February 2015 | Volume 8, Issue #4    
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Energize Your Improvement Artists with Jazzthink
Provocative Jazz Quote of the Month
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The phrase in the title – 'improvement artists' – came to me as I was re-wording the website for this new focus on provoking flourishing nonprofits. Here are some thoughts on what it means to me.


Artistry, according to Rotman School of Business adjunct professor Hilary Austen, is "the ability to harness originality and mastery to enhance performance and help solve today's most demanding problems." I've just begun to read her book, Artistry Unleashed: A Guide to Pursuing Great Performance in Work and Life (2013) and will keep you posted on further insights.


Austen draws creatively on Donald Schön's work. He's the expert in professional education who alerted me to conversations being a form of jazz. Schön, especially in his classic, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action (1983), argues that artistry is at the heart of complex professions that require practitioners to be unusually adept at handling situations of uncertainty, uniqueness, and conflict. That describes perfectly the context for all the practitioners of nonprofit leadership and management that I know.


My own take on leadership/management artistry, shaped by the model of jazz, is this:


Artistry is a promising level of mastery in creatively combining the instincts and insights of a team to generate a performance that benefits all who are touched by its impact, then learning how to improve that mastery for the next performance.


Practitioners of nonprofit leadership/management all need to be developing this kind of artistry in improvement, one conversation after another. It's the only way flourishing organizations are developed.



Here are four of the most pressing problems I'm hearing from my nonprofit colleagues: 

  • uncertainty about funding sources and stability
  • unprecedented challenges in the design and delivery of services
  • unrest among board members around the clarity of success factors
  • unchallenged assumptions about staff positions and responsibilities

Improvement artists will be realistic about the negative potential in these situations, but will not stay stuck there. They will, instead, be adept at recalling quickly their positive aspirations for their nonprofit and be agile in forming questions that open up enhanced and expanded possibilities for overcoming these challenges.


Here is a three-step process for practicing improvement artistry that you might try this month. Invite your three most valued colleagues to lunch one day and invite them into a conversation focused on these questions:

  1. What aspiration is most important to nourish in our organization in the next month?
  2. What possibilities can we imagine in the next twenty minutes of conversation for nourishing that aspiration?
  3. What possibility will we work on together in the next month?
  4. What will I do to further that possibility and what support would benefit me most?

This process builds on the power of curiosity to expand our intellectual horizons, engage our emotional commitments, and draw on our instinctive strengths. Give it a try and let me know how it works. Just e-mail me at fraser@jazzthink.com.


Rich blessings to you as you hone and enhance your abilities to solve today's most demanding problems by overwhelming them with possibilities.







Energize Your Improvement Artists with



This is a new phrase that came to me as I began to explore a variety of writings on artistry and creativity, such as those mentioned in the lead article this month. Everyone on the board, on the staff, and in the volunteer and support communities of your nonprofit is an improvement artist, using their voices in the call and response of the conversations that co-create your nonprofits' impact in its circles of influence. That's what's going on in the Jazzthink logo, wonderfully painted by BC artist Colin Righton. Strong, capable people coming together in conversation to generate a positive energy that changes the world.


As you clarify and refine purpose, bring people together to collaborate, explore possibilities for improvements, and compose the processes that will make improvements happen, thinking about your work in jazz will enhance your engagement and effectiveness.


Our commitment at Jazzthink is to highlight the ideas, skills, and actions that will enhance your contributions as improvement artists to the success of your nonprofits. Your 'feedforward,' to borrow a new word from Marshall Goldsmith, is always welcome. E-mail me directly at fraser@jazzthink.com with challenges, tweaks, or affirmations to the possibilities proposed in these e-zines. 


Provocative Jazz Quote of the Month

The Academy Award nominated Selma is reminding us of the resilience of the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. Here's his take on the inspiration that he drew from jazz. I hope you find a similar inspiration for your time and place as an improvement artist.


Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life's difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. ...


... in the particular struggle of the Negro in America there is something akin to the universal struggle of modern man. Everybody has the Blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith.

In music, especially this broad category called Jazz, there is a stepping stone towards all of these.