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Does your team operate like an orchestra or an improvisational jazz band?
Does your team operate like an orchestra or an improvisational jazz band?

Let’s get one thing straight; I don’t have a musical bone in my body. I might’ve dabbled with the violin for a year, and pretended to join in the rendition of Little Donkey with a recorder during a couple of nativity plays, but that’s as far as my musical career went. But, luckily, even I can work out there’s a huge difference between how orchestras and improvisational jazz bands operate.

Orchestras are regularly trotted out as an analogy for how businesses would like to operate – a basic Google search of “acting like an orchestra in business” produces a mere 5,700,000 results. Of course, there’s an obvious parallel between CEOs and conductors, both of whom lead teams of well-rehearsed personnel that operate in-sync to produce harmonious perfection, in an ideal world at least. The reality is often far messier.

“You have an orchestra, but it must sound transparent, controlled, almost neoclassical.” Riccardo Chailly, Conductor

There are certain standards that orchestras set, and they’re impossible to be transferred to the world of business – the numbers just don’t allow it. You might look like an orchestra from the outside – you might’ve convinced yourself that you’re acting like one – but you’re not. So let’s cut to the chase, and stop kidding ourselves. Your team’s an improvisational jazz band. And deep down, you know it.

With that out of the way, here’s the good news; it’s the best way to be. Orchestral perfection isn’t possible, so why even bother chasing it?

“In Jazz, improvisation isn’t a matter of just making any ol’ thing up. Jazz, like any language, has its own grammar and vocabulary. There’s no right or wrong, just some choices that are better than others.” – Wynton Marsalis, Jazz Tenor Saxophonist

Let’s break this down to get to some answers.

“In Jazz, improvisation isn’t a matter of just making any ol’ thing up.”

Jazz, as a genre, was born out of freedom of thought. It respects the majority of the rules of music, but challenges others. You can’t play jazz without understanding how it works, knowing when and how to improvise – the entire band has to be on the same page. And the same goes for businesses, where having a single-minded promise – a clear idea of what you exist to do – can keep people aligned.

For Ascot, that promise is ‘raise the standard’ – a nod to their constant desire to do, and be, better. It guides what their team does, and how it behaves, to ensure the business stays on track.

Jazz, like any language, has its own grammar and vocabulary.”

Your promise should be exactly that; yours. It should be unique to your brand and its employees. And it should be underpinned by values that are just as distinctive. The most effective brands are built from the inside out – they identify distinct cultural elements and cultivate them to create motivating and memorable values that their team can get behind and put into practice. So, make them distinct and ownable, and don’t get tripped up by category generics – if somebody else can say it, you shouldn’t.

Asana, one of the many names in workplace collaboration, have developed a set of shared values that are unmistakably theirs. From ‘create and play together’ to encourage interaction and collaboration, to ‘be real with yourself and others’ to promote honesty and integrity in the workplace, they’ve recognised that simple but bold commitments can have lasting impact on their culture.

“There’s no right or wrong, just some choices that are better than others.”

Much has been made of brands promoting a “yes, and…” culture – the idea being that there’s no such thing as a bad idea, it just needs to be built on to make it matter. But you want people to be making contributions to your culture that are at least in the right ballpark, otherwise it’s a waste of everybody’s time. The trick is to not overburden, to not bog people down with detail that will be forgotten or isn’t usable. Aim to encourage people to make better choices by letting them fill in some gaps themselves – leave some room for improvisation – to let the magic happen.

So, less of the orchestra nonsense – you know it’ll never work. Instead, work with, not against, the impromptu nature of your team. It’s time to face the music.


What are Wild Cards?

The Clearing have been working with The School of Life to develop 100 questions designed to help you see your brand from new perspectives. We think great conversations begin with a great question. Each week, we’ll share another question and our response to it. Email us with your own answers on – we’d love to know what you think.