Project management as an art form can learn a lot from Jazz Music – interpretation and improvisation being key…..

In jazz, the skilled performer will interpret a tune in very individual ways, never playing the same composition exactly the same way twice; depending upon the performer’s mood and personal experience, interactions with other musicians, or even members of the audience, a jazz musician may alter melodies, harmonies or time signature at will[i]

How does this relate to project management? The trend in project management seems to be going to a one size fits all model. It can either be Waterfall or Agile but it is playing the same tune the same way at every performance. Look at any recent job advertising for a Project Manager role and you are likely to see Prince 2 certification as requirement. Check with some companies and they are likely to have one standard delivery method for all their projects.


The problem with this approach is that it takes the project delivery method (Agile or Waterfall) as starting point for a project. Regardless of the type of project, the method and tools to manage the project are already pre-determined.

As Abraham Maslow pointed out: “If you only have a hammer you tend to see every problem as a nail.”[ii]


Projects are varied and complex undertakings as they deviate from the business-as-usual procedures in a company. Therefore it is not hard to understand the issues with over reliance on one single project delivery method.

Using the wrong project delivery method and tools significantly contributes to project failure. A PMI study finds that on average 36% of projects are unsuccessful.[i] That is a shocking number of projects that fail to deliver on time, on budget or meet the original goals, leading to great frustration for project stakeholders and project team members.

So what can Project Management learn from jazz music? Prince 2 and similar qualifications are like reading music notes for a musician. It gives a good foundation, but like reading musical notes it does not guarantee the music created is worth listening to.

The skilled project manager interprets the project in a very individual way and then decides on the composition. Based on these environmental inputs the project manager determines how to play the tune — in other words how to deliver the project.

Issues to consider

Here are some of the questions[ii] [iii] to establish the type of project a good project manager will consider before commencing:

  1. What is the end goal to be delivered as a result of the project? Extension/improvement or a new-to-the-world deliverable?
  1. Is the deliverable well defined or will exploration be part of the project?
  1. Is it clear how the deliverable will be created? Using existing technology or new technology?
  1. What are the specific artifacts that need to be created during the project?
  1. What is the length of the project runway? Is this a regular company project, mission critical project or is company survival in play?
  2. Who are the stakeholders and decision makers?
  3. Who is involved in delivery and what is the skill level of the project members?


Once the project manager has a grip on the type of project, he or she will determine the project delivery method by adjusting the following levers:

  1. Project process
  2. Project procedures
  3. Project structure
  4. Project people management style

The delivery method might either be based on Waterfall, Agile or Hybrid methodology. It is vital that it is based on the specific project environmental setting. The environment is different for most projects therefore the project delivery should be.

In conclusion, what can project management learn from jazz music?

Similar to jazz music, the skilled project performer will interpret a project in very individual ways, never playing the same composition exactly the same way twice.

About the author

Jeroen Visser is a New Product Development consultant who creates the right Jazz music for companies bringing new propositions and products to market.


[II] Abraham H. Maslow (1966). The Psychology of Science

[III] PMI pulse of the profession 2015

[IIII] Some articles in Project Contingency Theory (PCT); Situational project management take into account up 29 factors to evaluate.

[IIIII] Notes on project/program typologies By Alan Stretton PhD