It’s Springtime! The clocks go forward, the weather gets warmer, and I take out my copy of A Love Supreme. I’ve been listening to John Coltrane’s jazz masterpiece for twenty-five years. It’s a blend of structure and improvisation led by Coltrane, jazz’s eminent saxophonist, and backboned by the exemplary McCoy Tyner (piano) , Elvin Jones (drums) and Jimmy Garrison (bass). The band provide structure for Coltrane’s saxophone to do its thing and responds as he wreaks havoc and ventures wherever his muse leads him.
The band display that almost nebulous quality “negative capability” which Keats defined as an artist’s ability to accept “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
Coltrane wrote it as a prayer of thanks after surviving heroin and alcohol addiction. It’s composed of four parts: “Acknowledgement”, “Resolution”, “Pursuance” and “Psalm.” For me it evokes feelings of optimism and hope for the summer ahead as I come up for air from the dreary Irish winter. It doesn’t feel right to listen to it in the dark months.
It’s so compelling that it almost feels facetious to use it to illustrate the power of being able to respond and improvise for your boss or a client.
Expression in the Moment
Would A Love Supreme have all its power if it stuck rigidly to a rehearsed structure and didn’t allow Messrs Coltrane, Tyner, Jones and Garrison to express themselves in the moment? Does our volatile and uncertain environment reward businesses that stick to the script and only deliver what’s promised in the brochure and business plan? Well no it doesn’t, but there are heaps of organisations out there that behave as though it does.
Work With What You Have
Being able to improvise means rustling something compelling up out of what is available to you there and then. Time after time I’ve seen organisations that are uncomfortable departing from their stock offer and delivering a solution that really fits with what a client wants and needs. They don’t put in the uncomfortable effort to reorient, reprioritise and refresh internally and they usually don’t win the business. You’ll never have everything in place but you need to be creative with what you already have. I often use the following analogy “using last year’s answers for this year’s honours maths paper” to illustrate their lack of impact and the need to come up with something fresh and vital that addresses the here and now.
This brings me back to a theme I looked at in a previous piece: your people are only as good as their level of training. Coltrane’s classic quartet were the best in the business. They were comfortable being uncomfortable and they improvised over a foundation of excellent technical structure and skill. Don’t expect miracles from your crew if you’ve been too stingy or lazy to train them properly.
Your CEO needs to be nimble. His concerns will change – sometimes over time, sometimes in the space of a few hours. And when they do, you and your peers, similar to Messrs Jones, Tyner and Garrison responding to Coltrane’s flights of fancy, need to respond in kind and improvise.