Want to drive creativity? Improvise!

As a jazz musician, I’ve always believed that strengthening your ability to improvise can boost creativity whether or not you play an instrument. That’s why the workshops I do on creativity and innovation always include exercises in improvisation. No wonder a recent article titled “Jazz improvisers score high on creativity” caught my attention.

Scientists at Wesleyan University posed creativity challenges to 12 jazz musicians, 12 classical musicians, and 12 non-musicians, e.g. brainstorming uses for a paper clip. The participants then listened to three different types of chord progressions: familiar ones, some that were a bit unusual, and some that were totally unpredictable. Their brain waves were recorded with an electroencephalogram (EEG); the participants then rated how much they liked each chord progression.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the jazz musicians demonstrated “markedly different neural sensitivity to unexpected musical stimuli” (that’s Ph.D. talk for “they preferred the unexpected progressions more than the other participants”). More importantly to organizations, this preference for the unexpected chords was “significantly correlated with behavioral measures of fluency and originality on the divergent thinking task” (that’s Ph.D. talk for “their paper clip ideas were more creative than the other participants”). The results suggest that improvisation may not only give jazz artists a creative advantage over other kinds of musicians but that “training to be receptive to the unexpected…can increase creativity in general.”

Does this mean you should start giving your team members jazz lessons? Probably not. But the connection between improvisation and creativity demonstrated by the study supports my long-standing belief that the more you practice improvising, the more creative (and more innovative) you are likely to be.

How will you challenge your team to break free of old thinking and explore new possibilities?