Give your team some rhythm – Lessons from jazz for effective cooperation

10/05/2016 Leestijd: 7 minuten

Unfortunately it is all too common; you work in a team on an assignment and you’re getting blocked, it consumes energy and eventually the final output is disappointing. Most of us will recognize this. Long discussions, small, almost invisible conflicts, people being late at the start of meetings, these are all signs of a dysfunctional team.

The question is, how can we recognize well-functioning teams. As an HR professional, I have often touched on this theme in management offsite sessions by asking the participants if they can share an experience about being part of a high performing team. Surprisingly, the most shared examples are not from professional practice. Most people share examples from outside their work, such as a football match, a boat race, a great cooking workshop or a performance with a band.

Give your team some swing - band picture
Source: AllaboutJazz


Jazz as an inspiration for teamwork

With those more personal examples in mind, I got the inspiration to zoom in on a situation of teamwork, creativity and flow. I’ve always been amazed how jazz musicians can play together so well. In this article I will look into what we can learn from a jazz band. In such a group a lot is happening at the same time. Everybody plays alone, together and with each other. It seems like chaos but at the same time wonderful music is being created. How can musicians relate to each other so well in this chaos and achieve such great results?

With this question in mind I participated in a jazz workshop hosted by two musicians. They walked us through the history of jazz with music and passion. There was also a part on how a jazz band actually works. It all starts with the individual qualities of the musicians. Having a great sound without musicality and individual technique is impossible. In addition, the musicians have a shared focus; to make great music together. They play with a shared objective and a synchronized intention. From the moment they start to play, you see the band members having eye contact all the time. Also, there is a great deal of acceptance and there is enough room and freedom for each of them to experiment.

The basic rules for the team

To bring some order to the chaos, musicians have installed three basic rules, namely the pulse, harmony and melody. I will explain these three briefly. Pulse is the basic rhythm, an undercurrent that connects all the instruments together and determines the cadence. The harmony is formed by the key and basic chords. Pulse and harmony together enable the melody to play its part. The melody is the solo and this can switch frequently amongst the musicians. It’s about “give and take” and continuously being closely connected to each other. There is a lot of space for creativity and new sounds are being created.

From Jazz to teamwork

A jazz band setting looks ideal for teams that have to deal with creativity. Think of product development or innovation teams. It would be interesting to take a look at the dynamics of such a team though the eyes of a jazz musician. Let’s project the jazz band mechanisms onto it and see what we can learn from it.


The heart of the team are its members and their individual qualities. Every musician should master their own instrument, play well and be able to connect with others. The team members must have the right competences. Secondly the team should consist of complementary competencies. A jazz band with only three drummers or four bassists will not easily turn out to be a huge success. The same will be valid for an innovative team; good performance can only be achieved with the right mix of competencies.

Rhythm is crucial for a team

With the right individual competencies and mix, the team is ready for take-off. The drummer starts with giving the pulse. In fact, he is indicating the rhythm of individual playing and interactions of the team members. It’s the glue for the team. For our innovation team, this is the where, when and how of cooperation. There should be a good cadence in the meeting schedule. Even more important is if the interactions have some swing. Often you can feel if the interactions in the team are fluent or blocked. With fluent interactions magic can happen and the team can achieve miracles. With a blocked team, the group is worth less than the individuals by themselves. So it’s important to find the right rhythm for the interactions of the team. It should fit in well with the objectives of the team. Not too fast or too slow, but just right, just like the rhythm should fit the song.

Harmony gives context

After the rhythm has kicked in, the harmony can start. The harmony consists of the chords and the key of the song, it’s the tune so to say. It provides the team with a clear context and operating model. There is a shared? understanding and agreement on the ground rules and boundaries of the teamwork.

Give your team some swing (take Miles Davis as an example.. and learn from jazz)
Source: Clarin

The melody gives the peak performance

With the rhythm and harmony running, the floor is ready for the melody. Musicians start playing their solos. This is essentially the part of renewal and creativity. New sound combinations can be created, especially when the solos are starting to interact. There is space for what was not there yet. Soloists alternate fast, inspiring and building on each other. In a business team these are the dialogues, discussions and presentations. In a good flow the team members listen actively, accept, learn and build on each other. With a clear result: great music.

6 points to teams for inspiration

At the beginning of this article I asked myself what we can learn from jazz musicians playing together in a band. My conclusion is that teams in businesses, in particular innovative teams, can certainly be inspired by a jazz band, and use the following points for reflection:

  1. The right competencies

Do the individual team members have the right competences? In jazz terms: are the team members able to play?

  1. The right competency mix

Does the team contain the right mix of competencies? In jazz terms: is the band not only a bunch of bass players, all playing the same instrument?

  1. Shared objective and intent

Does the team have an agreed and shared objective and intention? The band must agree what, when and how the song they have chosen will be played… Before the drummer starts the song!

  1. Rhythm

Does the team has the right rhythm in the interactions, in other terms, is there a flow? In jazz terms, the drummer indicates the rhythm that fits the selected song.

  1. Harmony

Is the context of the team clear, and are the ground rules and borders shared and agreed upon? The band puts the chords of the song, the harmony, and there is clarity on which song will be played.

  1. Melody

We finally give space to everyone’s input, we listen actively, build on each other and create something new! The band members go and solo, working together to make great music.

Finally, I hope that music will inspire you to improve your team’s performance.

You can read this blog in Dutch: Breng swing in je team!

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