Life Can Be Like Playing Without Sheet Music

Classical musicians possess a number of enviable qualities such as discipline, precision and attention to detail.

In a symphonic setting, they play the notes from the musical score with incredible accuracy, commanding their instruments to play precisely what the composer has documented. Intricate details such as attack and release, volume, tempo and vibrato are carefully executed according to the detailed plans notated on their sheet music.

But what happens when the sheet music gets lost? Or the ensemble takes an unexpected turn? What if the musician was required to deliver a stunning performance but had conflicting instructions and objectives? What if there was more ambiguity than order?

Welcome to life, circa 2013.

In today’s complex and fast-moving environment, the classical metaphor has lost its potency. In the past, employees (classical musicians) could achieve success by simply doing exactly what they were told to do by the boss (the composer).

Their job was to faithfully deliver what was instructed, without variance. This may have been a good strategy 30 years ago, but to achieve in these challenging times you need a radically different approach.

Today, you’d better think of yourself as a jazz musician.

Jazz musicians succeed by improvising; innovating in real time. Less than 1% of the notes a jazz musician plays are printed on the sheet music. Instead of following detailed instructions, jazz cats invent their art on the fly. They are skilled at listening to input from the audience (customers) and other musicians (colleagues), and are ready to adapt in an instant. They are regularly dealt seemingly insurmountable problems but rise to the challenge.

Jazz culture supports risk taking, fresh thinking and scrappiness.

When a classical musician who is accustomed to playing only what is on the page is faced with uncertainty or ordered to take a hard left turn by his or her conductor, they freeze like deer in the headlights. Jazz musicians on the other hand, live for these challenges and do their best work when forced to forge new ground.

Too many of us approach our careers and companies from a classical perspective, when what’s really being called for is to play free jazz.

The need to tackle complex challenges without a detailed operating manual is today’s norm, so you will need to invent some new riffs if you hope to succeed. The best entrepreneurs, parents, community leaders, business executives and professionals embrace the need to make the most of every situation, even when instructions are sorely lacking.

Examine your own approach, and don’t be afraid to explore the realm of the unwritten. It’s time to overcome your obstacles by unleashing your imagination. It’s time to forge ahead despite uncertainty. It’s time to jam.