Lessons From Jazz
Natalie Nixon has integrated the insights of
jazz musician and management researcher
Frank Barrett into her work, adding her own
Provoke competence In jazz performances, members vary their sounds and
provoke others to respond, creating new
music through collaboration. Similarly, in design there is constant ideation and creation to
disrupt the status quo, efforts to simplify the
complicated and generate new ideas.
Embrace errors There is no such thing
as a mistake in jazz. Musicians build off wrong
notes and changes of pace to create new
sounds. Organizations should also embrace errors and accept new possibilities as they adapt,
solve problems, and improve inefficiencies.
Minimal structures Jazz follows a basic
chord progression, with a simple beginning,
middle, and end. In design, we also start with
minimal structures when designing for users.
Iterations begin as paper prototypes and
progress to wireframes and then final aesthetics, allowing us to identify what works and
what doesn’t throughout the phases of design.
Distributed tasks Jazz musicians and
designers often find themselves working in
a variety of locations and environments. This
change of pace allows them to think differently and expand their talents.
Retrospective sense-making Jazz musicians often borrow from the past to create
new music in the present. In design, every
past project acts as a library of inspiration
and fuel for future work.
Hanging out Jazz musicians practice
together to feed off one another and inspire
creativity. Businesses foster similar innovation by designing their workspace in a way
that encourages chance encounters and
conversations between functional teams
Soloing and supporting In jazz, it is common for individual performers to alternate
between lead and supporting roles in a single
performance. Businesses employ a similar
approach to develop their employees and
bring new thinking to the forefront.
From “Seven Lessons From Jazz That Will Transform
Your Business Processes,” by Marco De Paulis,
Design strategist and professor Natalie Nixon
describes herself as a
a nerd who loves to
think. A principal
at the Philadelphia-based design-strategy
Figure 8 Thinking, a
fellow at the d.school
Paris, and a lecturer
at the University of
Pennsylvania, Nixon pursued anthropology and African
studies before earning a master’s degree in textile studies.
She’s always thrived in multidisciplinary spaces and
cross-functional work. “I find that you get your best
answers,” Nixon said in a recent interview, “when you are
informed by a range of perspectives.”
Among the many perspectives that have informed
Nixon, one of the most influential came early in life — the
exposure to jazz that her father gave her and her sister
as they were growing up in Philadelphia. When Nixon
was working on her Ph.D. in design management and
struggling to define her thesis, jazz became the metaphor
that helped her articulate a way of approaching work and
innovation that was both structured and improvisational.
Nixon, who founded the strategic design MBA program
at Philadelphia University, now Thomas Jefferson
University, is the author of Strategic Design Thinking:
Innovation in Products, Services, Experiences, and Beyond.
She will deliver a featured PCMA Business School session
at PCMA Convening Leaders 2018 in Nashville in January.
How does your work applying jazz
and improvisation to business
relate to events?
Jazz is a metaphor that provides
an excellent heuristic to help
people understand, in terms
of events, how to work more
improvisationally. Through my
research, I learned that the most
dynamic organizations are those
that are improvisational organi-
zations. Often companies tend to
err on the side of structure, order,
rules, and regulations. You end
up with what I call a permission-
slip culture, which doesn’t
necessarily get you to the point
of having empowered employees