‘Jazzing up’ management education through the art of improvisation

The rapidly changing world brought about by COVID-19 means leaders face many challenges, opportunities and dilemmas – but there has never been a greater need for business schools to provide the critical thinking, personal agility and managerial decision-making skills that are needed to help organisations survive and thrive.

Responses to the devastating effect of the pandemic require the ability to adapt and create flexible strategies and, in many cases, review and reshape organisational culture. Entrepreneurial leadership, with a specific focus towards strategy and culture, should be at the forefront of thinking. In the environment we are in now, and the inevitable economic climate going forward, leaders will have to improvise.

Improvisation is an area that has fascinated me for over 20 years now – and I take what I consider to be a unique approach to inform thinking in business education by utilising my expertise as a professional jazz musician with students on my MBA and SLMDA programmes. I dissect my practice as a musician and draw parallels from the process of improvisation, and demonstrate how these can help organisations and their people to look at common and current leadership and management issues. Essentially, I am encouraging my students to challenge their assumptions through the lens of jazz.

So how does this ‘metaphor’ work? My argument is that organisations should be more like a jazz group – where agility, creativity and innovation are constantly at play. Jazz musicians read pre-composed music and they work within a structure. The composition, if you like, is the strategic document but the jazz musician has the ability to interpret it to develop it; and to innovate and invent new ways of playing the tune.

Jazz musicians, by their very nature, are risk-takers. They get very mistrustful of things that are simply written down and want to develop their own ideas to create something new. But the interesting thing is that jazz musicians do not just do this in isolation. A successful jazz performance is about the group working together ‘in the moment’: after all, improvisation is the act of composing and performing simultaneously.

So, the jazz metaphor is the perfect organisation for the world of business to learn lessons from as it provides an alternative lens to examine how a group of people come together to improvise and create something new. Here is why:

Role definition

Each member of the jazz group has in-depth knowledge of each other’s role. For example, the drummer sets the time and the groove. The rhythm section is essentially akin to the executive team – providing supporting and empowering frontline instruments to provide maximum creative expression. Central to a jazz performance is everyone listening to each other and absorbing what is happening at any point.

Quasi-autonomous leadership

The jazz group is a leaderless organisation in the context of a performance. Each musician assumes leadership responsibility at certain times – this is down to the empowering culture that is central to the group. Nobody tells someone how to play; no-one dictates how long one should solo for. It is a genuine shared leadership and democratic decision-making process.

Knowledge and innovation

Jazz musicians invest a great deal of energy to develop their knowledge of the music and harmony. They follow a simple formula to learn to improvise: first they imitate what has gone before; then they assimilate ideas and innovate by developing their own unique voice and approach. Every time they play a tune they find something new in it. They never play the same improvised solo twice.


A jazz performance is a dialogue between the musicians in the group. There is a genuine culture of sharing ideas and innovation. Central to a jazz performance is verbal and non-verbal communication. At any point in time everyone in the jazz group knows what is happening and what they need to do next.


There are no such thing as mistakes in jazz, only opportunities. Jazz musicians take risks every time they perform and possess great powers of discovery. And when things go wrong they demonstrate great powers of recovery. They are strong reflective practitioners both in action and on action (during the performance and post-gig). Any mistakes are treated as learning opportunities: there are no recriminations.

Now more than ever organisations should take a more flexible, creative and improvisatory approach to strategy formulation and implementation, and allow for deviation to ensure they can embrace opportunities and be responsive when unforeseen things occur. What better ‘unforseen’ example than COVID-19, and what better time for leaders to develop the skills that will help them be more resilient for the next crisis. For them, and for business Schools, take the jazz metaphor as a guiding light.

Noel Dennis is Principal Lecturer and Course Leader of the part-time Master of Business Administration (MBA) and MBA Senior Leader Master’s Degree Apprenticeship (SLMDA) at Teesside University Business School.