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.

Professional improvisers

I’ve just returned from presenting a keynote address at a conference at the University of Padua, in Padua, Italy: the title of the conference was “Improvisation: Between Technique and Spontaneity.”  The core idea of the conference was that the tension between technique and spontaneity is found in just about all expert and professional activity.  Professionals are “experts” because they’ve mastered a large set of routines and “cookbook” solutions to problems.  But that, alone, isn’t enough.  To be a master, you have to be able to improvisationally respond to the unexpected, to weave new cloth out of known solutions and routines.

Jazz musicians know this better than just about everyone.  To play jazz at a high level requires years of hard work and practice.  It’s a myth that jazz improvisation means “anything goes”–the technique, the routines, the shared cultural norms and communication practices are what allow the genius of the group to exceed the brilliance of any one individual.  That’s why the Padua conference had a strong jazz emphasis.  And, unusual for an academic conference, it was collaboratively organized by three different departments: education, philosophy, and linguistic, communication, and performing arts (I know, that last department name is a mouthful!)

In my talk, I described how experienced teachers also blend technique and spontaneity in the classroom.  I cited research that has discovered that experienced teachers improvise more than novice teachers; but, paradoxically, they also have mastered more standard routines than novice teachers.  Professional expertise, like jazz improvisation, requires both mastery of standard solutions and routines as well as improvisational ability.

Other highlights of the conference included talks by Andy Hamilton (a philosopher at Durham University), Tord Gustavsen (an internationally known jazz pianist and now a doctoral student at Oslo University), and Frank Barrett (at the business school at the Naval Postgraduate University).  And later that night, the Tord Gustavsen trio performed to a sold-out crowd of 600 people in the beautiful Auditorium Pollini.

Thanks to Marina Santi, the lead organizer, for this wonderful event!