All That Jazz: How Improvisation Helps When Producing Events

Design strategist and hybrid thinker Natalie Nixon on combining qualitative and quantitative research methods and how borrowing from jazz can help you escape a ‘permission-slip culture.’

Author: Barbara Palmer       

Natalie Nixon

“Jazz is a metaphor that helps people understand, in terms of events, how to work more improvisationally,” says author, design strategist, and professor Natalie Nixon.

Design strategist and professor Natalie Nixon describes herself as a hypercurious “scholar entrepreneur” and a nerd who loves to think.

A principal at the Philadelphia-based design-strategy consulting firm Figure 8 Thinking, a fellow at the Paris, and a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania, Nixon pursued anthropology and African studies before earning a master’s degree in textile studies. She’s always thrived in multidisciplinary spaces and cross-functional work. “I find that you get your best answers,” Nixon said in a recent interview, “when you are informed by a range of perspectives.”

Among the many perspectives that have informed Nixon, one of the most influential came early in life — the exposure to jazz that her father gave her and her sister as they were growing up in Philadelphia. When Nixon was working on her Ph.D. in design management and struggling to define her thesis, jazz became the metaphor that helped her articulate a way of approaching work and innovation that was both structured and improvisational.

Nixon, who founded the strategic design MBA program at Philadelphia University, now Thomas Jefferson University, is the author of Strategic Design Thinking: Innovation in Products, Services, Experiences, and Beyond.

How does your work applying jazz and improvisation to business relate to events?                       

Jazz is a metaphor that helps people understand, in terms of events, how to work more improvisationally. Through my research, I learned that the most dynamic organizations are those that are improvisational organizations. Often companies tend to err on the side of structure, order, rules, and regulations. You end up with what I call a permission-slip culture, which doesn’t necessarily get you to the point of having empowered employees who can make decisions on their own in a very quick and responsive way. Jazz offers an excellent way into understanding that. I’ve applied the work of another academic, Frank Barrett, who’s also a jazz musician. You don’t necessarily have to have all seven of the elements. It’s really much more about helping people work much more improvisationally, and then breaking down what that means.

You describe yourself as a hybrid thinker. What is hybrid thinking?

People really relish the opportunity to not forgo qualitative research even as they enable quantitative research. For example, right now big data is a very popular phenomenon that’s very helpful — big data shows us patterns. But big data doesn’t necessarily tell us the why when there’s a concentration of behaviors or patterns of Point X over Point A. It’s the qualitative research methods — the ones that require much more on-the-ground work, face-to-face conversations, observations, interviews — that lead to that. I think that any time an organization can integrate qualitative and quantitative methods, you’re much better off .

RELATED: 7 Business Lessons From Jazz

And what would you say is the essence of design thinking?

It’s a problem-solving process that we borrow from the way designers frame problems and challenges when they’re designing the tangibles — [like when] a fashion designer is designing a garment, or an industrial designer is designing a new product, or an architect is designing a building. We take that problem-solving process and we transfer it to the intangible. You can actually design experiences, you can design services, you can design processes and systems that are much more human-centered.

Your background is in anthropology and fashion. How is anthropology relevant to people who are designing experiences?

Anthropologists are trained in what I call the worm’s-eye view. Other social sciences, like sociology, economics, and political science, deal much more in the realm of statistics and have much more what I would call a bird’s-eye view. Anthropologists are equipped to ask a very different set of questions. Really, design thinking is 50 percent cultural anthropology and 50 percent these human-centered design principles at work.

I’ve used anthropology every single day in my career because of what it equipped me to do — whether when I was working more in the fashion industry or in marketing initiatives. Marketing really benefits from the anthropologist’s perspective, because their method of inquiry is set up so that you start with observing people and what their needs are — similar to design thinking — versus pushing a product or pushing a service onto a market. You want to make sure that it’s a good product/market fit, and the better way to do that is to start with the people who you want to buy your products or goods and services. It seems obvious, but many, many companies actually do not do that.

You do a lot of writing and research about the future of work. Where do you see meetings fitting in?

I think that work is being disrupted quite a lot through technology, obviously, so that people are able to have virtual meetings — people are able to meet across time zones in a much more facile way. Digital technology is helping people to meet in much more creative ways. It’s helping organizations to scale. As in education, there’s this idea now of the flipped classroom, where time spent together is much more interactive. You show up at the meeting prepared to do a lot more.

I think that, in the future, we’re going to see a lot more of that mirrored. What I’m waiting for is technology that can help us to truly be more interactive in the digital space. Right now, what we have are abilities to see each other, to hear each other, and there are wonderful platforms like Mural that enable you to brainstorm collectively online. I foresee there’ll be a lot more of those.

How do you design your own workshops?

They’re very noisy — a lot of interaction, you’re on your feet, it’s not passive. There are certain moments where I have to deliver up some content, but for the most part it’s learning by doing.

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