Fernando Fischmann

Innovation Is A Lot Like Jazz. Here’s How You Make Teamwork Play

3 August, 2022 / Articles

Recommended article from  Forbes

You hired the talent. You built the team. You have a mission: to lead your team to innovate and solve a never-before-seen problem.

What’s the problem?

Taking action isn’t so easy. Teamwork takes more than the right people and the right purpose. You need a method to manage the team’s efforts, to spark imagination, and set a course toward the kind of teamwork that engages, energizes, and leads to remarkable results.

How do you get there?

Take a (lead) sheet from the jazz playbook

In 1959, Miles Davis entered the studio to record what became the best-selling, most popular jazz recording of all time: Kind of Blue. Miles was known for forcing his musicians to be spontaneous. And, for this album, there were no rehearsals.

Miles gave the musicians the music as they entered the studio. Astoundingly, with only one exception, the first complete take of each track was the only complete take and the tune that got pressed on the album.

They nailed it on the first try.

How does a group of people spontaneously create such great works of art?

What leads to such an expression of the human imagination?

What can teams of all types learn from Miles Davis?

Contrary to popular belief jazz musicians are not just making things up when they solo. Not exactly. One of the keys to success in jazz improvisation is structure. The music is well-organized. Jazz musicians follow common rules of engagement.

In particular, a “lead sheet” outlines the form of a tune. It provides only three pieces of information: the melody, the harmonies, and durations. That’s it. That’s all jazz musicians need to be free to perform together. The rest is made up on-the-fly or “faked,” as they say. (In fact, a collection of lead sheets in jazz is called a “fake book.”)

Contrast this structured play to another form of jazz called free jazz. In free jazz, musicians also improvise the underlying form. The result is often abstract and obtuse.

Now what does jazz have to do with teamwork?

It turns out that much of workplace collaboration is either hidden or improvised on-the-fly. Sure, we might have a meeting agenda. Still, the structure of how we interact, decide, and make sense as a group is largely improvised.

The results can be disastrous. How long has it been since you’ve experienced one of these symptoms of a bad meeting?

  • Boring presentations that leave you unfocused ✅
  • Dominating voices crowding out constructive discussion ✅
  • Politics playing out in real time ✅
  • Little closure, few decisions made, and fuzzy next-steps ✅

Too often, teamwork is more like free jazz—abstract and obtuse—rather than the coming together of a select group of people, working toward common goals and with common rules of engagement, working together from the same playbook.

I know what you’re thinking. Music, even jazz, may come with guidelines. Teamwork does not—and in the past, you’d be right.

But that’s all changing.

Structure for teamwork, rules for play

“Play” has gotten a bad rap. Contrasted to work, play is presented as leisure time, wasted time.

(Begging the question: If meetings so often feel like wasted time, why aren’t they more playful?)

On the contrary, play is more about freeing up your mind—and the minds of those on your team—to think differently. To take information, possibility, and potentiality. Play helps us solve tough challenges in a whole new way. With play, limitations become less rigid (or even disappear), exploration takes a front seat, and delightfully surprising novelty rules. This cascades into a state of flow. What’s possible energizes the group.

With play, imagination thrives, opening the door to innovation. For teams, play can lead to serious business results. And just like jazz, all it takes is a little structure, some common rules and methods that teams can lean on to guide their play.

At MURAL, we have an entire library of these playful methods for teamwork. We call them guided or “playful” methods. They broadly include exercises, activities, frameworks, and techniques, all of which are used to guide collaboration. Like sheet music for teamwork, these playful methods provide a minimal set of rules teams can use to maximize freedom of imagination.

Here’s an example. The business model canvas, developed by Alex Osterwalder and the team at Strategyzer, is a method a team can use to imagine, tinker on, and refine ways of building a business. It’s a visual method, meaning it uses a visual structure to work through the business model.

Like the lead sheet for a jazz song, it’s just the right amount of guidance.

This is what the business model canvas looks like below in all its simplicity. The nine boxes represent the core elements of any business model, and they can be filled out as a team in just about any order.

(Below is a screenshot from a MURAL template for making the business model canvas easy to workshop with your team.)

Above, the business model canvas, a template developed by Alex Osterwalder, founder of Strategyzer.

Another example: Take the rituals from Agile development. The formal—but still playful!—methodologies like Scrum guide teamwork in a very intentional way. Exercises like “planning poker” simulate a game of cards, where participants have effort points to “bet” like chips in a round of poker. Work and play together.

Methods like these make it possible to achieve the benefits of play for the purpose of enhancing teamwork. Because they are used together as a team, guided methods create shared experiences. They help teams make sense together. Unlike a “free jazz meeting” that might leave you wondering what just happened, a jam session with your team using a guided method will leave you with a sense of connectedness and accomplishment.

A team can brainstorm and then prioritize ideas together.

Above, a team can brainstorm and then prioritize ideas together within a mural that guides their work.

And when using a visual space for collaboration (as with MURAL) to capture the imaginative work of your team, everyone starts on the same (digital) page and ends on the same page. This instills confidence across the team, and gives rise to autonomy, psychological safety, and ultimately the kind of imagination work that leads to innovation.

How you make play a habit

You can’t change your company culture overnight. That’s not how real transformation happens. Lasting change begins from the bottom up. It starts with changing habits.

While changing habits isn’t easy, you can improve your odds. Start by creating a series of tiny habits, a behavior change approach pioneered by BJ Fogg. Tiny habits work by first finding a trigger event and then attaching the new behavior to it. Fogg recommends using this statement to get started:  After I [trigger], I will [new habit].

For a non-work example, if you want to build better habits around dental hygiene, you might try doing this: After I brush my teeth, I’ll floss just one tooth. From there you’d move to two teeth, three teeth, etc. until flossing all of your teeth after you brush becomes a habit.

Here’s an example at work. See if you can see the connection to tiny habits. Teams at Meta (formerly Facebook) broke down collaborative activities into manageable chunks in their Facebook Think Kit—a toolkit for rapid collaboration, ideation and problem-solving across teams. It’s a series of exercises rooted in design thinking and customer-centric methods.

Above, a screenshot from the 2×2 prioritization matrix template. See how each step provides simple instructions for the team to follow, with a section of the mural dedicated to the work for each step. E.g. Step 1, “Gather your ideas,” provides space and digital sticky notes for the team to add their ideas.

Each activity has simple instructions and worksheets to help teams follow along. Everything is in a shared visual space, so everyone begins and ends on the same page. Exercises can be used on their own or combined with ‘suggested pairings’ to achieve goals. The Think Kit allows teams to make creative thinking a habit one exercise at a time—from setting a north star together to running a pre-mortem to creating a storyboard. 

You can try the Facebook Think Kit using MURAL with your team. Start small—tiny—by introducing just one new activity to bring about change.

Wrapping it up

Having fun and engaging in “play” doesn’t mean throwing the rules away and doing anything you want. Just imagine playing a game without any rules—that would be totally frustrating. Kinda like a meeting with no purpose, no structure, no objectives, right?

Instead, like jazz improvisation, playing together as a team is best when there are agreed guidelines. Only then can creativity and imagination come to the surface. Playful methods give you a powerful way to consistently unlock team imagination for an overall more innovative and resilient organization.

Try a playful method with your team and kickstart a culture of innovation across your entire organization.


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