Music as a Metaphor to Understand the Improvisational Field in Organizations

Wolfgang Stark and Christopher Dell

The chapter focuses on the answers of the following questions: What allows today's companies and organizations to be innovative in a complex world? How can we disclose the secrets of an innovative culture in organizations? Does musical language and a technology of improvisation provide practical tools towards innovative approaches in order cope with future challenges in organizing complex processes either in organizations or society?

Many have tried to understand why some organizations are innovative and creative and manage to adapt to and be creative with today's complex and hardly manageable world, while others are not. As organizations face increasing uncertainty and complexity, they will need to invent solutions to problems, which cannot be anticipated or even imagined in advance. In this climate, new knowledge and insight will be created and shared through new types of conversations. These new conversations will need to be deeply creative as much as the kind of collaborative conversations artists have as they work together. One of the most complex kinds of artistic conversations are musical conversations; they are spontaneous and yet highly skilled and present improvisations between musicians.

Based on the research in "Music Innovation Corporate Culture" (micc-project.org) [1] we started to use new knowledge based on the language of music for the process of organizing (Weick, 1987) in companies, organizational networks and innovative collaborative processes. In a quest to disclose the secrets of innovative organizational cultures the methodological approach of the project tried to identify the patterns of innovative cultures by linking organizational settings by using musical thinking and the patterns of improvisation (Dell, 2002).


The vast majority of organizational theory and management is based on rational cognitive models: influenced by industrial production (historically) and financial markets (currently), management models focus upon numbers, measurement and accountability. Although organizational psychologists (as well as many practitioners) know that this approach only captures a small part of the processes and dynamics of social systems and organizations, it seems to work well for traditional organizations based on the hierarchical model of top-down decisions and planning. Hence, modern network-type organizations have to encourage soft factors like community building and organizational culture in order to survive in their complex and constantly changing organizational environment. Even organizational systems relying heavily on their key performance indicators (KPI) based on numbers discover the value of "soft" cultural organizational processes when they have to cope with unexpected dynamics or to use creativity to build a culture of trust and innovation within their company.

Today, complex social systems, like companies, nonprofits, political or informal communities are not only determined by clearly defined goals and strategies. Gradually we discover that more and more settings we live and work in are governed by unknown situations and weakly defined factors. The ability to be creative and successfully innovative in an "only assumed" rational and structured setting needs an approach beyond goal-setting and rational strategy. The art of improvisation may be a key factor for survival in a world full of uncertainties and unpredicted opportunities (serendipity).

These questions cannot be ignored in a world of constant change (Looss, 2002), but—quite paradoxically—will usually not be addressed systematically both in practice or in management science. Nevertheless, since decades, practitioners and social scientists talk about this inconsistency: one of the reasons may be the fact that the dynamic process of organizing (Weick, 1987) is bound to a culture of numbers, results and rationality. The complex network of relations cannot be seen and tackled if you are only oriented to goals, controlling and strategies. There even is no language to describe the "tacit knowledge" (Polanyi, 1966) (including both: restrictions, fears and opportunities, wisdom) in organizations and social systems.

  • [1] Concepts and results presented derive from the project "Music Innovation Corporate Culture" (micc-project.org), based on a research grant in the research cluster on "Innovation Strategies Beyond Traditional Management," and is based on the grant no. 01FM08040 by the German Department of Education and Research and the European Science Foundation.
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