Jazz Ensembles, Diplomacy and Emerging Markets

Collaboration is all the rage. As we figure out how to exist in our increasingly interconnected world, thought leaders have come up with a compelling idea – collaborate with one another to create more unity, deepen understanding and realize our shared objectives. Louis Armstrong did this in his hometown of New Orleans, on the riverboats up and down the mighty Mississippi, and he certainly did this in Chicago when he arrived as a relative – but exceptionally talented – newbie filled with anxiety and confidence to play in Joe Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in the early 1920s. While the US acknowledged the power of jazz to infiltrate communist philosophy (see Penny Von Eschen’s definitive work in this) during the Cold War era, American Culture centers were disbanded once the ideological war had been “won.” Although President Bill Clinton played a mean tenor saxophone, it was the “Dynamic Duo” – President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton – who reinserted the idea of meaningful collaboration into US foreign policy. You see, jazz ensembles have been practicing collaboration and managing the tricky terrain of uncertainty for decades, well… about a full century now, and the music’s culture represents more than a mere dilettante excursion into the nostalgia of a once popular genre of music. Jazz ensembles offer a model for collaborative enterprise, engaging change and managing uncertainty. Multinational corporations are taking notice – so should we.

In her December 2010 article for Foreign Affairs, “Leading Through Civilian Power,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton advances an argument in support of development and diplomacy and outlines a strategy for the joint enterprise.[1] She says, “increasing global interconnectedness now necessitates reaching beyond governments to citizens directly and broadening the U.S. foreign policy portfolio to include issues once confined to the domestic sphere, such as economic and environmental regulation, drugs and diseases, organized crime, and world hunger.” (15) Instead of the typical hierarchy that engages only elites (government officials), Clinton articulates a horizontal strategy that recognizes citizens and engages broad and diverse population bases. In this effort, the needs of the people can be heard and integrated into a plan for disseminating goods and services. This effort implies an inherent uncertainty that comes from engaging previously unrecognized people, forming relationships with them and integrating their needs and desires into larger policy objectives.

Jazz ensembles share much with Clinton’s vision for deeper integration and multilateral discourse. In a jazz ensemble, the structure is horizontal and like Clinton’s idea of moving from solely engaging governments to reaching citizens, jazz structure allows for the deepest integration of diverse sounds. Instrumental sections are arranged in a basic format (reeds up front, brass in back, rhythm to the side) that can be changed according to the conductor’s desires. Chair positions within sections indicate pitch or playing part –  part of an effort to integrate or diversify the sound and enrich its texture, broaden its reach, and illuminate the variety of talent. Improvisation is not a privilege awarded to the best or “elite” performers but is expected of everyone. Furthermore, collective improvisation (such as that typically in New Orleans jazz) is a scenario where everyone is playing his/her own rhythm changes at the same time. The chaos or cacophony that this might suggest is similar to engaging the multiplicity of citizen voices in the diplomatic approach advocated by Clinton. Managing such diversity is tricky business (consider this a hallmark of democracy because dictatorships need not entertain such diversity of pinion and bureaucratic red tape is streamlined) because there is a great deal of uncertainty; one just never knows how humans will behave or what they will say. In a jazz ensemble personnel can be added or reduced laterally in order to balance the sound, there is a place for everyone. Prophetically, Clinton’s 2010 article anticipates the US Occupy Wall Street protests and their focus on the 99% as opposed to the elite 1% where wealth is concentrated. In the interconnected world in which we live, horizontal strategies or structures that encourage broad and active engagement seem most promising for engaging multilaterally.

As it happens, this strategy of active engagement, expanding reach, and diversifying also works in business. Employees who are asked for their opinions feel validated and part of the corporate team. Such buy-in expands the company’s strategy to greater numbers of employees who develop or strengthen a vested interest in the company, neutralize the inherent hierarchy, and feel empowered as thinking individuals. In a Harvard Business Review survey, one of the important takeaways was that Advisory Council members found “the biggest execution challenge is making strategy meaningful to frontline workers.” The findings suggest that, “leaders should consider making strategy formulation more bottom-up and should communicate more clearly – throughout the ranks – abut what the company is trying to achieve.”[2] This, of course, has benefits for the company’s bottom line as Richard Florida and Roger Martin found their research.[3] Likewise, in “Mobilizing for Growth in Emerging Markets” Navi Radju and Jaideep Prabhu note, the strategy of focusing on the elite fails to help multinational corporations reach the “much larger population” or “prepare them for the far greater challenge (and opportunity) of reaching the urban and rural poor” – those customers deemed to be the “next billion.” Diplomacy and Development swing to the rhythm of jazz.

The relationship between development and economic well being is considered vital to sustaining world peace. Clinton asserts, “Economic growth is he surest route out of poverty, and expanding and strengthening middle classes around the world will be key to creating the just and sustainable international order that lies at the heart of the United States’ national security strategy.”[4] As multinational corporations increase “their capabilities in emerging economies by opening more R&D labs, factories and sales and marketing offices that can design, develop and sell locally relevant products and services”;[5] they expand the base, increase the potential for creating and sustaining a middle class, and increase the potential for peace building. Opening R&D offices in the local markets is key because it demonstrates a commitment to better know the people being served. R&D is an investment of time and while companies are committed to increasing profits, the investment of time and associate capital and human resources suggests companies are moving to privilege the long-term benefits of establishing relationships over turning quick profits. In this way, companies like nations can be more successful or competitive long term. Radju and Prabhu note, “These challenges require multinationals to move beyond the value chain localization they’re accustomed to and embrace a ‘network orchestration’ strategy that brings together local and global innovation partners.”[6] The idea of orchestration is on point but not classical orchestration with its rigid framework and written scores with strict performance mandates, but jazz because it is flexible, engages change and requires improvisation. In dealing with diverse citizenry, one should expect flexibility to work better than rigidity… besides, I think we’ve tried that approach already!

Hierarchal systems create inequality and nurture silence. When the top tier of an organization makes decisions, they are expected to trickle down to the bottom tier of employees who will carry out directives but this does not happen efficiently. Moreover, this method segregates people and ideas. While asking employees to “exercise judgment and [involve them in] decision-making” can lead to “innovation and enhance productivity”[7]; too often, “business leaders just don’t care why employees do anything as long as they follow the company’s rules, processes, cultural norms and laws.”[8] Not only is it insulting to expect humans to automate their behavior and so discard the ability to think critically, it promotes dictatorship because individual rights and opinions are not realized or valued. Additionally, influential educational studies[9] that align cognitive ability with GDP coupled with the US mission to increase testing in math, science and reading as indicators of cognitive ability, and student (and teacher) success, moves the nation’s students from innovation to automation; making them ideal candidates for working in a hierarchical system but ill prepared for jobs requiring critical thinking and creativity. In the same way, jazz musicians are ill suited for work in classical orchestras (though not at all due to talent or musical ability). Clinton’s development strategy insists on deeper integration of ideas and people. Jazz bands function successfully this way as well. Multinational corporations such as Nokia, GE and Xerox that have implemented similar strategies have met with admirable success.

Network orchestration would benefit from modeling jazz. “Premised on local and global partners working together to achieve innovation” jazz orchestration would encourage “collaborating with local partners” and give an opportunity for multinationals to “learn about local problems and gain insight into solutions, while at the same time taking into account [issues that arise].”[10] The foreign expertise that is necessary to such development and diplomacy efforts is run-of-the-mill or jazz musicians whose travel schedules can rival that of diplomats or the most successful corporate CEOs. With this in mind, increased cultural intelligence is necessary for successfully engaging not only a nation’s elite but also the entire populace. Guess what? Math, science and reading won’t lead us into success in developing this skill (though they will certainly help make connections meaningful). Managing uncertainty and being flexible will require people-to-people skills. People matter in diplomacy, business and jazz.

Strategies offered by Radju and Prabhu for multinational business success are instructive: (1) Extend innovation partnerships beyond the usual suspects. Engage everyone, hear every voice, integrate various ideas into strategies for success. Work multilaterally. (2) Engage innovation partners strategically with a larger purpose. Don’t let profits rule the day, build relationships that can be sustained over time and profits will, likely, be sustained over time and workers at every level will be aligned with a defined purpose. Consumerism helped destroy US integrity during the era of Cold War cultural diplomacy; let’s not make that mistake again. (3) Trust but verify in a transparent manner. Be nice. Play fair. (4) Assign partner network managers. Assign section leaders who have superior practical knowledge of the instruments (regions, populations, demographics) in their groups; let them articulate their needs and respond accordingly.[11]


[1] Hillary Rodham Clinton, “Leading Through Civilian Power: Redefining American Diplomacy and Development,” Foreign Affairs (November/December 2010), 15.

[2] Harvard Business Review, “How Hierarchy Can Hurt Strategy Execution” (July – August 2010), 74 – 75.

[3] Accessed on March 4, 2012, http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/02/the_us_needs_to_make_more_jobs.htmlRichard Florida and Roger Martin, “The US Needs to Make More Jobs More Creative.”

[4] Clinton, 18.

[5] Navi Radju and Jaideep Prabhu, “Mobilizing for Growth in Emerging Markets”

[6] Ibid.

[7] Florida and Martin

[8] Accessed March 4, 2012, http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/03/change_your_employees_minds_ch.html#comment-455778350 Scott Keller and Kaleen Love, “Change Your Employees’ Minds, Change Your Business”

[9] See my February 22, 2012, post “Education, Testing and the Problem with PISA” and specifically the Stanford University study conducted by Eric Hanushek and Lugder Woessmann.

[10]Navi Radju and Jaideep Prabhu

[11] Bold suggestions taken from Navi Radju and Jaideep Prabhu’s article.

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4 thoughts on “Jazz Ensembles, Diplomacy and Emerging Markets

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    • Unfortunately, governments take from htriosy the lessons they like. They ignore the relevence of the populace while supporting the governing philosophies of Machiavelli and Nizam in order to maintain control of their power. Some things never change.

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