Learning from Jazz Improv

Jazz Improvisation as a Model for Team Collaboration
Jim Kalbach

From the Design Operations Summit website:
Great collaboration is the secret sauce of successful development teams. At its core, collaboration comes from the culture of your company and the dynamics of your team. This entertaining session will demonstrate how the dynamics of jazz improvisation serve as a model for better teamwork with live music on stage. The lessons from jazz are particularly important for design, much of which involves collaborating with others: gathering requirements from stakeholders, ideating in project teams, and iterating with developers. Great design requires practitioners to be not only skilled craftsmen equipped with the right tools, but also expert collaborators and facilitators. Jazz gives us a model to help us move in that direction in an modern, agile way. Jim Kalbach will be joined by three special guests.

Note: I wish I had had the foresight to do a video capture of one or more of the short pieces these artists performed – the experience was just amazing, and a blog post without video won’t begin to do it justice!  This will be a must-watch when the Summit videos are released.  

These four musicians just met for the first time today.  We’ve been talking about collaboration today – how can we play decent music?

The first song they played was called All Blues from Miles Davis’ album – the best-selling jazz album of all time.  The day it was recorded, the musicians received the music when the arrived at the studio.  Only one track was recorded a second time.  We can learn from how jazz musicians work, and bring some key themes to Design Operations:

  • Empathy
  • Uncertainty
  • Patterns
  • Rules of Engagement

He will cover these themes, and his presentation will be interspersed with music.  He is going to walk us through each of them (in reverse order).

There are conventions, rules, and structure, and frameworks that inform what they do:


In jazz, the head is played across a form, the melody has a certain length and there are harmonies that go along with it.  That form gets repeated with the same duration, and the solo is a new melody on top of that same form.

There are turn-taking conventions – rules of engagement –  in jazz.  This is foundational for jazz music.  And without it, we wouldn’t be able to improvise.  But with it, we can improvise with jazz musicians all over the world.  Likewise, Design Operations provides a framework so that designers can be creative.

Now they are going to play A Night in Tunisia.  It has an AABA structure that is 32 bars; that means two A sections, a B section, and then an A section again.  Then there is something called an interlude.


Let’s talk about patterns.  Jazz musicians practice patterns.  There is a common pattern called 2, 5, 1, it occurs a lot.  Once you build that pattern library in your mind, you can create something unique, but you’re drawing from that.  And as you learn, you can absorb and draw on patterns from everywhere – that melodic material can come from anywhere.

They are going to play a tune from Herbie Hancock called Watermelon Man.  There are 16 forms, they are going to play it over and over again.  The saxophonist is going to draw on Muppets and maybe a TV jingle, and the guitarist will insert something in as well.

During that piece they also did fours – four measures together, then four measures of drum.  It’s another convention.


Herbie Hancock has a five or six decade career, and has recently written his biography.  He talks about playing with Miles Davis in the early days of his career, and how he hit a wrong chord.  But Miles played something right afterwards that made it fit in.  In jazz, there are no mistakes, just missed opportunities.  If someone plays a wrong chord, we have to do something and turn it into an opportunity.

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers – he brought on young musicians, and they learned to listen to each other.  Jazz musicians talk about having big ears – listening more to others than to ourselves.  This is empathy.  We have a common goal.  Even though we don’t know how a song will turn out, we’re trying to create a sound, and we have to work together.

In the spirit of uncertainty, he didn’t tell the musicians here at the Design Operations Summit what they are going to play (though he has heard them all play it separately).  It’s a piece called Moaning, which was popularized by Art Blakey.

We don’t want to think about our organizations like a factory.  You can have the structure, the frameworks, empathy with each other, but ultimately we should behave more like a jam session.

The artists that performed tonight are some of the best in New York.  They are:

They will be available for questions after the show, or you can chat with Jim at the Design Ops Summit happy hour later.

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