Social Intrapreneurism and All That Jazz

Social Intrapreneurism and All That Jazz
Melody McLaren By

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[Social intrapreneurs and jazz musicians share a] sense of aliveness... a strong sense of curiosity... a history of hard work...astute listening and observational powers, an ability to communicate with others... [and] a passion for ‘quality'.
The power of great jazz musicians to connect with others and convey musical "stories" is the centrepiece of a new book on business innovators addressing global social problems.

Social Intrapreneurism and All That Jazz (Greenleaf Publishing, March 2014) by Prof. David Grayson, Melody McLaren and Prof. Heiko Spitzeck uses the language and lessons of jazz improvisation to bring to life a rich array of stories, insights and practical tips collected from interview research with "social intrapreneurs"—corporate innovators who are developing new products, services and business models that address a range of social and environmental problems around the world whilst creating commercial value for their companies.

The book also features 20 jazz photos by Melody McLaren which were used to illustrate key points in the book and are online here.

The following is an edited excerpt from the Introduction chapter.

What does jazz have to do with social intrapreneurism?

Our references to jazz music, both in the title of this book and at various points in the text, have emerged from discoveries we made during the course of our research that paralleled the experiences of two amateur jazz pianists in our extended working community: Melody McLaren, a Doughty Centre research associate co-authoring this book, and Lionel Bodin, a senior manager at Accenture Development Partnerships, supporters of the League of Intrapreneurs.

As McLaren describes it:

"During the period of our Doughty Centre team's research on social intrapreneurs I was, by coincidence, also spending a lot of time with great jazz musicians. Whether I was listening to their performances in concerts or jam sessions, being tutored by them in jazz workshops or just conversing with them, I was struck by their aliveness, their connectedness with other musicians and the power of their musical 'storytelling.' When I was in a room with these people, I didn't want to leave.

I had similar experiences when I was interviewing social intrapreneurs. Their accounts of their lives and the development of their projects conveyed a strong sense of connectedness, not only with what was happening in their businesses, but also with issues and events in the wider world including poverty, social exclusion and environmental degradation, along with their innovative practical solutions for tackling them. Whether they were describing project successes or failures or simply describing their day-to-day experiences, I had the sense that these people were very much alive. I could have listened to them for hours without losing interest in what they had to say.

That sense of aliveness was the initial common thread between these two groups. Later on it became apparent that they shared other qualities—a strong sense of curiosity that emboldened them to take risks, a history of hard work to learn and perfect their 'craft,' astute listening and observational powers, an ability to communicate with others in a compelling way and, above all, a passion for 'quality.'"

During many discussions between the authors, Melody would often explain a point she was making with reference to her jazz experiences. To communicate these ideas to the research team in a more concise way, she began using terms such as 'woodshedding' (solitary practice to improve technical skills), 'comping' (accompanying, or providing support for, others), 'soloing' (putting your own ideas forward), 'being a sideman' (contributing to a group in which you are not the official leader but a supporting team member) and 'paying your dues' (contributing to your immediate team/community, thereby earning the trust of others). While some of these jazz colloquialisms, which are numerous, are no longer in current use by jazz musicians, they nevertheless resonated with our team, other colleagues and social intrapreneurs with whom we shared our ideas.

When we began to analyse in great depth the interviews with individual social intrapreneurs and later on with their colleagues who helped create the 'enabling environment' for social intrapreneurism, parallels between the worlds of jazz musicians and social intrapreneurs became increasingly explicit. While some of the terms we use in this book (e.g. godparent) have, to our knowledge, no equivalents in the jazz lexicon, the resonances between the worlds of jazz and social intrapreneurism were sufficiently strong that we decided to introduce jazz metaphors to describe many of the ideas that emerged from our research.

1. Social intrapreneurism is not a solo act. Our interviews underscored the point that successful social intrapreneurism is a group (vs. individual) activity. Intrapreneurism and entrepreneurism are distinctly different in this respect. Nothing of significance can be achieved by a single person working alone inside a company, however heroic their efforts. There is simply too much to do.


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