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Organisations should mimic jazz bands as well as orchestras

Speaking at a London HR Connection event Dominic Alldis used music as an analogy for corporate life

The most successful companies in today’s climate are those that most resemble a collection of jazz bands rather than a traditional orchestra, according to musician, conductor and business speaker Dominic Alldis.

Alldis used this analogy to show how the arts can be used as part of organisational development at a recent London HR Connection event – where he and a jazz band demonstrated different ways of performing and working together.

He began by showing how critical the conductor (or leader) is to a team’s performance, and the very different effects controlling, disengaged and engaged styles of conducting might have. Conductors, like leaders, must think: “What can you do to bring out the best in people and the team at the exact right moment?” said Alldis.

An engaged and motivating style of leadership should convey: “I have every trust in your ability to play beautiful music, how can I help?” he said.

Alldis then went on to explain that “people in an orchestra are rather like people having to make sense of things in a large organisation”.

But while orchestral musicians have a score to guide them, employees “not only have to deliver a flawless performance, but in an environment of external turbulence and change,” said Alldis. “You don’t have the symphony that, as long as you get it right on the day, will sound beautiful. You’re having to make it up as you go along.”

For this reason a good musical metaphor for the corporate world is a jazz band, said Alldis. “The perfect analogy for that aspect of the business environment is the world of jazz,” he said. “It's very different the culture of an orchestra.

“We’re improvising within constraints, within protocols and a common language… The wonderful thing about having these simple constraints is that it leaves a lot of freedom within that.”

The most powerful aspect of jazz as opposed to classical music is the opportunity to take risks and experiment, said Alldis. The trick, even with very unconventional-sounding free jazz, is to have just enough structure and rules to hold things together, he said.

“It’s a journey: we don’t know where we’re going, but we know where we’re coming from,” he said, describing a free jazz performance by his band.

He said: “[It’s about] giving people the opportunity to fail… But jazz is not always squeaky clean; sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. But that’s what makes it interesting. We are allowed to take risks, because jazz without risks is really boring.”

For this reason, organisations of the future need to strike a balance between a jazz and classical approach. They need to be able to collaborate and perform with precision like an orchestra, as well as embrace the disruptive element of jazz, concluded Alldis.