Monday, May 20, 2013

Do you want to jazz up your leadership?

Metaphors for leadership can be compelling.  Sport is a key one (the subject of a previous post) and recently I got to play with the metaphor of music, with a group whose leader is a jazz fan.

Frank Barrett, who wrote on the topic of leadership lessons from jazz, gives us an overview, in this HBR idea cast.   

Jazz, as in life and in organisations, is where we are faced with numerous possibilities, incomplete information and yet we have to take action anyway. This group I was working with, with its far reaching and complex mandate were a case in point.

Drawing on Barrett’s lessons, the metaphor offered us the possibility to explore:

  • saying “yes to the mess”: to embrace an improvisational mindset and go ahead despite the ambiguity.
  • building on others' ideas: the power of ‘yes and’ (a subject of another posting)
  • taking turns soloing and supporting.  There are times when we have to let others shine!
  • noticing when the things we have learnt in the past get in the way of experimenting and learning from mistakes in the present
  • creating structure in order to allow for flexibility in the moment.
One of my favourite bands is New Zealand's 7 piece Fat Freddy’s Drop.  They have been described as one, or a combination of styles: jazz, reggae, soul, rhythm and blues, techno, dub, and gained popularity by their improvised live performances.   

Amongst other things, they seem to be pretty good ‘yes to the mess’ role models.

Here they are doing their thing in Berlin: Willowtree


Frank Barrett. The book is Yes to the Mess-- Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz, from Harvard Business Review Press.

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  1. Hi Penny,

    I like your comment, "Jazz, as in life and in organisations, is where we are faced with numerous possibilities, incomplete information and yet we have to take action anyway."

    As you say, Jazz - especially in its improvizational, "jamming" form - offers a useful metaphor for what's happening in the everyday conversations and interactions in which organization emerges.

    As Ralph Stacey has commented, "Managing and leading are exercises in the courage to go on participating creatively despite not knowing."

  2. Thanks Chris, I won't take full credit for the words - they are drawn from Barrett. As it happens, I did think of you when I was writing it; reflecting on the 'messy side' of change. And thanks for Stacey's courage comment: it is right on the mark, isn't it?.

  3. As an interesting aside, a few years ago I attended a session that was run by a jazz group to illustrate the very point you're making. In particular, they wanted to draw attention to the similarities between organizational interactions and conversation.

    They had begun by demonstrating their ability to play music from a wide range of genres, unrelated to jazz. However, what intrigued me was that when they ended with an improvisation session they immediately settled into a jazz 'pattern' of play. Although anything might have emerged from the initial combination of notes - given their seemingly unlimited capacity - they ended up playing jazz.

    This neatky illustrated the self-organizing, patterning process through which culture emerges in organizations. The more that people make sense of things in a particular way, the more likely they are to continue making similar sense going forward. The capacity always exists for different sense to be made, but the tendency is for established patterns to be repeated and strengthened further.

  4. This is an interesting, non-aside-but-completely related. Thanks for sharing Chris. As people do we ultimately side with structure as opposed to flexibility? Are we too quick to try and put 'chaos' into order, and go with what we know? I guess what is important is that we are mindful about our patterns; recognising when they serve us and when they don't.