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.

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