News media teams can use collective improvisation to solve complex challenges

By Scott Matter


Sydney, Australia

In our product and technology team, our mission is to build products that create a sustainable future for independent journalism in Australia. One of our core practices to achieve that is strategic design. We identify and explore opportunities for new products and services beyond what we have in the market today.

When we’re in product strategy mode, we deal with complex problems, and solving a complex problem often requires approaching it from multiple angles at once. Fortunately, we have specialists  —  product directors, designers, researchers, analysts, and technologists of many types  —  to work with.

There are lots of ways specialists can work together. In some cases, it makes sense to break up the work and solve pieces independently, joining them together when the individual specialists have done their bit.

News media teams can harness the power of collective improvisation — common in jazz — to develop creative solutions.
News media teams can harness the power of collective improvisation — common in jazz — to develop creative solutions.

But this kind of division of labour can be risky. It can introduce or reinforce silos, and it can lead to divergent solutions that are difficult to reconcile, especially when the problem is complex or ambiguous. It also often takes a long time to arrive at a solution.

We try to minimise those risks by applying the principle that “none of us is as smart as all of us” and working through direct collaboration. We use lots of specific techniques when we collaborate, but underneath them all is a process of collective improvisation. Basically, we work like a band : Everyone plays their own instruments, together. But we don’t play pre-written music. We jam.

What is “collective improvisation?”

Probably the most familiar form of improvisation in music is when a soloist takes centre stage while the rest of a group plays a support role. This is common in lots of musical genres  —  from jazz to the guitar solos of blues, rock, and metal, and also in freestyle rap.

But solos don’t help us with our problem of getting a group of specialists to collaborate most effectively. Even when members of a group take turns soloing, the process is more like the divide-and-conquer silo approach we’re trying to avoid. And while solos are great, they are also often routine ; they don’t diverge far from the musical structure of the song in which they’re played. When we’re trying to solve complex problems, we need to open up to very different possibilities, so we want to avoid being too constrained by ordinary thinking.

Collective improvisation is different. Rather than individual players showing off their skills as they take turns in the lead, a group of musicians all improvise at the same time. This can take a few different forms. In old school New Orleans jazz, the art of simultaneous embellishment produces a distinct sound (polyphonic improvisation, if you want to get technical) while allowing the group to stick to a pre-determined musical structure. (Here’s a cool video from the Jazz at Lincoln Centre Jazz Academy to hear and see what that sounds like.)

At the other end of the spectrum, free jazz gives all the players almost complete freedom. Sometimes this leads to what sounds like total chaos, and at other times it leads to ground-breaking albums like this one by the Ornette Coleman Double Quartet.

When we collaborate, we want to end up somewhere between minor embellishment and total chaos, while still getting to new, unexpected places from our starting point. What we’re after is something more like the extended, full-band improvisation you’ll find at a live show in the (mostly American) jam band scene. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s a useful metaphor. (Full disclosure: It’s not always my cup of tea, but when it’s Phish, it definitely is.)

While these shows do include a lot of solo improv  —  noodly guitar solos are a hallmark  —  the highlights are the unpredictable occasions when a single song turns into something else, sometimes for a few minutes and sometimes for 30 or more minutes.

It doesn’t always work. But when it does, band members shift gears, pivot, accelerate or decelerate, change elevation, and lock into a new groove as if they are sharing a single brain while using multiple bodies to play different instruments. It’s this ability to move together from a known starting point into the unknown and arrive at something magical that we want to emulate.

This kind of jamming works best with a lot of practice. I don’t mean that in the sense of rehearsals, where the band memorises and perfects music for performance, but in terms of intentionally training together to use specialised skills in complementary ways. One example of a practice technique is a game Phish calls “include your own hey.” It starts out with one member playing a pattern, then each member adding to it in turn, trying to find his place in the mix without any pre-defined position from which to anchor.

What happens next is the cool part:

“We’re all listening to each other. Now, only when you hear that all the other musicians have stopped searching, once you hear they’ve locked in with what you’re playing, you say, ‘Hey!’ So, since we’re still listening so intently to each other, we should all say ‘hey’ at the same time, but if we don’t  —  if someone says ‘hey’ when you’re still searching, they’ve basically just told you, ‘I’m not listening to you.’ So we found, very quickly that it meant you had to always be listening to three people other than yourself. And the music, we found, improved immensely by not navel-gazing. So now the idea is, I’m not paying any attention to myself at all. I’m just responding to what they’re playing.”

With collective improvisation in a jam, what you’ve got is people who have learned their instrument, practiced like mad to get really good with it, and learned to listen to other players and their instruments. And if you do it really well, you end up with something that sounds perfectly planned — but is entirely unscripted.

Keys to collective improvisation in strategic design

There are at least three keys to success in collective improvisation: openness, trust, and practice.

Approaching this kind of work with an open mind is important because it helps us to remember to listen. When we collaborate well, new insights about the problems we’re tackling and new ideas for great solutions can come from anyone. If we’re open and listening, we avoid discounting what might seem like scary, silly, or just unconventional thinking.

Trust is also crucial. Only when collaborators trust one another will they really open up and take the kind of risks we sometimes need to take to break out of stubborn mental patterns. When building trust, it helps to acknowledge we will inevitably be wrong about a lot of things. And there’s no shame in being wrong. When we recognise what’s wrong, we can more quickly get our heads around what might be right.

A third key is practice. If you’re not ready to commit to this kind of radical collaboration on a big project with high stakes, consider picking up a smaller, low stakes side project and experimenting with different ways of working. This could be as small as a turning a single meeting or workshop into a collaboration game.

"Gamestorming" is one tool media companies can use to discover fresh ideas.
"Gamestorming" is one tool media companies can use to discover fresh ideas.

One of my favourite resources for practice activities is Gamestorming by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, and James Macanufo. Whatever outcome you need to achieve, there’s a game for it. And the introduction offers a really great framework for when to choose certain kinds of games.

In my next contribution, I’ll show collective improvisation in action through a series of product strategy sprints. In the meantime, I encourage you to get started with your own jams.

About Scott Matter