Iterations begin as paper prototypes and progress to wireframes and then final aesthetics, allowing us to identify what works and what doesn’t throughout the phases of design.

Distributed tasks: Jazz musicians and designers often find themselves working in a variety of locations and environments. This change of pace allows them to think differently and expand their talents.


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Retrospective sense-making: Jazz musicians often borrow from the past to create new music in the present. In design, every past project acts as a library of inspiration and fuel for future work.

Hanging out: Jazz musicians practice together to feed off one another and inspire creativity. Businesses foster similar innovation by designing their workspace in a way that encourages chance encounters and conversations between functional teams and departments.

Soloing and supporting: In jazz, it is common for individual performers to alternate between lead and supporting roles in a single performance. Businesses employ a similar approach to develop their employees and bring new thinking to the forefront.

From “Seven Lessons From Jazz That Will Transform Your Business Processes,” by Marco De Paulis.