If you think about the way strategy has been taught and practiced over the past decades, opera is quite an accurate metaphor. Like opera, traditional strategy is about preparation, planning and perfection and it is a bit of an elitist thing with grandeur being strived for.
Opera can be beautiful. But maybe it is not the best example of what strategy needs to be like in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world. Maybe jazz is a much better point of reference. Not just as an inspirational metaphor, but as a way of playing together and producing new and unexpected outcomes.
Opera Vs. Jazz
To see the striking similarities between opera and strategy as we know it and to see how strategy could be different when it would be more like jazz, it is useful to make a brief comparison of opera and jazz.
There are of course similarities. Both are performed by highly skilled musicians who have spent their lives on practicing and perfecting their playing skills. Both depend on careful listening and harmoniously playing together. In both there are soloists. In both the total is more important than the individual player. In both there is room for interpretation. Both are performed for an audience. And so forth.
But there are major differences too and if we want to learn how to turn strategy from opera into jazz these are more interesting. The following table, therefore, contains some of the most striking differences.
|Preparation||Long and planned||Short and unplanned|
|Atmosphere||Grande and serious||Down-to-earth and fun|
|Leadership||Top-down by the conductor||Rotating, by the soloist at the moment|
|Team||Large orchestra and choir||Small combo|
|Desired outcome||Predictable and perfect||Surprising and edgy|
|Structure provided by||Sheet music and conductor||Basic chords and rhythms|
|Degree of freedom||Once agreed, hardly any||A lot, as long as communicated|
|Music originates||Beforehand, during practice||In the moment, on stage|
|Way of performing||Playing a particular piece||Improvising based on agreed upon schemes|
Of course, both are bit stereotyped here. But there are vast differences. And those differences really make a difference in how to play, how to develop as a musician and what makes both types of music work.
Turning Strategy From Opera Into Jazz
Strategy as we used to know it is clearly more of the opera type. One glance at the table shows this. Traditional strategy is all about thorough preparation and planning, mostly-top down, organization-wide and oriented towards achieving a particular pre-defined goal. If we read the textbooks and follow what is recommended, it seems as if this is the only way we could think of strategy. But as research shows, the traditional opera-like approach seems not particularly effective. It brings many problems and involves very high failure rates of up to 90 %.
In today’s complex world of too much, jazz seems a particularly well-suited source of inspiration to base our approach to strategy on. So, the question is, can we turn our approach to strategy into a jazz-like approach? I am convinced the answer is yes. A look at the table above gives an immediate idea of what strategy will look like when based on jazz rather than opera as role model. Jazz-like strategy is more down-to earth and flexible, has less grandeur and occurs much more in the moment rather than based on long preparation.
There is one particular thing that is needed for jazz-like strategy. To many listeners, jazz may seem very loose and without structure, especially modern and improvised jazz. However, the truth is that this loose performance and improvisations can only work because there is a very structured deeper set of rules underneath that serves as common reference. We can call this the “Jazz Code.” Experienced jazz players know these rules and because the rules are universal, they can play together in a band almost instantly without having played together before. The way this works is nicely explained in the “Jazz Code” video below.
To turn strategy from opera into jazz, a similar “Strategy Code” is needed. This would imply a structured set of rules and principles that determine what strategy is, what it is composed of and how its various elements can be combined to create attractive outcomes. Once a strategy team knows and masters this code, it should be able to jam and improvise on the spot and generate and execute strategy in the moment. For most organizations and given the current lack of such code, this still seems a long shot. But it can be done.
This post was published earlier here on my forbes.com page.
Image credit: Pixabay