Jam sessions

Lessons business leaders can learn from jazz

I grew up with jazz. My older brother (now traveling the universe) was an amazing self-taught drummer. His best friend (now a pediatric cardiologist) played courageous jazz piano. So after school and all weekend these two were carrying on in our living room, with usually pleasing results. Or they might have been down in the basement rec room with the latest Miles Davis LP.  If they joined other jazz musicians and actually landed a gig, I was in a folding metal chair at the edge of the group, sitting next to my brother’s girlfriend, both of us ignored until the show was over, of course.

I pretty much took that all for granted. In school, after many semesters of studying communication, I began to appreciate the subtle and sophisticated communication inherent in the production of good jazz – the beliefs and practices that bond the musicians together and make it possible to innovate, to improvise, to suddenly change direction, to know this is the time to solo – or not. I still am curious about the underlying trust in each other that makes this all possible.

So when I heard about Frank J. Barrett’s book “Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz,” I ordered it immediately. Barrett is a professor of management and global public policy in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He has a long and impressive list of credentials and he is an active jazz pianist. In the late ’80s, he became intrigued with “exploring the connection between my two passions – jazz and organizational behavior.” He saw that the challenge of playing jazz is akin to challenges faced by executives, and began writing and teaching about applying design elements from jazz to other organizations, wanting to heighten the improvisation within their cultures. In seven chapters, he ties together illustrations from jazz and stories of highly innovative business environments. He makes a good case for looking wide-eyed at the routines within our organizations and how some routines are very supportive of growth and how others squash any creative and innovative bursts that might arise.

One of Barrett’s chapters is entitled “Embracing Errors as a Source of Learning.” Another is “Balancing Freedom and Constraints.” I recommend opening your imagination to the entire book. I think it will inspire you to liven up your own organization.

The book includes a quote from the late Steve Jobs, discussing the risk involved in innovation, the same risk that jazz improvisers (and comedy improvisers) face. “There’s a lot of things that are risky right now. If you see to the other side and say, ‘Yes, this could be huge’ – but there’s a period of risk, no one’s ever done it before.”

Near the end of this engaging book, Barrett poses questions that are useful in planting some of the book’s principles within your own organization. For example, do we include users and customers in our jam sessions? Do our associates feel safe enough to offer innovative solutions to a team challenge?

How can you create space and cultivate serious play in your organization? What can you do to support ongoing learning and collaboration in your organization? Are our employees stifled by a fear of making mistakes or do we encourage them to squeeze out the learning that can come from mistakes? Have we learned to appreciate everyone’s particular gifts even when they are not so obvious? Can we step back and let others take center stage, with pleasure in the performance and honest applause?

There are many more such questions; seeds to spur the release of your own new and daring ideas, to allow yourself to be more fully creative, courageous and curious. Whatever kind of music you make, you’ll have a lot more fun doing it. 

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