Adopting a ‘Jazz Mindset’ for Strategic Execution and Leadership (Part 1)

Any jazz musician will say that adaptability and creativity are the cornerstones to making beautiful music, but how does that apply to strategic execution and project management in the business environment? Adopting a jazz mindset will help individuals and organizations react to—and even initiate—change more quickly. Improvisation and daring to create new things using a more malleable approach to decision making can inspire high performance, not only in music, but in business too.

The Jazz Mindset

To adapt and create like a jazz musician, one has to think like a jazz musician. Frank Barrett (2011), accomplished jazz pianist and management scholar, defines the jazz mindset as “a mindset that maximizes learning, remains responsive to short-term emergent opportunities and simultaneously strengthens longer-term dynamic capabilities of the organization.”

Business leaders with a jazz mindset can move not only themselves, but entire teams through the decision making process with ease. Whether an organization prefers an Agile approach, a Waterfall approach or something in between, each methodology comes with its own set of rules. But if rules are adopted for rules’ sake, decision-making runs on autopilot with less responsiveness to current market environments. PM Leaders are best equipped when they develop a mindset approach to their work and they become better positioned to react more swiftly to the ever-changing business climate, regardless of the actual methodology that is adopted.

Classical Versus Jazz/Discipline Versus Agility

In addition to having a fundamental foundation built on project management rules, practices and processes, a defining skill for the project manager to master is the ability to balance discipline and agility. Let’s explore this further through the classical versus jazz music metaphor, where classical is equivalent to discipline and jazz is equivalent to agility.

In classical music, the hierarchy is well defined and made up of instrumentalists, section leaders and the conductor. Centralized decision-making is designed around the conductor. This structure is highly efficient, built to avoid error and produces order through a prescribed methodology. Individuals have responsibility to be the best they can in their chosen profession (instrument), to respond to imposed constraints by the plan (music), and trust that their part fits into the bigger picture. The repetitive nature, delineated roles and specific plans that make up this structure results in a comfortable, more predictable environment.

When looking at jazz music, there is less hierarchy overall and the group tends to be much smaller. A jazz ensemble has dispersed decision-making – it is pushed down from the “leader” to the “individual.” This approach works well when flexibility, responsiveness, innovation and faster processing of information are needed. Unlike classical, the jazz environment is not as structured. Like classical, the individual still needs to excel within the environment he finds himself. All of these skills enable the PM to balance between disciplined and agility methodologies.

The jazz mindset cultivates personal freedom to innovate and act guided by sufficient constraints while the organization trusts that the individuals will ensure their part fits into the bigger picture.  What does “personal freedom with constraints” mean for an organization? It is about providing just enough structure and coordination to maximize diversity while inviting embellishment, and encouraging exploration and experimentation. Freedom is not unlimited, but the environment supports coloring outside the lines to look for new, more efficient ways to get work done.

A business example of this — personal freedom with constraints — is Facebook’s Engineering Bootcamp, which is part orientation, part software training program and part fraternity/sorority rush. When new engineers are hired, they typically don’t know what specific job they will do so they are allowed to change a part of the product that then becomes visible to millions of users. This process allows them to become intimately familiar and immersed with the product, their peers and the work environment. At the culmination of Bootcamp – new hires bid on their job assignment and product team. This program exemplifies Facebook’s adherence to founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s “Hacker Way,” an organizational culture that is supposed to be egalitarian, risk-taking, self-starting, irreverent, collaborative, and creative.

Consider the jazz mindset as a new way of thinking about getting the job done. It doesn’t require getting permission to make it happen. You can apply the jazz mindset to any situation in varying degrees in any company or work environment. By using agility, creativity and responsiveness as your instruments, you can bring your strategy or music to life.


  • Bernstein, E., & Barrett, F. (2011). Strategic Change and the Jazz Mindset: Exploring Practices that Enhance Dynamic Capabilities for Organizational Improvisation. Research in Organizational Change and Development, 19, 55-90.
  • Lally, P., Jaarsveld, C., Potts, H., & Wardle, J. (2009). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. European Journal of Social Psychology, 998-1009.
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Joe Czarnecki
Joseph R. Czarnecki, PMP, MSP, SCPM, is vice president of product & sales support at TwentyEighty Strategy Execution. Joe's in-depth knowledge allows him to align client needs with course offerings, guide the contextualization of courses to client's cultures and processes, and bring insights from clients to the development of new courses. Joe has more than 25 years of experience in instructional design, with a focus on portfolio and program management for financial services, aeronautics, manufacturing, energy, and technology companies.