Turn a Conference Room Into a Jam Session

If the forum is created to allow and encourage innovative thinking, the creativity will unspool, and find its rightful place in the room, bringing with it crisp new ideas and myriad possibilities going forward. Just like musicians do, over and over.
09/08/2014 11:27 am ET Updated Nov 08, 2014

A jam session is, by its own definition, an organized mess, unscripted and unsuspecting. It starts somewhere and ends somewhere else. Songs find a groove and a beat and invite their makers to improvise from point a to point b, with as much deviation and derivation as talent allows. Players must always honor the groove and the purpose, but other than that, everyone is on their own.

Jazz is a series of great jam sessions. Or should we say, good jazz is anyway. The better the players, the greater the distance between melody and improvisation, between the established rhythms and their off-beats, between art and its bastard children. Spend a minute with John Coltrane's version of "My Favorite Things" and you'll hear how far away a player can go in pursuit of his distant muse, yet still find his way home. Jam bands like Dave Mathews and Phish follow similar guidelines.

The band members decide on a series of musical journeys they want to take during a concert and then set out to take them. A song that lasts 10 minutes one evening might take 40 minutes another, depending upon who gets inspired by what and for how long he wants the spotlight.

But in all jam sessions, certain principles override: The genius to listen to others while playing your own instrument. The joy of achieving a musical unity, somehow and somewhere down the line. A superior ability to improvise and interpret, on the spot, without much to rely on but instinct. A grasp of the technical skills. All of these concepts work exceptionally well in music, but they will also work in business settings where an executive is trying to get the most from his or her team.

Just like the musicians, top executives will inspire each other, not compete with one another. Interesting problems will arise so that interesting solutions can also arise. Issues that need discussion can be faced by the whole group -- listening to each other and working together to solve the conundrum. If the forum is created to allow and encourage innovative thinking, the creativity will unspool, and find its rightful place in the room, bringing with it crisp new ideas and myriad possibilities going forward. Just like musicians do, over and over.

Here are some questions to ask before the meeting begins. In these answers is where the executive team will find the direction of that day's jam session.

What Song Are We Playing?
Clearly identify what the point of the meeting is, its purpose and place, and what type of solutions are being sought. Like musicians agreeing on what song they will play, be certain of what you are after and what you want the room to chase. Like Art Pepper introducing the theme he wanted the rest of the players in his quartet to improvise around, everyone needs to know the tune.

Who Wants to Be the Big Dog?
Who will the first player to show his skills and acumens to the rest of the room? The first presentation should always be handled by the player best suited to this task. Who this is will change depending upon the song and the day and everyone should know that whoever it is, it takes a lot of courage to be first. The band should be looking forward to listening to what he/she is presenting. This individual will step up and set the bar for the rest of the band, being the first to come forward with good ideas, solvable problems, workable innovations, and interesting solutions.

How Much Time Do We Get?
Everyone involved in the meeting should take as much or as little time as they want to take. A good jam establishes its own pace, and operates most successfully without clear lines or boundaries. Everyone with an instrument has a right to take enough time to play and get ideas conceived, performed, explored and finalized. Time is a friend not an enemy. Tempo is a guideline not a restriction. Other musicians are partners not competitors. The room is full of teammates who can take the essence of any idea and turn it into a whole new and different direction.

Anyone Up For Trading Fours?
One of the other best moments in a good jam is when the players 'trade' ideas. Usually this is counted in measures, or bars. Four bars for one player, then four for another, then back again and back again, until that particular idea is exhausted. This is a great technique for the conference room where two individuals are back and forth with each other in a quick exchange of exploration and innovation of a particular theme or stream of consciousness. The bandleader takes the jam there and so should the executive. Want to change it up and keep the meeting alive and well, start trading fours.

Did You Hear That?
Listening to what the other players come up with in a jam session can be the most important contribution to what any other individual may create, only because in the details of others ideas are the inspirations for everyone else's details. There are no completely new ideas, so it is in the subtleties that the magic is found, and the only way to be sure to hear them is to be sure to listen to them. Clive Davis say that he is at his most creative when he LISTENS, not when he speaks and not when he gives direction to the producers and artists making his records. His inspiration begins when he lets the melodies and lyrics in, and thinks about them and processes them. Every musician in the room should start with a good long listen to what the other players have to offer, and find a starting point there.

A good jam session brings out the best and the brightness of all the musicians participating, and it should and will bring out the same in the executives and staff sitting in the conference room trying to identify great ideas for your company to use going forward. When in doubt, just jam.