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Jazz improvisation and teambuilding

What do good teams have in common with good bands.

Jazz-Improvisation und Teambuilding

Even those of you who are not very much into jazz at all have to admit that they are astonished, when musicians seemingly effortlessly deliver the wildest improvisations. But what is behind this? It is said that Jimi Hendrix never had a single music lesson in his life. So is it all talent? Or is there more behind it than pure musical sense? And what does all this have to do with teams?

First let’s clarify what jazz improvisation - or generally improvisation in music - actually is. Improvisation is, when one or more people make music without previously written down fixation. That is, the played notes and melodies arise spontaneously.

Again, what does that have to do with teams?

In our daily project work, we are experiencing this every day. This interaction of people, which has not previously been fixed. And even if our planning is good and detailed and almost perfect, but on the implementation level we are owing much to the spontaneous ideas and inspirations of individuals.

And here is our big but. This works - as in music - only when the people involved know exactly what they are doing and are prepared well.

Learning from the best

Here we can learn a lot from musicians like Miles Davis, Chet Baker, or Judy Carmichael. Good improvisation has a rock solid basis. Because none of the above just went on a stage and started playing music. On the contrary, there is a lot of training and rehearsing and preparation behind it. So spontaneous improvisation is not so spontaneous at all. And it is not totally free either. There are chords and scales and a lot of formality. Does that ring a bell? Let me reword it: there are methods and processes and a lot of formality. Ha! Our daily business, right?

Of course I can handle projects without these methods and processes. And there are certainly some Jimi Hendrixes of the project management world, who succeed without formality and without their company going bankrupt. But personally, I have never experienced a haphazard project that did not go up in flames at some point. Did you?

So what are these good jazz bands doing and what lessons can we draw from them?

  • Formality
    Even free jazz is formal. And even completely self-organizing teams are operating within a framework or a ruleset. Be it Scrum, PMBOK, DSDM. But there is a formal basis for our teamwork. And we should pay particular attention to this basis.
  • Clear rules
    Well-playing musicians follow clear rules, such as key, scales, tempo, etc. And all good teams I’ve met have defined certain basic rules as the cornerstones of their cooperation. For freshly assembled teams, these are often the corner pillars and artifacts of the frameworks used. However, in teams that have already completed several Tuckman rounds, I often find very clear, concise rules that all members of that team are adhering to and which - most importantly - have been put together and accepted by everyone.
  • Agreement
    Functioning teams all have one thing in common: their members listen to each other, decisions are made together. And also in the musical improvisation it is about togetherness. Often there is one who - literally - sets the pace, but before entering the stage the band agrees on the most important basic rules.
  • And most important, mutual trust
    When I can rely on my colleagues, I am able to focus on delivering great work. And only then I will deliver top results. On stage as in the office.

Conclusion - how can I use that for myself

It does not matter if I am building a team for a big project from scratch, or if I am working with a group of veterans. But I always try to create an atmosphere in which teams can live those points.

I can not force formality and rules. This has to come from the team. I can only pave the way and make suggestions. And mutual consent and trust can also not be created on command. They come naturally when team members feel secure. And only when everyone has agreed on basic rules and everyone knows how things are going, valuable improvisation can arise.


Oh, if anyone wonders if it’s true that Jimi Hendrix never had any music lessons: Jein, as we say in Austria. Yes and no. Billy Davis ( showed him a few things on the guitar. And Buddy Guy ( once said in an interview, that he had given him lessons. So by and large, Jimi Hendrix is self taught. But that’s a different story.

Published 26 August 2018. Pictures by Gabriel Gurrola and Alessio MumboJumbo at Unsplash.


Rashid Kasibatla, 2018-08-26 18:00

I love jazz and projectmanagement so I enjoy reading this. Thanks.

I'd love to write something too!

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Thoughts about modern project management - classic, agile, hybrid. You can find Stephan Weinhold on LinkedIn and XING. Oh, and you should follow him on Twitter.