As an improviser, I operate in an ever-evolving landscape. This is especially true in an ensemble environment. Because the other musicians I’m playing with are also improvising, I have no way of knowing what they will play next, or how they will react musically to what I have played. Brand new information is coming at me all the time, and I have to process it, adjust to it, and act instantaneously. Hesitation and lengthy consideration are ineffective because by the time I have done my analysis and made my decision, the musical landscape I now stand in will be entirely different from the one I was contemplating; the music will have moved on, and I will have been left behind.
This musical landscape is not dissimilar to the modern day marketplace in which businesses operate. I suspect that many business leaders will have read the preceding paragraph and felt a sense of resonance with some of the issues they face in trying to steer their companies into an uncertain future. Because business success is increasingly driven by information rather than by sheer quantity of resources and man-power, it is now possible for a company with a few hundred employees to have a global presence that was once reserved for only very large corporations. Additionally, the rapidity with which new technologies are developing means that the marketplace is constantly shifting and evolving. This can make it difficult for a company to plan its future. But a term has developed over the last couple decades in business that implies a shift in the way companies orient themselves to change and growth: strategic agility. It also reflects the type of mindset we must have as improvisors.
Compared with the generations-old practice of strategic planning, the idea of strategic agility better reflects the tumultuous world in which companies must now do business. Strategic planning is essentially a practice of setting a goal for the future and developing incremental steps by which to achieve that goal over time. The obvious problem with this is that, as in musical improvisation, by the time a company has done their analyses, identified their opportunities and goals, developed their plan, and begun to enact it, the market in which they will be functioning will have changed long before the goal is ever reached. Indeed, the goal itself may now even be irrelevant in light of new developments.
It takes a certain mindset to operate in such a climate. As a musician I must orient myself toward change in what might seem like a radical way to some. Because I simply am not able to predict the direction of the music ahead of time, I cannot put a plan in place. I must be able to view any new information or change as an opportunity to leverage my skills; an opportunity to contribute value. When I function in this way, I am always able to proceed no matter the nature of the music, and there is no musical situation for which I do not have a solution.
This kind of flexibility requires a deep understanding of what some of my most basic and powerful skills are. It requires me to be able to re-contextualize information immediately and see how my skills can be leveraged in a given scenario. It also calls on me to be willing to shift my conceptual paradigm at any moment in favor of one that is more current and one in which I have value to add. Of course, when improvising, most of this takes place on extremely fast time-scales, and often with little-to-no conscious thought. This is possible only because of the vast amount of practice and deliberation I have given to developing my musical skills and an improviser’s mindset. My sound-palette is as familiar to me as my own voice. It is critical for leaders in business to have a similarly deep understanding of what their company’s most profound strengths and resources are, so that they can quickly seize opportunities to capitalize on them. It is hard to capitalize on your strengths if you don’t know what they are.
The other thing that allows me to be this flexible as a musician is listening. The ability to listen, and listen deeply, is perhaps the single greatest asset a musician can cultivate. Through listening I am able to constantly observe even slight changes in the music and hear any opportunities to contribute value. In the business world, leaders must have a constant awareness of the marketplace and be able to detect slight changes and understand their implications if they are to have any hope of positioning their company favorably and competitively. It is hard to capitalize on your strengths if you can’t identify opportunities to do so.
Musical improvisation can therefore not only be used as an effective model for strategic agility (through observing the team dynamics of a group of musicians), but can also stand as a potential training ground for developing the skills and habits necessary to ensure effective leadership in the modern business world. Through engaging in purposefully designed guided musical improvisation exercises, leaders get the opportunity to exercise basic skills, and experience first hand the necessary thought processes that allow one to be successful. It is an immediately accessible, first-hand, experiential learning tool. And the best part is that failure in this setting does not result in the collapse of a corporation.
The unpredictability of today’s marketplace does not have to be a stumbling block for businesses. Rather, by cultivating strategic agility (or an improviser’s mindset, if you will), it can open a whole realm of unforeseen possibilities for a corporation; a chance to grow and innovate in any scenario.