Strategic Change and the Jazz Mindset

As a technology professional who is also a musician, my mind swims in creative lanes. I use my musical versatility to enhance focus, regulate emotion, brainstorm, and see connections. When I meet and talk with CEOs, business leaders & technologists, I’m fascinated to learn how they utilize their musical thought processes for productivity & success.

Change management is one of the most essential focal points for an organization and the technology within it. Because change is constant, it’s vital to maximize learning, flexibility, and dynamic thinking to make decisions.

A profound connection between music and technology is how time is measured and perceived. Musicians possess an ability to connect a dynamic organization of bits and bytes because these relate to notes, chords, and rhythms. The composition of organizational networks is nearly identical to the thought patterns of music. In the language of 8th, 16th, and 32nd notes, we find a parallel world of synchronous 8-bit, 16-bit, and 32-bit systems and the opportunity to extend, strengthen, and transform “ordinary capabilities.”

A 2001 article entitled Strategic Change and the Jazz Mindset: Exploring Practices That Enhance Dynamic Capabilities for Organizational Improvisation by Ethan S. Bernstein and Frank J. Barrett explores how leaders can adopt a mindset that maximizes learning, remains responsive to short-term emergent opportunities, and simultaneously strengthens longer-term dynamic capabilities of an organization.


Leadership involves turning unpredictably challenging situations into predictably successful outcomes. Despite the temptation to search for one ‘‘magic formula’’ – a set of static routines or capabilities that reliably transform each problem into an opportunity – both leaders and scholars of leadership have sobered to the impossibility of such a quest. Past research demonstrates that a competitive advantage today can become an organization’s albatross tomorrow. Thus, focus for leaders has shifted away from development of a single set of perfect routines toward the development of dynamic capabilities, or higher-level routines, which operate to change existing static routines to address future novel challenges.

How strategic leaders in business build such dynamic capabilities remains a relatively unanswered question. A review of the management literature on dynamic capabilities reveals that while much has been written on the ‘‘what’’ of dynamic capabilities, frighteningly little is known about the ‘‘how.’’ Based on our experience studying successful jazz leaders, however, we believe a far more developed theory of how to lead the creation of dynamic capabilities exists in jazz than in business. We call this leadership logic the ‘‘jazz mindset’’ and consider, as the primary contribution of this chapter, how that mindset can help business leaders shape the development of dynamic capabilities and long-term competitive
advantage in their organizations.

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