BASF Jam Session

Many organizations are looking for new ways to be innovative, to generate and test ideas. As the world of business gets faster and budgets get tighter, the old methods seem too slow and too expensive. And there is a growing awareness that innovation should not be limited to laboratories and marketing departments, but must involve a diverse group of participants. With a wide range of views and experiences in the room, truly innovative and customer-centric ideas seem to flow much more easily. But how can a mixed group of specialists, generalists and amateurs work together creatively and efficiently, and be fast and cheap? One answer has been found in an unlikely place – when musicians jam. Spontaneous “jam” sessions first show up jazz in the 1920s, but musicians have created melodies and beats together for centuries without giving it a name. At a jam, musicians bring their instruments, but no agenda. They play together, listening carefully and responding to themes set up by another player, adding to the ideas, and building a wholly new piece of music which none of them could have built alone. They don’t discuss how it should be, what it might sound like, they just play their way forward. No-one spends time trying to predict which ideas will work, and which ones flop. Instead, they just throw the idea into the mix and see what happens. Often, the musicians themselves are surprised by the results of their “co-creation”.

Jams in organizations apply this same way of working to business issues. Instead of instruments, people bring a wide range of skills, experience and viewpoints. Given a goal or theme and a tight deadline, they form teams and plunge into a series of facilitated steps which will take them through a “mini” innovation process in just a day or so. Participants might do research to explore the problem, calling colleagues or interviewing passers buy. They will use creative techniques to generate hundreds of new ideas to fit the problems and opportunities they have discovered. Then, instead of debating which ideas might work best, they build rough prototypes, business models and concrete proposals which can be tested. Many will fail, but teams learn from the failure and iterate forward towards better and better results. And they are amazed by how much they get done. As one jammer said, “I don’t remember being so productive while having this much fun.”

At the end, the jam will have produced much more than just ideas. Participants quickly produce a range of evolved concepts or prototypes which can let decision makers choose to invest more time and continue the project. “Ideas are cheap”, says Adam Lawrence, experienced Jam facilitator. “Everything works in Idea-Land! But we can quickly move past ideas into deeper concepts and even prototypes. They tell us so much more.”

But jams have other effects too. They can give an organization a real boost in innovation culture by connecting innovative people in an informal, productive context and empowering them. As one public services jammer said, jams “expose a cross section of people to a different kind of thinking, building capacity to approach challenges in a different way.” And participants learn a set of new approaches and techniques which they can take back into everything they do. “It’s like mainlining the learning from months of project work in just hours”, said one project manager after his first Jam.

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