Improvisation Business

improvisation in business
improvisation in business - music thinking

Many people say that our times are volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – some people call it the VUCA times. When making plans they try to execute them until reality comes into play. As a result, they try to quick fix everything as long as possible. Some people call this improvisation.

But improvisation is much more than just a repair mode. Improvisation can also be the start of the creative or change process to design for the VUCA times.

Improvisation in Music

All over the world musicians use improvisation from Indian classical music to Jazz. In music, there are many examples of how improvisation was the start of exceptional work. Johan Sebastian Bach, for example, was a formidable organ improviser. He used improvisation to shape his agility and often put this experience and results in a composition. It was part of his creative process. Ludwig van Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony the ‘Eroica’ – a contest between reason and emotion – finds its start at an improvisation battle. Another example is Giacinto Scelsi. He improvised on the piano and gave the recordings to a transcriber that set it into music. Later he changed the transcriptions to the final score.

Let’s not talk solely about improvisation in music but improvisation in business. The principles of improvisation can be applied to the business world to cope with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

Improvisation in Business

The Danube University Krems (Austria) Professor for Innovation and Business Lukas Zenk initiated, led and organised a one week course on business improvisation:

We live in a world that is currently undergoing major changes. Many of our previous plans can no longer continue in this form and we are faced with the challenge of acting in the here and now. Improvisation means dealing with the unforeseen (“improvisus” – the unforeseen). In this course, international experts from the arts, science, and business will conduct highly interactive online sessions to teach you the mindset and methods for professional improvisation. The basis of improvisation is found in the arts (theatre, music), however, in Business Improvisation it is applied for entrepreneurial purposes to be prepared for the unexpected.

Professor Wolfgang Stark (University Essen, Strascheg Center for Entrepreneurship) invited Lutz Hempel (Groovin’ Organization) and Christof Zürn to a 3-hour interactive lecture concert. An experiment in Zoom for 16 participants from various companies. Here is the introductory video with a very short glimpse of the first musical interaction.

Interesting links:
Website of the Business Improvisation Course. Prepared for the unexpected
May 25-29, 2020.

Keeping Score – Ludwig van Beethoven: Eroica
Three ways to improvise and play with the Jam Cards

Improvisation in the Music Thinking Framework

In the Music Thinking Framework, improvisation relates to JAMMIN” (one of the six cues).

JAMMIN’ is a very special cue because it is the only cue that appears on two different places in the framework: firstly, before SCORE in the challenge space and secondly, after SCORE in the solution space.

music thinking framework including six cues and many dynamics

Before SCORE

This means that ‘before SCORE’, JAMMIN’ connects with EMPATHY and PERSONALITY with the function to ‘to open up’ and ‘to sense’ new possibilities. This is comparable with improvisation as mentioned above in the examples of Beethoven and Scelsi.

Translated to a business context it means to use improvisation to sense and trying to understand the future possibilities that can emerge in relation to your audience and the environment (EMPATHY) and you as a brand and the how and why you are (PERSONALITY).

After SCORE

When JAMMIN’ appears ‘after SCORE’ it triggers the functions to ‘explore’ and ‘to create’. Meaning the SCORE gives direction to JAMMIN’.
This is comparable with improvisation like in traditional jazz were improvisation is following given material. This means, for example, a lead sheet with chord symbols and a simple melodic line with a lot of freedom for the soloist.
But if the SCORE is more determined like in a classical music score with many details, then we can talk more about the interpretation of the score than to improvise on the score. So in the classical context that would need the coaching, inspiration and vision of a conductor to bring the intention of the composer of the SCORE to a great performance.

Translated to a business context this all means that we need a common understanding of what a score is or better what kind of score is needed to bring the challenge to a solution. The cue SCORE has two sides as well. Firstly, at the end of the challenge space, the score has the function of ‘to show’, meaning to communicate what everybody should see. Secondly, in the solution space, we need the other function, namely ‘to do’ to help everybody in the organisation to be clear about what everybody should and can do.

Practical workshop

If you are interested in how you can apply music thinking and improvisation business you might be interested in a practical workshop to experience how you can use this for your personal challenges.

What participants have said about the workshop:

A great experience – great speakers.
Compliments to the lecturers who cast a spell over the group.
Also for “non-musicians” totally easy to participate and great links to everyday life.

A lot of knowledge through very little theory.


If this is interesting for you, your team or organisation please contact us for a personal intake.

You might also find inspiration in our detailed offering on workshops, training and programmes.

Performing the Sounds of Empathy

This is about performing the sounds of empathy at the Design Thinking Conference in Amsterdam 2019.

On the 10th to 11th of October, the Design Thinking Conference powered by the DesignThinkers Academy Amsterdam was held in the Tobacco Theatre in Amsterdam.

The Conference

Is it possible to see things with different eyes‘ is the central question of the conference with a focus on empathy. And that’s why all actors (there are no ‘speakers’) are bringing very personal perspectives to share with the participants from all over the world. The MC of the two days was Author, educator, speaker, community builder, consultant, comedian and friend Adam Stjohn Lawrence.

Among others, we learned from Esther Thole about slime mould and how these organisms recognize each other’s signals, process them and respond. Stefan Van Der Stigchel talked about the importance of taking breaks and our unwillingness to take time for ourselves without a ‘square device’. That’s why he gave us the opportunity of 20 minutes of mind-wandering. Kalwant Bhopal led us through a provoking journey about empathy, identity, intersectionality and ‘white privilege’. With these perspectives plus a lot of interactions during the lunchtime and the buddy moments, the participants of the conference were off to the breakout sessions.

The Breakout Session

Xenia and I were invited to do a music thinking breakout session. The objective was to engage half of the conference (about 70 people) in a breakout workshop, let them learn and reflect about the things they heard and make a performance all together after the last actor to end the day with a big bang.

We stretched the conference theme with the music thinking interpretation of ‘with different eyes’ to ‘with different ears‘. After two minutes of silence, we let the participants think about what the sounds of empathy could be and engaged them in duos to discuss what empathy really sounds like. Then we asked them to transform this finding in something that they could reproduce with their voice, body percussion or something else.

The duos then shared their sounds in a sextet formation and made a musical score of this pattern. Parallel the prompters were instructed how we would do some kind of conducting theses scores and how we could bring this all together at the end of the day one. Look at the beautiful scores the teams made.

The Scores

Here is an excerpt of the performance, made with a steady ‘backstage camera’.

The Performance

Excerpt of the Performance during the Design Thinking Conference in Amsterdam

After the performance together with the whole conference, there was a lot of energy in the room.

Besides talking about what exactly the sound of empathy might be, there were also discussions about ‘what is a musical score or composition’, ‘what is interpretation’ and ‘what is improvisation’, ‘how can you scale small groups into bigger groups’ and ‘what is the difference between initiating, conducting and prompting’.

The one-hour breakout was organised with the four steps listen, tune, play and perform of the Music Thinking Framework and we touched four of the six cues: EMPATHY, SCORE, AGILITY, and REMIX.

Christof Zürn

Next steps

There are many ways to use Music Thinking for meaningful collaboration in your team or organisation, please contact if you have any questions or a challenge.

Three ways to play with the Jam Cards

The Jam Cards are quite open-ended and don’t really need specific instructions on how to use them. This means that the Jam Cards can be used to shape your own exercises and workshops, which is fun but might be confusing as well.
To help you to get an idea on how to play with them, we explain in this blog post, with use of three variations, what your Jam Card session could look like: Serendipity Lab, Mix & Match, Strategy Jam.

 

SERENDIPITY LAB | SOLO
Improvise like a jazz musician

Serendipity Lab is played alone and is about being open to the unexpected. You could do this by taking some quality time at home or the office.  We also think that this might be a great exercise for the start of a workshop because in a workshop you often don’t have private time and have to immediately react to others. Also, we believe that doing the Serendipity Lab prior to doing Mix and Match or Strategy Jam might be beneficial. Because the Serendipity Lab helps you to open up and to get familiar with the Jam Cards.

Start a Serendipity Lab session by flipping through the Jam Cards and picking out a few cards that for example appeal to you – or are most interesting, exciting, disturbing, boring or resonating. Now take a closer look at the cards that you picked. Put on headphones and listen to the sonic triggers by scanning the Spotify codes.
Go on a sonic safari and be open for the unexpected. What do the things you find on the cards mean to you? Can you find patterns in the set of cards you picked? Make notes about your findings.

We made a template for you that you can use during your Serendipity Lab session:
Download the Serendipity Lab template
You might also use a blank sheet or your sketchbook or notebook. Maybe make a dedicated one for the Jam Cards?

 

MIX AND MATCH | DUO
Play like a DJ

You can play Mix and Match together with a partner and share your likes and dislikes, insights, and create a journey or story together. It’s about empathy and collaboration and making a collection that makes sense to both of you.

Working in a larger group?
When you’re with a larger group you could start Mix and Match by putting as many Jam Cards on the table as people present. From the cards, on the table, everybody picks a card that appeals to them and explores the card for a few minutes and making notes before putting it back on the table. When everybody put their card back on the table, everybody picks a new card that does not appeal to them and also explores this card for a few minutes. Make notes.
After exploring the card that doesn’t appeal to you, team up with a person who picked the same card in this or in the previous round. Explain to each other why you picked the card and discuss this together. Can you understand why the other person picked the card?
After you discussed the card with each other, find up to four complementing Jam Cards that you can tell a story with that is worth sharing.

We made a template for you that you can use during the session.
Download the Mix and Match booklet

 

STRATEGY JAM | ENSEMBLE
Think like a composer

Strategy Jam is played together with a group and is about making new connections. It works best when you already have a design challenge or theme that you would like to work on.

If not start the Strategy Jam with your group by picking a cue and its corresponding cue question. These cue questions can be found at the inside of the Jam Cards booklet. Now make additions to this cue question and/or come up with a challenge by yourself. Put the cue card in the middle of the table and sort out the inspiration cards that have the cue highlighted. Put the other inspiration cards aside. Now everybody picks one (or more) inspiration cards and explores those cards for a few minutes.

After everybody explored their cards one person starts by putting his/her inspiration card next to the cue card on the table. Then he/she explains how this card connects to the chosen challenge. Now the next person puts his/her inspiration card next to the previous card on the table and explains how this card connects to the previous card. Use both sides of the jam cards, also share the music that is on the card and see how this resonates with the group and possible new associations.

As an extra you can use post-it notes ‘as connectors’ between the jam cards:
– CONNECT: How the card connects
– CONVERGE: New ideas that pop up
– DIVERGE: New questions and possibilities that arise

This is a poster that you can use as a guide during the session:
Download the Strategy Jam poster

 

Feel free to experiment and develop your own rules
These are just a few examples on how you could play with the Jam Cards, but feel free to make your own variations and rules. We are curious to hear about how you use the Jam Cards!

Photos in this blog post were taken during the Creative Leadership Platform meetup at the Design Thinkers Academy.