Strategic Agility in Business and Improvisation

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.


TedX Adventures Workshop, Baltimore MD

Back in April, 2014, we had a lively and inspiring public workshop as part of TedX Baltimore’s “Adventures” series. In the workshop, we introduced our Phases of Improvisation model and discussed how it applies to embracing uncertainty and developing new ideas. We just stumbled upon some video from that workshop that is a great representation of how participants are thinking and feeling at the end of many of our workshops. Enjoy!

Phases of Improvisation

Although much of the benefit from our workshops comes from the experience of actually improvising, occasionally ideas come out of workshops that are worth writing down and explaining in more detail. When new ideas come up, we’ll post them on this blog. The first such post outlines a conceptual framework we have already found to be incredibly useful when describing the improvisational process to non-musicians and helping people translate what they learn from that process into their daily work.

This first one seemed to be so important that we’ve already given it its own page:

4 Phases of Improvisation

Of course, there is plenty of room to elaborate within this framework and give examples, which is what we may choose to do in the near future! I, personally, am looking forward to writing about our concept of practice.

4 phases

Baltimore’s Out of Your Head Collective Celebrates 5-Year Anniversary


OOYH 5-Year Anniversary Set Three, photo by Daniela Mileykovsky

Eric and I just returned from a trip to Baltimore where we played a concert in celebration of the Out of Your Head Collective’s 5-Year Anniversary. This collective has been an integral part of Eric, Danny, and my own development as improvisers over the course of the past 5-years. OOYH was founded in Baltimore at an arts space/music venue called the Windup Space in March 2009. I, along with my close musical associate Matt Frazao, decided that the Baltimore scene needed a way to unite the improvised music community, and make it just that…more of a community. The improvised music community, while very strong in Baltimore, was also very compartmentalized. Out of Your Head was our way to unite these different scenes, and the results exceeded our wildest expectations. The collective has been curating concerts every Tuesday night for the past 5 years, and have presented over 200 performances in this format.

The collective was founded on the idea of pairing musicians in performance who had never played together, and maybe didn’t even know each other before stepping on stage. These are one-time-only bands of improvisers, never to be repeated again. So many of the skills we have developed and now teach through SFZ came from these one-off interactions with musicians we didn’t know. Within seconds of meeting someone you have to decode their musical personality and figure out a way to communicate, and furthermore you are in performance from that very first note played! The results have been fascinating, and watching this music unfold has resulted in some of the most interesting and enjoyable concerts I have seen in the past five years.

Out of Your Head has come a long way since 2009. I have founded a branch in Brooklyn, and the Baltimore branch continues to grow in new and exciting directions. Countless bands have formed out of these supposedly one-off collaborations, many of whom have recorded albums, and perform regularly on a national level.

This post is a retrospective of the collective, and a thank you for everything its’ members have done to help us develop SFZ Creative into what it is today. It’s hard to imagine us ever having started this company without the opportunities to interact we’ve been given through the Out of Your Head Collective. Below are some photos of the anniversary, as well as links to a few select articles we have gathered over the years. More articles are available on the press page of OOYH’s website, as well as some video and audio samples on the media page.

NPR’s The Signal profiles OOYH founders (mp3 format)

Baltimore City Paper on OOYH 5-Year Anniversary 

OOYH Brooklyn in the NY Times

City Paper Names OOYH Best Band in Baltimore, 2010

Some more photos, courtesy of Daniela Mileykovsky:

1795962_452098538225440_543536122_o 1795894_452098524892108_61106123_o 1960927_452098704892090_1996750859_o

Changing the Education Paradigm

Chances are, if you’re reading this blog, you are already familiar with this incredibly popular talk on 21st century learning. Regardless, it is worth watching again. This talk was especially influential in the early development phase for our workshops- giving inspiration as to how what we do as musicians can be relevant to other fields. Pay special attention to 5:45 for an excellent description of art as an experience.