Striking a New Tone for Organizational Design

To quote Bob Dylan, “The times, they are a changin’.”

For organizations, the ability to adapt to change is a paradoxical mix of stability and innovation. Historically, organizations have been compared to living organisms or machines; however, a comparison to jazz may be more appropriate.

Jazz, really?

Okay, I agree it is an acquired taste, but stay with me on this.

The machine metaphor stands for reliability, design for purpose, and efficiency. The living organism emphasizes adaptation to a hostile environment and competition for scarce resources, while the jazz metaphor emphasizes spontaneity and collaboration. 

To understand the metaphor, a basic understanding of jazz is helpful. In Western Jazz, a “head” is typically 16 to 32 bars of written or memorized music. It is an outline of the harmony and melody of a tune, often providing a suggested tempo and/or rhythm. A jazz tune typically begins by playing the head through “straight” with little improvisation. Next, the musicians improvise on the head using a variety of rhythms and harmonies. Finally, they return to the head and play it once again as the ending. 

Heads, and at least some parts of their improvised history, become part of the jazz musicians’ long-term memory. Long-term memory for tunes serves as the shared base of knowledge for jazz musicians, allowing them to recognize each other and to perform together even though they may otherwise be total strangers. A jazz tune consists of playing the head then playing a series of repetitions of the head with variations with each repetition “saying something new.” Each musician uses his or her talents to create their own voice so long as it is offered within the broadly defined constraints laid out by the head. 

As with jazz bands, organizations are increasingly dependent on their ability to build and use collective memory. The jazz metaphor suggests that analogies of heads and referencing to business practices might prove helpful in learning how organization memory works and how it can better be used. Heads, for instance, might be metaphorically related to what we already know we are inclined to repeat. For example the way an organization is organized, or its routines or procedures in solving problems. Alternatively, heads can be related to culture or core values which prescribe how an issue/challenge is addressed. In either case, the idea of head as repeatable chunks of technical knowledge or cultural heritage provides a tangible focus to organizational improvisation.

The practical application of the metaphor is to view the mission of the organization as dynamic versus static, with each function taking its cues and creating systems and processes around it. The synchronicity and, at times, even the asynchronicity of an organization should be embraced, as it is the basis of organizational and individual creativity. By adopting this perspective, organizations can help solve the stability/innovation paradox.  

The jazz metaphor just might strike the right tone as a model for sustainability.