Your Business Should Be Like A Jazz Combo

Josh Linkner, Founder of Pleasant Ridge MI based E-Prize

With only four measures left before my solo starts, I feel an overwhelming rush of adrenaline. The club is packed at this late hour with local jazz fans. The bandleader finishes his scorching trumpet solo, and the crowd erupts with applause. The attention turns to me. It's my time to improvise.

With less than 1% of the notes we play written down, we jazz musicians have to make it up as we go. It's art in real time--no going back to correct mistakes or rethink a passage. Years of practice and experience, as well my reputation, are on the line. The pressure is huge, but so is the excitement. It's time to bring everything I have to this moment and deliver something that is both technically right and infused with creativity. Passion and skill must connect to form something new that satisfies both me as an artist and the hypercritical audience.

Change the musical references to corporate ones, and I've described the daily life of nearly all businesspeople. Like jazz, business success is most often determined by creativity and original thought, not just technical mastery. Jazz and business legends are both remembered by what they create, by how they change the world.

Companies that win in the future will function more like jazz bands. They will constantly reinvent their work and seek fresh, new approaches. They will reward risk taking and originality. And while leaders will still exist, they will ensure that everyone has a voice. Jazz groups--and business success--demand it.

At my company, ePrize, we improvised our way from a raw idea to domination of the 100-year-old sweepstakes industry in under a decade. We didn't follow any written rules, the business equivalent of a musician's notes on a page; we discovered our own new ground each step of the way. The sweepstakes world was old-fashioned and fear-based. We took a jazz approach and attacked it differently.

We blended the agency world with the software world to offer a completely new solution for our customers, which in time came to include 74 of the top 100 brands in the world. Along the way, we constantly tried new things. Some worked; some failed miserably. But as we took more risks, we enjoyed more successes. Like jazz musicians, we created something new almost every day.

We also took turns letting one another shine. The company quickly grew into much more than just me, the founder. It became a place where talented people could come to express themselves and make a difference, a place that empowered our team to reach its highest potential. Like Miles Davis' ensemble in the 1950s, we attracted the best and brightest talent by providing a place where gifted people could showcase their brilliance.

With the business world radically changed, a jazz combo is an effective metaphor for what it takes to win in the postrecession global economy. Here are four ways to make your company more like a jazz group:

Encourage risk taking. Jazz musicians who play it safe rarely find gigs. The same can be said about you and your company. If you're not making mistakes at least 10% of the time, you're not risking enough.

Be remarkable. Audiences don't remember technical competence. They remember the musician who dares to be different. Our world is full of sameness, and no customer of yours needs another me-too solution.

Let each individual shine. Bandleaders aren't the only people who solo at a jazz gig. Every musician takes a turn in the spotlight. That allows the best ideas to flow and makes for a highly engaged team. Grant each person in your group autonomy and room for creative expression and you'll build a stronger, more innovative team.

Mix it up and keep it fresh. Jazz musicians are known for exploring the never-been-done-before. One night they'll play a ballad as an up-tempo swing. The next night they'll do the song with just saxophone and upright bass. They're constantly trying new things and new combinations. This prevents us from getting into ruts and keeps everyone in the group in their creative zone. In your world, move desks around. Try a job-swap program and give people new projects to develop. Arrange a field trip to get people out of the office for inspiration. Mixing it up is a great source of creativity.

As commoditization, cost-cutting, and a global workforce continue to erode competitive advantage, you have to create to win. Original thought and innovation have become the currency of success, the only sustainable competitive advantage. The jazz musician's ability to improvise, take risks, adapt to change and forge new ground are skills we all need to develop in our current economy of bureaucratic sameness. To make a real difference in your company, think of your business tools as instruments for creative expression. Rally your team, show up fully and don't forget to jam.

Josh Linkner is the founder and chairman of ePrize, and is a jazz guitarist who has played professionally for 25 years. He blogs at 


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