Theses Doctoral

An Agile Musicology: Improvisation in Corporate Management and Lean Startups

Ford, Mike

The last decade of the twentieth century saw a proliferation of publications that use jazz as a metaphor for corporate management, arguing that in the contemporary knowledge economy, jazz is superior to the symphonic model that governed mid-century factory floors. As the literature on the jazz metaphor, and organizational improvisation more broadly, continued to develop into the twenty-first century, another managerial methodology became widely adopted by entrepreneurs: agile. While agile is yet to be fully theorized as an improvisatory practice, agile shares several core tenets with the models promoted by organizational improvisation scholars, including the use of small teams, an emphasis on feedback, and an openness to change. In this dissertation, I argue that agile methods, and the adjacent lean methodology, are inherently improvisatory and that understanding them as improvisatory offers opportunities not only for their deployment within growing businesses, but also for adoption at-scale in large corporations.

I draw on an array of disciplinary perspectives, including management science, organizational studies, musicology, and critical improvisation studies, as well as a wide range of sources, from peer-reviewed journal publications to trade manuals. Each chapter builds upon the former: a substantial and critical review of the jazz metaphor literature is followed by a dissection of its main themes under a musicological lens; after securing the foundations of organizational improvisation, the next chapter reveals the improvisatory nature of agile and lean startup practices and links them to concepts discussed within the jazz metaphor literature. Drawing on insights from large-scale improvisatory musical practices, the final chapter reveals how improvisation, as a set of practices shared between corporate management and agile methodologies, provides avenues for agile to be scaled up as startups grow or for its widespread adoption within established companies.


  • thumnail for Ford_columbia_0054D_16970.pdf Ford_columbia_0054D_16970.pdf application/pdf 2.54 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Lewis, George E.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
December 15, 2021