Improvisation: In Music and in Business

Many of the famous classical composers were excellent at improvisation.  Mozart for example, would ask an audience for a few musical notes, then sit at a piano and improvise a complete concert based on those notes.  Musical scores were meant to be documentation, but musicians would often improvise when playing the music, much as jazz musicians will improvise on standards of the Great American Songbook.  In a discussion with Eastman School of Music associate dean Howard Potter over the weekend, he explained how classical music study took a turn about 100 years ago, moving away from improvisation skills to concentrate instead on technique and playing scores exactly as written.  Potter says there is a beginning resurgence of improvisation in music education today.
The parallels to business are intriguing.  Many companies focus on “playing the score,” having everyone follow policy, procedure and instruction.  This approach helps to ensure consistency and cost control—vital to driving profits.  Yet the lifeblood of industry leaders is in innovation, and increasingly, that is realized by encouraging and enabling employees to improvise—to try different approaches and develop new ideas.  This is a strategic choice that is very different from and should not be confused with continuous improvement or problem solving; both of which seek incremental change.  Implementing a strategy to become an innovative organization requires a different approach to talent, to management processes, and even at times to organization structure.
Which strategy is more important to you:  Following the score, or improvising/innovating?  Does the way you implement your strategy reflect the differences?
Bob Legge works with companies to improve individual and organizational performance. His clients have included Fortune 500 companies, mid-size companies, non-profits, education and government. To find out more, contact Bob at or call him at (585) 305-7853. Bob’s website is

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