Business planning, composition and jazz

It’s possible to get hung up on detail and precision when writing a business plan, a bit like writing a piece of classical music. In fact, business planning is more like writing music for jazz musicians: less detail and space to improvise.

Why business planning is like jazz

We tend to think of plans as precise specifications like compositions, but writing for jazz musicians is a better analogy

I specialise in creating robust, implementable strategies and plans for organisations going through times of change. Somewhere along the line a plan gets delivered, whether it’s me writing it or my clients, but I think there’s a bit of a misconception about the role of plans and to me it’s best explained with an analogy.

We have a tendency to think of a plan as a precise specification of what will happen, a bit like a musical composition. In western classical music – at least for last 400 years or so – it’s been written down precisely so that the musicians play exactly what the composer intended.

Bach to the future

Take a piece of Bach: if I were to play it as written it would sound pretty good – the arrangement of the notes, the harmony and the counterpoint are all designed to sound great if played exactly as written. I could even program it into my laptop and it would sound OK – in fact I’d have to as my piano playing is even more rudimentary than my guitar playing.

But business planning is not like classical music, it’s more like jazz…

Now I know at the mere mention of jazz, you might be about to switch off: it’s a music that seems to divide opinion. But whether you think it’s a self-indulgent exercise that mostly appeals to chin-stroking men sporting berets and goatee beards in dingy basements or – like me – you think it’s the sublime art form of the 20th and 21st centuries stay with me for a moment because there’s a point to be made whether your preference is for pop, bebop, hard rock, classical or total silence.

In jazz composition, the music is not always precisely written down – in fact for most smaller groups it may not be written down at all. To write a jazz composition – and I know this because in my time I have written a few (see here for the one surviving recording) – you need a melody and some indication of the harmony and the rhythmic feel. That’s enough data for the musicians to be able to play the tune and then improvise on it.

Every performance will be different, responding to the mood, and what each musician contributes as the piece evolves.

Berets not required

To have effective business plans you don’t need to don a beret, grow a goatee or learn to play very fast scales on the saxophone, you simply need to keep the detail high enough so that you don’t waste time over-specifying things when you don’t know what’s going to happen.

Just like jazz compositions have a few basic elements, business plans are similar – the key parts are:

  • What market are we in? (style)
  • What do we want to do by when (melody and harmony)?
  • What resources do we have? (instrumentation)

Within these three categories there are, of course, a great many questions that you can ask, and will answer during the planning process, putting the answers into some form of documented plan. But the detail doesn’t specify precisely what should happen and when: it just gives enough detail to show the trajectory of the business over time allowing some space for improvisation (a.k.a. agile business decision-making) as circumstances change.

I’ve produced my own simple “composition” guide for business planning: it doesn’t make any references to jazz, but it’s reduced to a page. Feel free to download it to help shape your own organisation’s future plans.

Build a community and you won’t need customers

Instead, you’ll have committed fans who’ll go the extra mile for you

Here’s a heart-warming story from my recent holiday – and I promise it’s the last for now – that has a lesson for organisations who are serious about genuine and deep customer relationships.

Thursday afternoon in Tuscany – another beautiful day is unfolding and, in the main square of Anghiari, the town we’re staying in, seats and staging have been erected for the evening’s concert by Southbank Sinfonia and a specially-recruited chorus of local singers and visitors, mostly from the UK.

The festival’s been going for nearly a week and, in glorious weather, around the old town and nearby locations we’ve enjoyed some sublime music. Can anything spoil our perfect musical holiday?

As if to prove a point, the sky darkens, it gets colder, and then without too much warning, pours down with rain. We retreat inside the pizzeria we’ve been lunching at, and shelter from torrential rain and, at one point, what appears to be a mini-cyclone that leaves a trail of upturned chairs and busted parasols in its wake. As the storm subsides, we make a break for the hotel, returning to the square for the concert a couple of hours later. The concert was great, but we missed the best part.

The show must go on…

While we were lazing at the hotel a group of local people and visitors banded together with the orchestra to reassemble the seating and dry it off. When we returned it was like the storm had never happened.

It was a great example of how, when you’re united by a common purpose, the barriers between service providers (the town, the orchestra) and customers (the visitors) disappear. A group of people went the proverbial extra mile to make the concert happen, and a little bit of the world was a happier place as a result.

Onwards and upwards

You could argue that that’s a special set of circumstances: the Southbank Sinfonia is a training orchestra that takes the cream of the crop from music colleges around the world and gives them the experience of being a great ensemble player and, as a result, it has a lot of enthusiastic supporters – it’s a charity – that are all drawn to the festival each year because that’s what they feel passionate about. So, a bit of extra effort to make the show go on is hardly surprising.

But that’s missing the point.

Within any group of customers there will be people who want to feel part of something bigger than simply consuming the product or service provided. Here’s another example from my recent commute.

Book swapping in action

When I head down to one of my clients, I travel via Wimbledon station. On the platform where I catch my train there’s a waiting room with a rather tatty bookshelf in the corner. Over a few days, I noticed that the bookshelf’s contents seemed to vary considerably. Curious, I took a closer look and discovered that it was a book-swapping arrangement. It’s been going since 2009, which is quite something, and shows that

  • someone cared enough to start it
  • people care enough to bring along books to keep it going.

Train of thought

Now I’m not about to suggest that Surrey-bound commuters on Wimbledon station are united by a common love for, er, Southwestern Rail (not the worst of the rail companies in the UK, but that’s not saying much), making them go the extra mile to make waiting for a train a bit more interesting and spreading the love to their fellow humans via second-hand books. But the point is that your customers do care about things and if you want to stand a chance of turning your customers from grudging recipients of your products into raving fans who’ll help you deliver a better service then you need to start finding out a lot more about what they really care about.

My week in CX #10

Jazz minus pizza

There’s only so much pizza a man can take in the interests of customer experience and so this week my Pizza Express odyssey comes to a (satisfactory) conclusion. In other news, my local arts centre makes me yearn for a bit of NPS and decide to call time on the weekly reports.

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Wow! 1) Getting the basics right

This week’s mini-series deals with the idea of the Wow! experience – literally an experience that makes you go ‘Wow! That was great!’ Later in the week we’ll look at the Wow! Awards which contain the most comprehensive examples, in the UK at least. First,  I wanted to share my own recent Wow! that shows that sometimes it’s the little things – the basics, you might say – that make a customer experience superior.

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