Agile Melodies – Part I: Setting the Stage


Agile Melodies – Part I: Setting the Stage

Let’s start with a couple of scenarios.

black and white illustration of music conductor conducting an orchestra

Imagine that you’re sitting in the front row at the National Symphony. The lead violinist is in the final part of her solo piece of an exquisite concerto. The orchestra moves seamlessly with her every note, and the captivated audience is on the edge of their seats. Sensing the energy, the conductor gestures for the soloist to play longer. He’s thinking, “We have a great thing going, so let’s keep developing it.”

However, the written musical score calls for the rest of the orchestra to transition to another section. Not knowing what to do, several musicians try to return to the start of the solo part. Others go to the beginning of the entire piece. Some musicians freeze altogether. Finally, the entire performance falls apart.

Now imagine that you’re sitting in a jazz club. A saxophonist has been onstage soloing for several minutes without looking at a single page of music. The music builds and builds as the audience leans forward in their chairs.

black and white illustration of a live band with a glass of red wine sitting at a table

The saxophonist is reaching the end of the chord progression, but he hardly has to make eye contact with his band members to signal that he’s going to keep playing. The rest of the band knows exactly what his look means: “Follow me back to the top of the chord progression, and we’ll keep playing until we know we have arrived at the best possible conclusion to our beautiful musical creation.”

Why does the orchestra struggle in the face of change, while the jazz band thrives?

If you’re familiar with software development trends and haven’t forgotten that you’re actually reading a blog on software, not music, then you probably know where this analogy is going. I want to explore why the orchestra (playing in a “waterfall” style) can’t handle responding to change, whereas the “agile” jazz combo expects it and excels in it.

“Improvisation” is hardly an exercise in playing at random with a bunch of other musicians. Although a jazz performance doesn’t traditionally call for sheet music, there are a few sacred rules that dictate exactly when and how performers navigate the instances of change that allow their bands to deliver well-coordinated performances from very rough concepts of tune.

In the same sense, you can empower your team to work fluidly with change and to adapt solutions for relevant, continuously evolving issues. In the next blog, we’ll explore how having a few “sacred,” inviolable rules governing the music (or work!) gives the entire team the structure they need to perform dynamically — and over the course of this series, we’ll dive deeper into the similarities between jazz and agile development to uncover even more underlying principles that make it all work.