Organizing Intuition and Playful Practice: The Jazz Band Metaphor Revisited

This research essay is authored by Hannes Henzinger, student in the master program Organization Studies at Universität Innsbruck.

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift
and the rational mind is a faithful servant.
We have created a society that honors the servant
and has forgotten the gift.” (Albert Einstein)

Preservation Hall Jazz band (Foto:  Infrogmation, CC-BY-SA 3.0)
Preservation Hall Jazz band (Foto: Infrogmation, CC-BY-SA 3.0)

A common narrative in today’s organization and management literature is that this world, especially the world of business, has become increasingly complex and unpredictable. Not just the scope, also the velocity of change has increased. Such a dramatic shift in the image of the environment seems to ask for an abandonment of old organizational practices. Not just bureaucracy seems outdated. Even stable strategies, routines, and planning are running the risk of falling short of what is needed to react timely and adaptively in this new environment. This narrative calls for a reconstruction of the practice of organizing, “new models and metaphors are needed for organizing” (Barrett, 1998, p. 605). The metaphor of a jazz band, introduced by Karl Weick, is a particularly catchy one. With an allusion to peak performance, like a “flow” experience (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990), it elegantly charms the reader into seeing jazz aspects in organizing and decision making. Beyond the lessons that are elaborated on in the article by Barrett (1998) the metaphor offers two further potentially valuable aspects, that, although foundational to the metaphor, often go unnoticed: the role of intuition in organizing and decision making and playful practice.

Intuition plays a pivotal role in music. Music is conceived of as less of a rational practice than a creative process guided by intuition. Especially when improvising and composing on the go musicians feel ahead, rather than think ahead, to decide what to play next. At first appearance it may seem ironic to suggest this as a model for what has been deeply associated with rational thinking. But in recent times intuition has become something of a buzzword and its role in our decision making has become the focus of scientific scrutiny. The message that unconscious processes seem to have much more say in what we do than our rational mind seems to gain acceptance and calls into question whether rationality really does dominate in organizations. Science looking into the matter has found that intuition is in fact much relied upon in business decisions. Gigerenzer (2013) surveyed managers in the technology and the automotive industry. Middle level managers report to rely on their intuition in about half of their decisions. The higher the level, the more intuitive the decision making becomes. Higher level managers rely on it in most of time. Just like jazz musicians they play as they go and trust their gut feeling about what will be the right thing to do. The higher the level the less this use of intuition has to be concealed. While at lower levels decisions have to be justified by constructing a rational retrospectively, or to convince others, that seems to be less important for top level managers. This begs the question if all of our decisions are made by our intuition. We may vary simply in the degrees of how much we admit this, even to ourselves. A lot seems to point in this direction. Even people specializing on rational decision making seem to openly ditch it for intuition when it comes to high stakes, personal matters. We listen to our heart in romantic matters and we often go by our first impression on the opinion we hold on someone. Sometimes even on rather rational matters: Harry Markowitz got the 1990 Nobel Prize in economics for a complicated formula for investment diversification, called the Mean-Variance-Portfolio. However, he himself used a different formula for his own investments: the simple heuristic 1/N (Gigerenzer, 2013, p 126-7). So upon closer inspection the business world seems to resemble jazz improvisation more than we might have thought.

So what then is this secret power broker determining so much of our lives and business? What is intuition? Is it a supernatural sense? The voice of God? No. It is what Gendlin (1969) might call a “felt-sense”, Damasio (1994) may say “somatic markers”, a gut feeling about something that guides our actions without us being able to rationally explain the deeper causes. It is a form of unconscious intelligence. Whether it is a fast and unconscious processing of a plethora of information that our conscious mind could not handle, or whether it is based in simple, yet effective rules, called heuristics, or a mix of both, is still a matter of debate. What is pretty clear though is that it is not a voice from a mysterious infallible knowledge pool, but it is a function of our nervous system that is shaped by past experience.

That means that intuition can be influenced, can be shaped or trained. A lot of practical experience makes people experts and usually endows them with a good intuition in their subject matter. However, there is no guarantee for that result. To quote Kurt Tucholsky: “Experience does not mean anything. You can do the same thing for 35 years and still do it badly.”
So how can we increase the chances of educating our intuition instead of being taken in by it time and time again? On this subject I would like to consult the metaphor of a jazz band again. The metaphor presupposes a high skill level of all the band members. Its tacit premise thus is practice. Enduring, long, arduous practice to master the instrument and get a feeling for music. After that the musicians start practicing improvisation. Without putting in the practice the music will stay at the level of a teenage garage band jam session. This of course does not mean that that garage band cannot get better with practice – many of the greatest bands have started out playfully exploring their instruments and having fun.

It is here that playfulness comes into the equation. In order to keep practicing, to hang in there, and to do it in a flexible exploratory manner, it has to be enjoyable. We have to be drawn to it and be willing to make mistakes and learn from them. Pressure or fear are a hindrance in this kind of learning. Play is voluntary, intrinsically motivated activity associated with enjoyment. Play is not narrowly set on a specific goal. This opens the player up for a different approach towards errors. They are not necessarily bad, they are just an outcome outside of the “cone of expectation” (Austin, Devin & Sullivan, 2012), an opportunity to learn. Play is an important learning mechanisms of animals with complex nervous systems, especially in childhood and adolescence. Its main function may be to create an abundance of stimulus-reaction-feedback loops that enable the nervous system to fine tune its functions and adjust its strategies to be adaptive to the environment. This is how intuition is shaped. Our intuitions are in fact quite malleable. Researches have even succeeded in creating “sixth senses”. After wearing a vibrational belt with the element pointing north always vibrating slightly, test persons developed an intuitive sense about their position in relations to several points of reference e.g. their apartment (Riener & Ferscha, 2008). This illustrates the power of our brain in forming intuitive solutions to challenges involving even novel stimuli.

Is there a way we can capitalize on this knowledge about the educability of intuition in order to better prepare our organizations for the fast changing, complex and unpredictable business world that we apparently live in? Just I case this is sounding like an easy task to accomplish, I have to call to attention that, despite its many parallels, the metaphor of a jazz band is in some aspects incommensurable with an organization. In the forming of intuitions one thing is of high importance: a clear and fast feedback to our actions. In fields where people can reliably reach a high level of intuitive proficiency this feedback is more readily available than in others. Jazz musicians immediately hear their music. In organizations, in strategic decision making, and even in social collaboration there is a higher degree of ambiguous or postponed feedback. This situation does do not easily lend itself to an effective education of intuition.

To invent contexts where relevant feedback can be provided sooner and combine that with an atmosphere that encourages playful practice, however, seems to be a promising challenge for organizational development. The fact that we can forge an orientational sixth sense may be an encouragement here. Creating conditions that approximate a jazz improvisation context may very well be an interesting starting point. At the very least, the endeavor may serve to use the “faithful servant” to remember and honour the “sacred gift”. Maybe Einstein was right and that is the way it was meant to be.


  • Austin, R. D., Devin, L., & Sullivan, E. E. (2012). Accidental innovation: Supporting valuable unpredictability in the creative process. Organization Science, 23(5), 1505-1522.
  • Barrett, F. J. (1998). Creativity and improvisation in jazz and organizations: implications for organizational learning. Organization Science, 9, 605-620.
  • Beckman, S. L., & Barry, M. (2007). Innovation as a learning process: Embedding design thinking. California management review, 50(1), 25-56.
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal performance. NY: Cambridge UniversityPress.
  • Damasio, A. R. (1994). Descartes’ error. London: Papermac.
  • DeFillippi, R., Grabher, G., & Jones, C. (2007). Introduction to paradoxes of creativity: managerial and organizational challenges in the cultural economy. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 28(5), 511-521.
  • Gendlin, E. T. (1982). Focusing. Bantam.
  • Gigerenzer, G. (2013). Risiko: Wie man die richtigen Entscheidungen trifft. C. Bertelsmann Verlag.
  • Riener, A., & Ferscha, A. (2008). Raising awareness about space via vibro-tactile notifications. In Smart Sensing and Context (pp. 235-245). Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

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