Jim Kalbach talks about the improvisational model of Jazz as a metaphor for the way some businesses approach collaboration today. What was probably seen a few years ago as a radical way of structuring companies to organize around the work rather than using inflexible business units as boundaries, is now more commonplace.

To demonstrate what happens in the teamwork of a group of jazz performers, Kalbach assembled a group of musicians to perform a song they hadn’t played together before, and described how jazz performances “work” as a type of collaboration. These are the characteristics we can learn from.

Empathy: Everyone brings something unique to the performance, but it’s only when the individuals come together that great music happens. So while Jazz performers allows for individuality to shine through, it’s in the listening and working with each musician’s solo that the whole emerges.

Embracing uncertainty: The idea of approaching each performance with an expectation that what may unfold is unknown means that performers can experiment and improvise.

Lastly, improvisation in a team doesn’t mean doing as you please. Without some rules or guidelines, it’d be easier to make a mess than music worth listening to. It could be a set of patterns, guidelines, and principles that set the stage for the work to be done. In jazz it can mean using song structure like working within the AABA song pattern so that the musicians have queues for how the individual moments can be framed. It can also mean having principles that the players have a common understanding of, so they can work with how the others’ use them.

These three points can be easily applied to how businesses organize and do work. I like the chart he shows, giving a snapshot of how Spotify’s organic Guild structure (PDF) has allowed their Agile teams to make do with a fast growing company. It’s a great example showing how a business organizes teams into organic groups around projects. This makes it possible to flex with the constantly changing organization and business goals in order to get things done. This way of working is the antithesis of what Kalbach refers to as the command and control model of work from the Drucker age of business management for information work. The work becomes more important as does embracing the uncertainty of flatter and continuously morphing teams.

Where I work, a lot of our inspiration comes from the same examples of companies that Kalbach references like Gore and Valve–companies that have created flatter, work-oriented teams where the focus on how the company works is as important as the products. Our founder Peldi’s greatest achievement in many of our opinions is not the product, but the company he’s created. Our most interesting meetings have been discussion focussed on continuous improvement, rather than anything related to technology.

This is an inspiring presentation, and I love the connection made with Jazz performance. You can see more talks from Jim at his blog Experiencing Information.

Hat tip to @jboogie