Surprising Leadership Lessons From Jazz

I just finished reading a delightful book called Yes to the Mess by Frank J. Barrett. In the face of complexity and constant change, Barrett observes that the world’s best leaders and teams improvise: They invent novel responses, and take calculated risks, without a scripted plan and without a safety net. They say “yes to the mess”–similar to Chicago improv theater actors, who are taught to say “Yes, and…” to accept and embrace what their partners suggest, and to build on it and drive the scene forward, even while no one knows where it’s going or what will happen next.

In my own 2007 book Group Genius, I make many of the same points about how creative collaboration is often highly improvisational. But unlike me, Barrett is a professional jazz pianist and has even played with the Tommy Dorsey orchestra. And Barrett was one of the first management scholars to note the parallels between improv and business: inspired by the management guru Karl Weick, he organized a 1995 panel at AOM, the annual management scholars’ meeting, and he contributed to an influential 1998 issue of the journal Organization Science. So I’ve been waiting for this book for a long time!

Barrett writes:

Jazz bands actually are organizations designed for innovation, and the design elements from jazz can be applied to other organizations seeking to innovate. Jazz bands…require a commitment to a mind-set, a culture, practices and structures, and a leadership framework that is strikingly similar to what it takes to foster innovation in organizations.

Since Barrett’s 1995 panel at the AOM conference, several business books have appeared that draw parallels between jazz and business. The first was John Kao’s Jamming (1996); there’s also my own 2007 book Group Genius, Patricia Ryan Madson’s Improv Wisdom, and last year’s book by Josh Linkner, Disciplined Dreaming. (And some others I’m forgetting about right now…) So what’s new in Barrett’s book? His treatment overlaps quite a bit with these prior works, but his contribution is to draw out the improvisation metaphor with seven principles in seven chapters:

  1. Master the art of unlearning; guard against the tendency toward routine and structure. Deliberately disrupt routines.
  2. Welcome complexity, ambiguity, and uncertainty, by learning how to make “affirmative moves” that drive the situation forward, trusting in the process of group emergence that something positive will emerge.
  3. Perform and experiment simultaneously. What results is unexpected, and often is a “mistake.” Nurture a culture of enlightened trial and error. Embrace failure. (This one reminds me of design thinking.)
  4. Aim for guided autonomy: just the right balance of structure and improvisation. Tolerate dissent and debate.
  5. Jam and hang out. Organizations need to create room for jam sessions, to design for serendipity, by fostering “opportunistic conversations.”
  6. Learn both soloing and supporting. Accompanying others, or “comping,” is a form of followership.
  7. Leaders should practice “provocative competence”–incremental disruption that forces people out of their comfort zones, provoking “learning vulnerability”–moments when people are exploring the unfamiliar.

These are fascinating new concepts, perfectly targeted at business leaders who need to foster greater collaboration and innovation. As Barrett says,

This new era demands focusing on teams rather than individuals…. Leaders must master the art of learning while doing….build a capacity to experiment, learn, and innovate…engage in strategic, engaged improvisation.

This is an engaging and well-written book. If you’re drawn to the jazz and business metaphor, and you’ve enjoyed prior books on this subject, you should add this one to your collection.

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