If you‘ve ever listened to great jazz musicians — Nina Simone, Miles Davis, Melba Liston, Dave Brubeck — you can instantly sense the importance of improvisation within the music. Structure exists as well, and an amazing balance is created between this structure and the creative risk-taking of improvisation — to give us spectacular jazz music.
Jazz improvisation is the process of spontaneously creating fresh melodies over the continuously repeating cycle of chord changes of a tune. … The musicians are actually spontaneously creating a very intricate form of theme and variation; they all know the tune and the role of their instrument.
What if the musicians only focused on the continuity and repetition of the chords and rhythms? You’d be left with a monotonous and lifeless stretch of sounds.
I think we can learn some important lessons from jazz as it applies to running a creative services agency — which I happen to do.
At Fastspot, we are hired for our creativity and also our ability to deliver a myriad of complex things — from a digital marketing strategy, to a content publication roadmap, to a fully implemented content management system. Our inventory is our time, inspiration and effort, and these elements are all finite. As our company grows and the teams get bigger and the projects more complex, we have to more closely manage that inventory.
This means process must become more important.
Any group of people working together for a common goal have to constantly keep the desired outcome in mind. And it’s important to focus on the ways in which they will achieve it — the approach, practice, study, evaluation, metrics, etc. Cultivating a path, or a process, is only successful if the wayfinding gets you where you want to go.
But beware the trap of “how we do” overpowering the joy of the “doing”.
The danger with process becoming too strict or oppressive is that it can become the driver, whether the people in the car want to be going down that road or not. It can become so problematic that you may sacrifice quality, client satisfaction, or company culture in order to preserve that process. And when process becomes too important, it eclipses the thing it’s actually working toward — a superior product.
“In Jazz, improvisation isn’t a matter of just making any ol’ thing up. Jazz, like any language, has its own grammar and vocabulary. There’s no right or wrong, just some choices that are better than others.” — Wynton Marsalis
We have to stop considering creativity or innovation at odds with process and structure. Instead, we must find a way to create harmony, inspiration and amazing experiences within the space where both process and innovation work together.
If we ensure that our process becomes highly tuned, yet still allows the art of improvisation and innovation to happen — we will hopefully get a great outcome. However, if we allow the process to suppress any ability to take risk, pivot, experiment — we aren’t going to let creativity do what it has to do. The process should allow us to take more risk because we have the underlying foundation to keep the necessary balance of order.
In a creative or innovative organization or effort — change is a necessary ingredient. Change is often discovered within the practice of improvisation.
Change and improvisation are foundational to the creative process. This can’t occur without some form of risk. Unfortunately, process does not naturally acclimate itself to change, nor do those who are following the process always appreciate the interruption. Bringing new ideas or disruptions into a workflow that hinges on meeting deadlines and presenting deliverables within a certain scope can be met with fear and angst.
The simple reason is — it’s hard to predict an outcome with something new.
This is a challenge many creative agencies face. A creative shop’s survival depends on cultural support for innovation, extra-effort, and a zero-tolerance attitude for mediocrity or navel-gazing work. It only takes a few months of stagnant or repetitive looking output and clients begin to look elsewhere, and the internal team will feel it too. We have to be willing to step outside of the defined process to accommodate creative thinking, unproven ideas, client needs, or unforeseen opportunities. We must be willing to start down the road less taken, even if we’re not sure where that road is going to deliver us. Sometimes that’s how we’ll get to an outcome that’s truly remarkable. And it’s how we ensure we are improving ourselves professionally.
“You’ve got to find some way of saying it without saying it.” — Duke Ellington
We founded Fastspot because we love to make amazing things.
Our standard for quality is remarkably high. We are willing to take risks. We will go above and beyond to ensure our work is exceptional. We will be thoughtful and committed consultants to our clients. We will panic if we see a cultural shift start to occur where the “why” becomes lost in the desire to adhere to the process, and the outcomes are simply residue. We will push each other to get better, to be challenged, to avoid complacency. We will reward these efforts over the efforts to stick to the process at any cost.
Our work is our own jazz compositions. Yes, it takes a lot of practice — and process — to give the audience the experience that they should expect from our team. But actively pursuing the unexpected — and embracing the uncertainty that comes along with it — is as much a part of the process as any other step along the way. It is the “unknown” that will arise within that improvisation amongst a group of highly skilled people which will result in the greatest creations of all.