AIN President ebulletin: More than a metaphor – improvisation as a skill

I was alerted this week to a headline, ‘Improvisation may be the key to successfully managing change, says MIT’.  The article reported the work of one professor Wanda J. Orlikowski equating a successful company to an orchestra, with the Chief Executive Officer as the conductor.

The conductor leads ‘a complex group of artists to make beautiful music. Sometimes, however, the conductor needs to let go and let its skilled and creative musicians lead.’

It’s an interesting metaphor, though I would have thought jazz is a closer musical analogy, where leadership switches more dynamically and spontaneously, with musicians improvising as soloists and collaborators within the shared structure of the song. 

How long until business school leaders appreciate not only the metaphor of improvisation (whether musical or theatrical) as a key to adaptation, but also realise that applied improvisation practitioners can teach the day-to-day skills of being flexible, responding in the moment, and working as a group that can flourish with change? 

Cheers, Paul Z Jackson, President AIN

 The Applied Improvisation Network

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I think, that when enuf people have had an experience with improvisation (the kind that frees you to play, not just for the laughs), then there will be a shift. Improvisation will become the next big thing! Being a player has so transformed my life and the lives of all the people who have learned to play with me! It's WAY cheaper than therapy and much more fun and empowering. Also, as an educator using the Arts and especially improvisation has opened the minds of my students so that they have gladly entered into a fun learning experience with me. I'm glad to be a part of this group. It's good to know other people who have fallen in love with the form of improvisation and spread it around. Thanks! Marcia Kimmell, The Next Stage in San Francisco

Greetings All- i haven't done this before but really wanted to respond, from Australia, about the metaphor. I agree with comments that jazz is a better metaphor.  I used jazz groups as a stimulant for discussion with professionals and leaders to consider the meaning and process of leadership (artful leadership), and finished my PhD on regenerating the praxis of staff development via a PhD by publication. I remembered a paper I had published way back in 2004, in the International Journal of the Humanities (2)1, pages 369-383, in which I noted both and argued for the jazz.  Paper was titled 'Developing new alliances in higher education leadership & governance: Autopoietic application of the "arts" creative capacities'.

It was abit of a rambling paper - an early start in my writing/publishing work, but it says a lot of things I was thinking and researching. Perhaps it can add to the conversation and work all of you are doing!? I presented parts of it at a conference in Prato Italy run by Monash University.  That was exciting just because I finally got to spend time in Florence!!!

If anyone wants to see the paper and has difficulty finding it I will try and assist.  I've got other stuff too, most notably my PhD thesis from Queensland University of Technology 2010 under  the name Cheryl Kerr. It has about 6 published papers on my work in using the arts in staff development  and other info regarding my research on whether or not there was any 'outcome' or results from people who participated in the development programs.

Improvisation was a big part of my workshops and I thank all who continue to develop that art.  cheers, and best for the holiday season and the new year.  Glad you are all there, and that I finally got a bee in my bonnet to engage and reply to AIN emails.

Cheryl Kerr


I saw the e-mail this morning, thought, "Paul is absolutely right that jazz is a better metaphor" and dropped in to support that.

And there is Anna Schaum's comment, which puts it very well - with the added weight of coming from someone who has actually played in a professional orchestra.  Yay!

While the metaphor is shaky, the article makes some decent points that you might want to adapt for your sales/marketing needs. Here's a link to a summary of the article:

Yes, as someone who has played viola in professional symphony orchestras for 25 years, performed with a jazz quartet, AND been an actress in Playback Theater and ComedySportz troupes, I can say unequivocally that jazz is a much more accurate metaphor for a truly collaborative change model than an orchestra with a conductor. The field of Interpersonal Neurobiology is perhaps confirming this as well. I have found the level of personal responsibility to be much higher in an improv situation than in an orchestra where we are playing from the little black dots. Much of the entrainment in an orchestra is set first by those written notes, then by the conductor who chooses the tempo, the phrasing of those notes. Plus we all know the tune and the outcome ahead of time! Improv requires one to be at the cusp of her spontaneity at all times, and to trust the unknown as much as the known. As JL Moreno, the father of Psychodrama described, spontaneity means a novel response to a known situation, or an adequate response to a new one. While a single musician can put a lot of creative energy into playing a Beethoven symphony in a novel way for the umpteenth time, it is easy to lose inspiration when she always knows ahead of time how the story ends.

I like this TED talk by Itay Talgam: Lead like the conductor



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