There’s a standard seating arrangement in a jazz ensemble; reeds up front, brass in back, rhythm to the side. The configuration of the ensemble can be changed by the conductor to accommodate her/his artistic vision and the personnel can be expanded or contracted in order to evoke a certain sound, mood, nuance, etc. Chair positions within sections can be arranged to accommodate variations in desired sound. Individual sounds work together to express a common idea and the sound is enriched when there is a diversity of voices. The artistic director is a position that rotates and for a given performance, s/he has the authority to determine the set list. This arrangement has the benefit of being both flexible and diverse.
Will it Go ‘Round in Circles?
This is a great question posed by Billy Preston but first, Nilofer Merchant’s ideas on concentric circles… In her HBR blog Nilofer explains, “In the concentric model (as in jazz), each party has a role to play that meets shared objectives. Each ‘layer’ has power. Yet each always shares the joint goal. Compared to top-down hierarchy where the things are aligned at the top but then divided into parts, the concentric model shifts power to each “circle” (or musician in the case of jazz).” This is similar to my own thinking about jazz ensembles where each ‘layer’ is an instrumental section (reeds, brass, rhythm). As concentric circles move around a given point, so too do ensembles change around the shared goal of performing the score. Chair arrangements change, personnel is increased and decreased, and the artistic director position rotates. All this allows differing artistic visions to be realized and different talent groups to be illuminated. Additionally, different outcomes are realized although the overall goal is singular. Billy Preston’s song is relevant here because in his song “that ain’t got no melody” in his story that “ain’t got no moral” and his dance that “ain’t got no steps” he dares to reimagine his lived reality and embraces uncertainty such as that in reimagining hierarchy. Not only will Billy sing the song with no melody to his friends, he allows the “bad guy” to win every once in a while” in his story with no moral, and in his dance with no steps, he “lets the music move [him] around.” Turning normality (hierarchy) on its head and daring to engage uncertainty, Billy wonders “Will it go round in circles? Will it fly high like a bird up in the sky?” What will be the outcome of such daring and bold moves?
When leadership is not stagnant things change. Everyone is engaged and can see potential (think no glass ceiling), has decision-making authority, and can also function as an effective team member when systems are flexible and reality is creatively conceived. When all voices are validated, the sound of ensemble is enriched. When all members of a team are empowered by having decision-making ability – when concentric circles pull in talent that exists near the circumference – they can view their contributions as meaningful in the journey to reach a common goal. As it happens, such “buy in” is likely to reap benefits. In “The US Needs to Make More Jobs More Creative” Richard Florida and Roger Martin suggest asking “employees to exercise judgment and [involve them in] decision-making in order to innovate and enhance the productivity of the operation” so that “the possibility for higher productivity, higher firm performance and higher wages exists.”
In their study of creativity and the US job market, Richard and Roger distinguish between types of employment (routine oriented and creativity-oriented jobs) and income (by occupational groups and industry types). They find that no matter the industry, wages are better in clustered industries (geographically specific and trade mostly outside their home area) than in dispersed industries (they note primary medical care). By extension we can consider global governing systems where each region in a multilateral system can be seen as a clustered “industry” having specific strengths and expertise.
Engaging our multilateral world will mean acknowledging strengths in various sectors and being cognizant of leadership therein. Richard and Roger are concerned about the “current challenges with income inequality” given the income disparity between creativity-oriented workers in clustered industries and routine-service workers in dispersed industries. While the authors note, “there is no quick fix for this problem” they insist “we have to rethink how we utilize workers in our advanced economy.” Asking workers what they think about various processes pertaining to their work-life can tap into resources we’ve yet to discover and increase productivity in ways we’ve not imagined. Flexible arrangements like jazz ensembles or concentric circles are two examples that appeal to me because they dismantle typical organizational hierarchy in favor of lateral, flexible arrangements of people who do a better job of realizing talent, engaging democratically, and altering leadership.
Who will Sing the Song, Tell the Story and Dance?
Yet, structures that lend themselves to flexibility and diversity also require much of the individual. People must not view their positions as “routine” and must “exercise judgment [and] decision-making.” (Richard and Roger again) In a jazz ensemble, for example, each person must be a master of her/his chosen instrument; which means demonstrating exceptional technical ability, infallible literacy, and a deep knowledge of the music and its associated traditions in order to adapt to ever-changing conditions or the possibility or likelihood of change. Each person must contribute her/his voice because to do otherwise would hurt the overall sound. Surely there will be anxiety surrounding the practice of engaging people who are not accustomed to being engaged. Even world-class musicians face difficulty and anxiety when faced with performing new music. Expressing the views of members of the Berlin Philharmonic as they prepared to perform the premiere of Wynton Marsalis’s Swing Symphony, Conductor Sir Simon Rattle said, “the trouble is, we just feel so stiff in comparison.” Human frailty notwithstanding, the depth of knowledge and training of world-class musicians coupled with their ability to meet change head-on and prevail in spite of anxiety is required and the more experience a musician has, the greater the likelihood that s/he can enter into volatile situations confidently and deliver sound results.
Democracy, or Who’s Running this Show?
From jazz ensembles and concentric circles, my thoughts moved deeper into democracy, civic engagement and leadership. Dana Nelson’s provocative text, Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People came to mind. Far from arguing against having a president, Dana Nelson insists that the president is not our Savior and can’t solve our problems. She places that Herculean responsibility squarely on our shoulders and argues for increased civic engagement “something larger than federal and local government and definitely more expansive than presidential leadership.” (183) In insisting that we commit to the “never-ending work of negotiating democratic disagreement,” accept a “certain level of political disunity” and the “unpredictability that lives hand-in-glove with increased creativity” she holds people accountable for their own destiny and asks us to re-imagine democracy as currently practiced. (184) Unknowingly, she also harkens the lessons of blues and conjures Billy Preston’s song “that ain’t got no melody” because she wants people to move beyond their comfort zones. Dana Nelson like Billy Preston advocates “reimagining and expanding democracy as an open system, a project nourished by both our independence and by our interdependence.” (185) – jazz ensemble, concentric circles.
Back to Basics…
Businesses are changing various management styles as our global interconnectedness increases and becomes clearer and as social media challenges existing frameworks for operational efficiency. Going back in time and using the example of Bell Labs and a NYT article highlighting the company’s history of innovation written by Jon Gertner, I found several remarkable similarities between jazz ensembles and corporations, including: (1) the incremental improvements Bell made en route to (but with no guarantee of) revolutionary innovations; (2) the necessity of physical proximity to innovation; (3) deep integration of personnel; (4) physical structure/edifice conducive to business strategy; (5) autonomy; (6) mentorship; (7) time. Who knew a jazz ensemble had so much in common with a historic business known for its technological expertise?
Interestingly, this metaphor can be extended to include workers. Haydn Shaughnessy’s article in Forbes, “What Does Work Look Like When Half of Americans are Not in a Job?” highlights qualities workers will need – individuals who are networked and who can reliably “step into an expansion opportunity and fill it out quickly.” Even when musicians are regularly employed as house bands, they maintain extensive networks of colleagues near and far who play a variety of instruments and who can be assembled quickly for performance. Social media has only expanded these networks. Additionally, ensembles are commonly intergenerational and thereby take advantage of the skills of both younger and more experienced musicians. Shaughnessy acknowledges the trend in business of hiring, “the under 25” group because it has a “stronger grip on social media tools” so necessary today but he notes, “they have no grip on what business needs or how businesses operate.” The need obviously, is for a mixed-generational cadre of workers and such is typically the case in a jazz ensemble where there is deference for the experience only age can bring.
Quick fixes cure nothing at all…
Learning a musical instrument (or playing a sport or learning a foreign language) takes time and is an investment that can’t be easily quantified. Culture has trained us to privilege quick fixes for everything from weight loss and controlling diabetes, to educational testing and aligning cognitive ability with GDP (see my thoughts on PISA), to restoring the economy by putting someone new in the White House this fall. Repeat after me – Barack Obama is NOT the problem.
We don’t need to reinvent the wheel as we try to come up with ways to retain US vitality and harness the creativity that leads to innovation. We do, however, need to take lessons from our past and not simply, unimaginatively and arrogantly view history as irrelevant. In The Hero and the Blues, Albert Murray asserts, “[N]ot only is tradition that which continues; it is also the medium by which and through which continuation occurs.” So, in taking the example of Bell Labs, we can alter the model to suit our current environment and perchance, realize similar successes long term. However, we must rethink our understanding of innovation. Gertner explains, “one type of innovation creates a handful of jobs and modest revenues; another, the type Mr. Kelly and his colleagues at Bell Labs repeatedly sought, creates millions of jobs and a long-lasting platform for society’s wealth and well-being.” Polly La Barre echoes this sentiment in her Harvard Business Review article, “Reimagining Capitalism” where she asserts, “It’s time to radically revise the deeply-etched beliefs about what business is for, whose interests it serves, and how it creates value. We need a new form of capitalism for the 21st century, one dedicated to the promotion of greater well-being rather than the single-minded pursuit of growth and profits…” We need to invest time and educate culturally from k-16, at least, because nurturing those activities that require an investment of time trains people to meet short-term demands en route to a long-term goal even when, as in the case of Bell Labs, the goal may not be immediately recognizable. Even when we are left wondering like Billy Preston, “Will it fly high like a bird up in the sky?”
Investing in time…
Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer discuss “Talent, Passion and the Creativity Maze” in their HBR blog in a way that really captivates me. While everyone raves about wanting top talent, innovating and creating new models, Teresa and Steve present a counter narrative – sort of. Quoting a Nobel Prize winning physicist, the authors write, “The labor of love aspect is important. The successful scientists often are not the most talented, but the ones who are just impelled by curiosity. They’ve got to know what the answer is.” Wait, wait! What about cognitive ability? What about test scores? What about grades? What about GDP! Teresa and Steve explain, “intrinsically motivated people are more creative because they engage more deeply with the work.” It really is that simple. Do we have the courage to sing a song that ain’t got no melody?
 Kate Connolly, “All Das Jazz: the Berlin Phil Swing with Wynton Marsalis” June 2010
 Albert Murray, The Hero and the Blues (New York, Vintage Books, 1973), 72.