Saturday February 2, 2013
Leadership and all that jazz
Review by CHOO LI-HSIAN
Title: Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz
Author: Frank J. Barrett
Publisher: Harvard Business Review Press
AN old friend who introduced me to the genre told me that good jazz music is essentially a conversation between the musicians. He shared that jazz musicians do not typically play for the benefit of an audience, but are really playing for themselves.
This may sound rather self-indulgent but perhaps when people stay true to their own vision even as they collaborate with others, they stand a greater chance of being happy and are able to contribute more effectively to a greater cause.
In a jazz trio performance featuring the piano, drums and double bass, he pointed out that we would typically hear the musicians playing together before they each go “wandering off for a walk” on their own; eventually coming back to jam again with the rest of the instruments.
This unique way of working together has led to many interesting jazz tunes being created from the innovative interpretations and eclectic expressions of a particular piece.
Needless to say, I was very intrigued when I came across Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz, a book by Frank J. Barrett, an accomplished jazz pianist and also professor of management and global public policy at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.
I guess it is not such a stretch to compare the two seemingly separate spaces of jazz and leadership. After all, we already have business books that talk about how everything you really need to know was learnt in kindergarten; what the mafia can teach legitimate businessmen; and even a book on how you can apply lessons from the occult (termed as “management magick”) to corporate life (yes, I kid you not).
The operative word that ties the two topics together is improvisation. Barrett reasons that when faced with complexity and constant change in today’s workplace, the world’s best business leaders and teams will need to improvise. They need to invent novel responses on the fly-and-take calculated risks without having a premeditated plan or a safety net of specific outcomes.
This is exactly what great jazz musicians do. Barrett feels that there is much we can learn from the improvisational yet collaborative “jazz mind-set” whether we are jazz lovers or not. Like skilled jazz players, business leaders need to master the art of unlearning, perform and experiment simultaneously, and take turns soloing and supporting each other.
Barrett uses jazz improvisation as a touch point to outline seven principles that he thinks can help us nurture strategic improvisation and innovation within an organisation. These seven principles make up the book’s chapter titles:
· All That Jazz: Mastering the Art of Unlearning (a call to guard against the seduction of routines);
· Yes to the Mess: Developing Affirmation Competence (that explains how human beings perform best when they are open to the world, able to notice what is needed, and equipped with the skills to respond meaningfully in the moment);
· Performing and Experimenting Simultaneously: Embracing Errors as a Source of Learning (the importance of creating a culture of learning without a fear of failure);
· Minimal Structure – Maximum Autonomy: Balancing Freedom and Constraints (fostering a flexible organisational structure that has just enough constraints but is still able to encourage diversity);
· Jamming and Hanging Out: Learning by Doing and Talking (how organisations need to create room for corporate “jam sessions” as well as deliberately design for happy accidents and unexpected discoveries);
· Taking Turns Soloing and Supporting: Followership as a Noble Calling (explores the often overlooked importance of good followership – what jazz musicians call “comping”);
· and Leadership as Provocative Competence: Nurturing Double (on that very special leadership skill needed to help leaders see a person’s or group’s potential even if it is not being fulfilled in that moment; so that they can introduce incremental disruptions to encourage people to leave their comfort zones and try something unfamiliar).
In each chapter, Barrett alternates between fascinating stories of jazz greats like Oscar Peterson, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins; and anecdotes of global organisations operating in a wide range of industries from manufacturing and the military to customer service and cutting-edge technology.
In doing so, he provides great insights into the culture of the jazz music creature as well as the character of the present day corporate animal.
We can conclude that the world today is a tough place for organisations. As Barrett shares, “Big goofs end up on YouTube but even modest mistakes can go viral in hours and take months to overcome. Products and services are almost instantly replicable; competition is ferocious and likely to emerge from any point in the compass; and thus price points, margins and market share evaporate overnight.”
Organisations have to increasingly take inventive approaches to survive in the new economy.
The book notes how management guru Peter Drucker initially imagined the 21st century leader as “an orchestra conductor who, following a prescripted score, coaxes great performances out of an orchestra not necessarily composed of great musicians.”
Drucker said that “adequate talent would do as long as musicians produced at their peak after rehearsing same passage in the symphony again and again until the first clarinet plays it the way the conductor hears it.”
Barrett rationalises instead that this conductor metaphor fails to account for the enormous ambiguity and turbulence in the current environment. He draws thoughts from management scholar Karl Weick’s influential paper Improvisation as a Mindset for Organisational Analysis to argue that modern organisations actually consist of “a group of diverse specialists who, under great duress, make fast, irreversible decisions, are highly interdependent, are dedicated to creation and novelty, and act with little certainty where it’s all going to end up.”
Companies in our day are built more like frantic field hospitals where wounds and diseases are constantly novel and the conditions chaotic (versus controlled and sterile operating rooms); a night of improvised stand-up comedy (versus a scripted TV situation comedy); or a sports legend that delivers inspired and creative moves in a critical game, moves that do not form the standard playbook of near-infinite permutations and combinations on basic formations.
Barrett cleverly draws upon jazz metaphors to show us how the challenge of playing jazz is actually very close to many of the challenges that business executives now face. He hopes that executives will glean useful insights from the book about the choices and activities that jazz improvisers make as well as how we can be spontaneous and find that special balance between constraints and experimentation in public performances.
Yes to the Mess with its principles of jazz thinking and jazz performance provides those of us who lead or work with corporate teams with a truly different take on things. Next time you are listening to a favourite standard from Ella or Ellington, you may like to chew on how leadership relates to all that jazz.