“Super Competence” and the Death of Management

“It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance” (1841)

“Excessive reverence for the romantic illusion of “original thought” is the most fraudulent and destructive element in the institutionalized process of jazz education.” — Chuck Israels

It’s always a pleasure to hear Wynton Marsalis tell the stories of his life, music, and growing up in jazz. His raspy voice suggests a life well lived and his tall tales are captivating and seem decades old, even if he’s recounting yesterday’s trip to the grocery store. In a recent interview at a multinational finance firm before a crowd of nearly 1,000, Wynton shared insights on the relationship between jazz and business. Here are some of my takeaways:

Interdisciplinarity
Wynton has played many different styles of music but his accomplishments in classical and jazz are known best, likely because he’s won nine Grammy Awards (a few in each genre). Wynton’s training and practical experience in music are marked by interdisciplinarity, he moves seamlessly through perceived sonic divisions; an effort that requires intellectual agility, technical prowess, and talent.

As Innovation Thought Leader Scott Anthony explains (taken from his book, The Silver Lining):

“A good way to visualize what is required is to think about what a classically trained musician needs to do to become a world-class jazz musician. The musician has the right foundational knowledge and practical ability to make the transition. Continuing to play with accuracy and following principles of good musicianship continues to be important. But the transformation-seeking musician has to stop certain behaviors, such as following carefully laid out scripts displayed in music scores. The musician has to change the way he uses his ears. Instead of listening to ensure that everyone is playing in synch with each other, a jazz musician listens for unexpected changes. Finally, the musician has to start a new behavior—improvisation based on his personal synthesis of a variety of music styles. The transformation is possible. Jazz greats such as Wynton Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, Scott Joplin, and Shirley Horn were classically trained musicians. But it requires careful thinking and hard work.

Similarly, for leaders to move from the business equivalent of classical music (operational effectiveness) to jazz (innovation) there are things they need to stop, do differently, and start. Specifically, companies have to stop some innovation efforts to free up time and money for transformation (Chapter 2). They have to do more with less by improving the productivity of individual innovation initiatives and broader innovation programs (Chapters 3-6). They have to start focusing more intently on value-seeking customer segments (Chapter 7). Individuals need to start driving personal reinvention so they have the fluidity to master increasingly common paradoxes (Chapter 8).”

Scott thinks like a musician. The work of innovation requires thinking differently, liberating oneself from mental barriers such as tradition or formal training, and having the courage and agility to navigate uncertain terrain.

Jazz band clip art

As Wynton talked about key tenets of jazz — the blues, swing, and improvisation — I thought about how these qualities encouraged creativity and might lead to innovation.

The Blues
In jazz, this is better described than defined but in general, the blues is the feeling of longing that permeates the music. It’s a hybrid form — already interdisciplinary — “a synthesis” says Albert Murray, “of African and European elements, the product of an Afro-American sensibility in an American mainland situation.” (Stomping 63) As a hybrid entity, the blues captures the opposing elements (African and European) that yields the “unexpected changes” Scott mentions above. The blues musician actively synthesizes opposing elements when he plays, compounding the totality of his experiences.

Billie Holliday

The blues is not a verbal music, no matter the lyrics involved. Instead, the blues is marked by vocal nuance. This is important to note because in a culture that privileges systems of efficiency and quantitative data, the blues is a reminder of the liminal space between human error and possibility and indicates the inadequacy of precision and disciplinary specificity to yield comprehensive results. In its exactitude, specificity is limited; the blues, by contrast, is broad. So, words and phrases aren’t necessarily articulated with precision; they are bent, pulled, prodded, as vocal ambiguity drives the emotions expressed, capturing a wider range than precise musical articulation can allow.

In business, the blues can be thought of as the angst that arises from combining quantitative and qualitative data. By considering quantitative data in the context of qualitative data — the information we gather via observation, judgement, professional insights, experience, feeling — we enter the realm of uncertainty. We are challenged to move away from the objective markers of knowledge, interpret the data, trust our judgement, accept the consequences therein, and exhibit courage by managing the associated ambiguity and emotional duress. While systems of efficiency have been great for providing us with objective measures and have served as guideposts we can rely on for analysis; they have eroded our confidence in using judgement and common sense and have left us ill-equipped for functioning autonomously.

Data image

As Management Professor Richard D. Johnson of SUNY Albany suggests in a recent Harvard Business Review post, “Along with better data, we need to develop a more nuanced view of human qualities and human potential.” He asks, “Can we not only accept, but embrace, that some behaviors may not be reducible to easily quantifiable metrics, and that no amount of data can fully capture all of your, or my, best performance qualities?” In summary, “In a world that is increasingly driven by quantitative analyses of employees and performance, we need to find ways to efficiently incorporate both the quantitative and qualitative aspects of performance.” Musician educator Chuck Israels also observed, “An inability to deal with the selection of un-predetermined passages” in music students. The obsession with precision is ruining our ability to think creatively. This holds true is business too. A recent McKinsey study found, “Once the trainers looked below the surface, they discovered that these leaders, though highly successful in their fields, were instinctively uncomfortable and lacking in confidence when conversations moved beyond their narrow functional expertise.” Ivy league education notwithstanding, we are afraid to go off script.

Swing
Wynton described swing as cooperation. We work with one another, cooperatively, to achieve a common goal. We help each other. Swing helps us understand our shared humanity; we rely on one another to achieve goals, to progress. Teamwork, group work, and such require our efforts to be cooperative or collaborative. You should read Joel Dinerstein’s book, Swinging the Machine. Think about how Henry Ford’s conveyor belt represented the automation in US culture during the Swing era and then consider the complexity represented by social media and the ways in which it has reshaped work today. As Carl Stormer says, work is looking a lot like jazz; which, as Martin Mueller of the New School for Jazz & Contemporary Music, says should be expected because jazz is a modern music — always in sync with the rhythms of our contemporary lives. We need training in how to solve complex problems with creative thinking.

Improvisation
Musician and educator Chuck Israels suggests that the problems of note selection be minimized in the early stages of learning to improvise. In this way, “deeply ingrained performance habits can be developed which will withstand the added strain of the “real time” problem of choosing what to play.” He tells us, “A separation of elements may be necessary in order to gain control of all that must eventually be integrated into the highest level of the improviser’s art.” Carl Stormer’s line, “Control is for beginners” is on point. Those who are inexperienced must follow rules habitually until these become reflexive responses. Israels notes, “Nothing is so well prepared as a great ‘spontaneous’ performance.”

Super competence

I was most intrigued by Wynton’s use of the term, “super competence” to describe improvisation. I’ve long understood improvisation as “the ultimate skill” demonstrating such mastery of a skill that its execution is not simply carried out but played as in being done, not only confidently and effortlessly but with a “dancer’s grace under the pressure of all tempos.” (Hero 25)

But “super competence”suggested something else — that talent need not be exceptional; one can be “good enough” and still improvise. That’s great news! It means most of us — if we work hard and apply ourselves — can improvise. We are capable of self-guided, independent work. This means we don’t need to be micro managed but can, instead, carry out duties sans oversight once we achieve the habits that make our actions reflexive.

Superhero

This democratizes the realm of improvisation, a highly coveted skill. This means the average worker can learn a set of skills and, in time and practice (yes, practice, as in what musicians do), become good enough to work unattended. As the McKinsey report I mentioned earlier indicates, “Focusing on context inevitably means equipping leaders with a small number of competencies (two to three) that will make a significant difference to performance.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1841 essay, “Self-Reliance” articulates the angst of the struggle to articulate individuality amidst the crowd. Certainly, this is our struggle. We want workers who are competent and confident enough to work without continuous oversight or affirmation but who also stay focused on a larger goal. We want workers who know their jobs so well their actions and responses are reflexive and look like play. When we have a group of self-guided employees whose work looks like play, they will have mastered self-reliance, self-management, self-governance (to address Emerson’s concern) and super competence.

Is super competence the death of management? 

Gigging in Australia: Project-based Learning via Kickstarter

Full disclosure – my son, Emilio, launched (with my help) a Kickstarter campaign to raise money so he can participate in his jazz band’s trip to Australia in March 2014. You can learn about the project and donate by clicking, Gigging in Australia.

Kickstarter and Project-based learning

The idea of building a Kickstarter project was suggested by two band parents during a meeting about the planned trip to Australia. “What a novel idea” I thought. Instead of simply (painfully and often with great angst) writing checks for our kids to participate in enrichment activities, why not let the event be child led? Of course, given my work as an educator and consultant, I view this as an opportunity to help my son develop skills as an entrepreneur. I got excited about the learning experience. Here’s just some of what he’d have to do:

  • Build the project by selecting and organizing content; meeting Kickstarter specifications; designing his project “story”
  • Use social media and technology in a professional manner to develop and promote his message strategically
  • Engage with fans and supporters
  • Create a Rewards system – deliverables based on varying levels of support

That said, I knew I’d have to guide various elements of the project. For starters, you have to be 18 to launch a project. Also, this is his first time coordinating various skills in such a way for such a purpose. So, we’ve had lots of “teaching” moments about how to create a compelling story, crowd funding, the strategic use of social media, etc.

There’ve been a lot of educational “delights” for me regarding Emilio’s process. First, we spend a good deal of one-on-one time together, talking about the project. I can hear how he thinks, what parts of the discussion he is/is not following, and advance or readjust my delivery accordingly. For example, discussing crowd funding was easy. Emilio is a musician trained in jazz. Explaining crowd funding via a discussion of Second Lines was a simple matter: the crowd comes together for a specific event, builds/participates, and disperses. Using social media, however, was tricky. Emilio figures he “already knows” how to use social media. So, the conversation shifted from technical know-how to strategic know-how. “What you say to your friends and how you say it” may differ from what you might say to a potential supporter (client, investor, etc). “How does the message differ?” and “What’s important for you to share?” Also, “At what point – is there such a point – when the types of messages converge?”

Several skills already in use in school.

Students are accustomed to Rubrics. On Kickstarter the project specifications that must be met in order to gain approval are the “rubric.” Given the specifics, Emilio was able to assemble content – videos, stories, images – he wanted to use. Project acceptance meant that he successfully met the criteria. Explaining the trip required creating a narrative from the planned itinerary. Taking an uninteresting, data filled-numbers, time and location heavy document and creating an interesting storyline is like technical writing. Emilio also had to decide on the types of Rewards to offer at various levels of support. Of course, the Rewards require more work. He’ll be recording 1-2 songs in a professional recording studio and sharing the music with some supporters. He will also compose original music influenced by his trip for a quintet and share the electronic file with supporters (skills: music writing, arranging, and technology in transferring the file to electronic form). Emilio is a visual artist too and will provide original artwork for t-shirts he’ll design. I showed Emilio HootSuite, how it works and what it does. We discussed timing messages to be released according to time zone; how to identify and contact key recipients; and how to track successful dissemination.

Digital Divide?

One unexpected topic has come up often during our Kickstarter process and has led to more great discussions with Emilio. Many “would-be” supporters who are well-educated and successful working professionals want to write paper checks or offer cash as support. This is most curious to me. In this experience, we’ve noticed the people who want to write checks do not live near major metropolitan areas; and while they happen to be very well-educated and successful professionally, they do not directly use technology in a professional manner (staffers use the technology). They have expressed great discomfort with donating online. On the other hand, some who want to offer cash do so because they can give immediately, hand-to-hand. Emilio has had to explain how Kickstarter works; the value of a crowd in crowd funding; and the problems of tracking donations and returning money if the funding goal is not reached. We’ve also been wondering about a Digital Divide in the United States and where it might exist, specifically:

  • To what extent do medical professionals and/or members of higher socio-economic classes use social media and technology for professional purposes (as opposed to staffers or other designees)?
  • In what ways does the professional use of social media and technology by medical professionals and/or members of higher socio-economic classes change as we move away from urban centers?
  • Also, to what’s the relationship between cash donations and employment or credit status?

That said, I’ve been delighted to find social media and technology use high in New York City across all age groups. One 70 year-old user and supporter of Gigging in Australia, described the project to me, identified the funding goal ($6,250 USD) and deadline (February 2, 2014, at 11:32AM ET); and offered suggestions for a push during the last week of the drive. Wow, just wow.

Being an Entrepreneur

Is hard and often frustrating. Failure is a constant foe. Emilio has invested a lot of time, energy, and thought in a project that may fall sort of the funding goal. So, there is the very real possibility Emilio will not join his band mates in the March trip to Australia. This has been a good discussion to have. Emilio is no stranger to such anxiety-ridden experiences. He performs regularly for audiences that can be as enthusiastic as they are ambivalent. No matter, he must get on stage each time and bring the fullness of his talent and ability to each song. What’s more, he might tank in a solo by not knowing the rhythm changes or having a “brain freeze” and not being able to translate his ideas into sound when he’s called upon to solo. Emilio also plays soccer and the angst of losing a game even when you did your very best, is al too real. Losing never feels good but it’s a fact of life. Musicians (and athletes) live in a world where “no” means recalibrate and try again.

So, Gigging in Australia has been a lot of fun and has been a great learning experience for many reasons. If we are fortunate, we’ll meet our funding goal; if not, we’ll recalibrate and try some other project, some other time. Of course, we’d appreciate your support of Gigging in Australia and you can DONATE NOW by clicking, Gigging in Australia.

Skills Shortage on the Global Stage

In one of my favorite Foreign Affairs articles, Secretary of State (former) Hilary Rodham Clinton sounds very much like the head of a multinational corporation with an ear bent towards listening to diverse constituents and reaching the geopolitical frontline. Acknowledging the changing global terrain, Clinton emphasizes interconnectedness and the changes necessary in diplomatic skills sets. She notes, “increasing global interconnectedness now necessitates reaching beyond governments to citizens directly…”. She continues, today’s ambassadors are, “responsible not only for managing civilians from the State Department and USAID but also for operating as the CEO of a multiagency mission.”[1]

How do we cultivate the skill of knowing how to communicate with civilians directly when prior experience required expertise in dealing only in elite circles and spheres of influence? 

In a really insightful TED talk, Paddy Ashdown identifies three major shifts in power. Watch Paddy’s talk below:

 

One thing that most intrigued me was the way Paddy correlated the growth of multinational corporations with international criminality, globalization means they share the same space. We get both the “good” and the “bad” at once. This mandates the rule of law but one that goes beyond our traditional nation-state thinking into the realm of global governance (not government). He notes “treaty based agreements” such as the G-20 and Kyoto as efforts in this direction. Paddy goes onto talk about our “multipolar world,” or a “European concert of balance, a five-sided balance” and “counter balance” and of course that got me to thinking about music….

I’ve written here about Global Swing and also about coordinating information from disparate sources in such a way that we not only hear the distinct “voices” but create a synthesis of meaning — harmony — in our heads (see “Six-Part Harmony.”) I’ve also written an article on the ways in which the cultural footprint of the blues and swing can be discerned in sectors as different as education, healthcare, business and governance. So, this stuff is heavy on my mind.

Today, I’m thinking about the relationship between diplomacy, multinational corporations, and swing as a model of governance. It seems to me that the skill set Clinton identifies as being necessary in our cadre of diplomats is the same skill set that leaders in multinational corporations need – the ability to communicate effectively, and even confidently, across and through sectors, with particular emphasis on those that seem unfamiliar.

In moving towards a system of global governance, we’ll need to listen to not only the most vociferous, those that have traditionally held the reigns of power, but those that have been historically and geopolitically marginalized. Paddy says, “We must reach beyond the cozy circle of our Western friends.” Clinton advocates for “civilian power” and says we must reach “beyond governments to citizens directly.” New players on the global stage, MOOCs and US universities with an international bricks-and-mortar presence face similar challenges as they negotiate the realm of diplomacy and global governance through the entry-point of education. Employees at every level of the university – along with diplomats and multinational corporate leaders – must acquire new skills to be effective. There’s a lot of work in retraining to do!

Paddy informs us that the cultural model of a “European concert of balance” worked in an earlier historical period. Learning how to integrate globally is a central challenge for today’s players on the global stage and so I am convinced that cultural models hold the most promise. I’m placing my bet on swing. Let’s consider the two forms…

Fugues articulate distinct scripted voices that come together in a pleasing blend of sounds creating a unity that is both complex and simplistic. There is a beauty in fugues that soothes the soul. A fugue’s parts are transcribed and are to be performed in strict accordance with notations with very little room, if any, for improvisation. Fugues can be emotionally rich but deviations from the score are not encouraged, anticipated or desired.

Jazz is the music of active participation and it is jarring – or, at least, it can be. Collective improvisation – a la Jelly Roll Morton – comes first to mind. Jelly Roll’s music brings together a cacophony of instrumental voices in a highly textured, tightly woven musical statement where everyone’s voice is prominent, recognizably audible. Somehow, the “mess” of the music has synthesis. Part of this mess is in the unstructured articulation of voices at unexpected times. Everyone is gathered to play the same song but there’s really no way to predict how an individual musician will decide to play along. Uncertainty is inherent in jazz.

…and THIS is the world in which we live.

Swing is about coordinating the perceived cacophony and creating a musical flow – governance, if you will. Finding a way to integrate the seemingly disparate parts in such a way as to advance the score. A steady rhythm is important in swing because it drives the momentum. Henry Ford needed a reliable pace for his workers. Dancers need reliable beats to ensure well-articulated and well-placed steps. The work of cooperating with various global constituents – some of whom will seem unfamiliar and whose values systems will seem at odds with our own – will be messy. We must keep the “mess” and swing. We need people trained in coalescing eclectic parts and creating a cooperative flow.

Skills needed include: listening, collaboration, leadership, resilience, and the ability to exude grace under pressure


[1] Foreign Affairs, Volume 89, No. 6, “Leading through Civilian Power” 14 -15

The Necessity of Global Swing

Swing is a matter of coordination – finding and sustaining equilibrium – a rhythmic flow. The recent G-20 meeting in Mexico was an example of the shifting global terrain. The ebbing of Western dominance must be balanced with nations not historically integrated into the global power structure. This year, BRIC nations asserted their voices globally by contributing 75% of the International Monetary Fund’s firewall. Similar articulations resonate in the healthcare sector where India, for example, has had a major impact on reducing the price of HIV/AIDS treatments and essentially eliminating its country’s polio epidemic.
Swing

The need to compete

Getting the world to swing will require coordination across and through regions. As with a jazz ensemble, each section or region has its own sound, its own expertise. Mutual respect within sections and between them informs the performance of the chart. Divided into chairs or individual roles within the section, each musician – like each geographic region – has a role to play that can be noncompetitive within the section/region and certainly across instrumental divisions in the same way that Taiwan will differentiate itself (market segment, military, cultural offerings and consumer preferences, etc.) from South Korea and from Hong Kong. Likewise, a first-chair saxophonist cannot compete with a second chair; they play different parts. A saxophone and trombone are, of course functionally different and play in different keys though both are needed in an ensemble.

When the virtuosity of one instrumentalist challenges that of another within his section; increasing the number of chair positions can accommodate the internal or sectional differentiation. The more chair positions (think globally here and think diversity) the greater the ability to capture nuances of sound, to recognize individuality. Geographically, when the virtuosity or expertise of one region is articulated, it differentiates itself from other regions.

Blind & Deaf

Superpowers no longer rule the world. Today’s construct is not a dialogue but a conversation disrupted by a multiplicity of voices. BRIC nations, African countries, and Latin American nations have integrated into and diversified the global dialogue, and have created a polyrhythmic global conversation that requires more nuanced hearing, different listening, and more complex and attuned responding. Nicholas Kristof’s NYT article on Africa and its promise is instructive. As he notes, the media typically covers the famine or genocide dichotomy all too familiar when reporting on African nations. This “black or white” divide is all too common in US political, legal and economic history. When these polarities guide discussions, they mask underlying potential of people and individual nations; turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to nations and entire continents where talent and vast resources are left unrealized. By seeing and hearing differently the US might – like the Asian countries Kristof mentions – build mutually beneficial relationships in Africa.

Jazz as a conversation

Conversations enriched by multiple points of view can – like jazz – create the conditions for new ideas to emerge and innovations to occur. Each new bit of information integrated into a conversation, each new instrumental voice incorporated into a jazz score increases the differentiation. Each new disruption requires us to seek balance again by acknowledging and responding to the disruptive force. For example, the common 4/4 time signature is disrupted each time the blues weaves its way into the sonic efficiency. Improvisations also challenge equilibrium. Culturally this is the process by which we integrate diverse national, religious, gendered, etc., voices into conversations ranging from global governance and multinational management strategies to local politics and school board elections.

Artful impact

Seeing and hearing differently increases our consciousness and can change our perspective. Take, for example, Scott Shane’s NYT article “as Islamists Gain Influence, Washington Reassesses Who Its Friends Are.” The author correctly assumes that Americans don’t see clearly or listen carefully. Why should anyone be surprised when a nation of Muslims elects an Islamist government? Yet, those accustomed to binary opposition are suspicious of the gray area regarding inquiries by the newly elected President into the release of an Egyptian sheik. On this point Representative Peter T. King, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee asserts, this is “the kind of talk you hear on the street – not from the president of the country.” Well, yes, Peter and that’s actually the point. Learning to listen to the crowds and not simply voices emanating from the elite sectors of government (or the C-Suites in business) gives us vital information that could be instructive. (Think Jamie Dimon).

Middle East experts like Michele Dunne, however, are attuned to nuances. In her view it should not be assumed that the “rise in Islamists puts the United States in greater danger from terrorists.” In fact, she thinks the opposite may be true. “Major Egyptian terrorists” she notes, “were shaped by their rage against the [Hosni] Mubarak dictatorship” – a secular Western-leaning leader.  “The movement of Islamists into mainstream politics should reduce the terrorism threat.” Thinking musically, this makes sense to me because when the voices of the people are integrated into the policies that govern their lives – the score – the policies are consistent with their views. When strategy reaches the frontline, productivity increases due to large-scale “buy-in.” The integration of voices into and across sectors disrupts the one-way flow of information. But there’s more – when multiple voices are integrated into the flow of information the dichotomy is disrupted and an enriched conversation occurs.

Is this hard to manage? Of course! Short term, dictatorial styles are highly efficient but if you’re committed to democratic formation or long-term business viability and relevance, it’s wise to be slow and steady. Coordinated efforts increase engagement and dissention but they also diffuse tension over time and create the conditions for sustained organizational flow, or swing. Michele Dunne’s advice is instructive, “If Islamic groups like the Brotherhood lose faith in democracy” — when your citizens or employees think their voices are not being heard — “that’s when there could be consequences.”

Get ready to swing…

What’s this mean for you? Get more art in your life. Art is disruptive; it forces us to emote, to demonstrate our humanity. Moreover, art gives us examples we can use to deepen our understanding of the world.

Disruption anyone?

Consider the following clip: Alan Gilbert directs a masterful program, the “Philharmonic 360” a spatial performance that features three separately situated orchestras in New York’s Park Avenue Armory. Philharmonic 360This ain’t no concert hall. The Armory is the size of a US football field with an 80 ft (24m) vaulted ceiling. Think about the three separately situated orchestras as geographic regions and consider their efforts to perform their very best rendition of a chart, the way in which their sounds diffuse into the air, and are received by audience members. Now consider the challenges of conducting or governing these disparate regions, each with its own identity, personality, strengths and weaknesses, etc. Now consider the importance of trust and having your strategy/chart reach the “frontline.”

Classical changes

Disrupting organizational structure is unsettling. Coordinating seemingly disparate voices is an anxiety-ridden endeavor and the outcomes are not assured (though Gilbert’s program was brilliant). Gilbert’s program was exceptional in the classical realm. Jazz at Lincoln Center’s largest venue, Frederick P. Rose Hall, features a stage where part of the audience sits behind the orchestra.

JALC Rose Theatre

 You see, jazz is about mobility and integration and so in the concert hall designed specifically for its performance, audience engagement was a key factor. In Gilbert’s program and in the Ode to Joy Flash Mob, classical music is seen doing what art always does – disrupting our sensibilities. Jazz does this all the time but classical? Indeed, the tectonic plates are shifting. Let’s find our footing and swing.

Crowds, Chaos, & the Competitive Edge

“Facebook really helped people to communicate, but not to collaborate.”

— liberal Egyptian friend of Thomas L. Friedman

I’ve been fascinated by Facebook’s IPO and its skewed valuation. I’ve written here about its mission to connect people, its open platform, use as a diplomatic tool and how this correlates to jazz and its similar use. Today, I’m thinking about connecting, collaborating, and crowds. While jazz encourages collaboration, it’s alleged Facebook does not… but can it? What is the relationship between connecting and collaborating? Are crowds manageable and if so, to what extent, and what are the consequences?

The role of social media in transforming dictatorships is well documented. By raising awareness and creating a sense of urgency, Facebook users in the Arab world were able to voice collective opinions about their governance and effect change. Yet, the crowds that connected to topple dictatorships have been unable to answer the bigger more prescient question: What next? The Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian Army, relatively small groups, are well-organized and will likely make decisions on next steps. In the US, the Electoral College streamlines the power of the masses and usurps the popular vote to decide Presidential elections.

But aren’t crowds the essence of democracy? Don’t the Muslim Brotherhood, Egyptian Army, and Electoral College create oligarchies by representing (or seeming to represent) the masses who fought and died for democracy?

Meritocracy

Chris Hayes has an interesting take on this. In a really smart discussion about meritocracy in education, Chris touts the benefits of selecting the “best and brightest” from the masses through a process that is open and transparent. Those deemed exceptional receive specialized training and are tracked for enhanced opportunities because they represent society’s best. Chris disrupts the notion of hierarchy based on merit by using several key examples and reveals how centralized power is born from an otherwise democratic process that essentially reinforces the status quo.

Do open systems and crowds naturally or logically lead us to centralized power and oligarchies?

Facebook & Jazz

Facebook’s dilemma seems two tiered: how to determine its valuation and how to monetize crowds. With more than 900 million users and room to grow globally, advertisers and investors have a difficult task at hand. The growth strategy needed seems to be one of moving from connecting to collaborating and here’s where jazz can be instructive.

Connecting to jazz can be as simple as passively listening to music on an iPod but collaborating is different. Active listening – engaging the music through foot tapping, finger snapping, head bopping and the like – integrates audience members/listeners into shared time with musicians. Physical response is a way of acknowledging and validating each other’s presence; it’s collaboration, the ultimate “buy in.” In second line parades, in particular, the energy of cooperation has both magnitude and direction; collaboration is compounded because random people from various points – crowds – convene, enter into, and act upon the acknowledged shared time in a coordinated way along a designated path. The crowd eventually disseminates, becomes random again, and moves onward to the next parade.

Music experienced in shared time reduces, momentarily, the chaos of crowds by coalescing, harnessing, and channeling the energy. Individual and collective movements become relatively predictable in and around the rhythm. Of course, this is why algorithms are important (but insufficient because humans are emotional beings – think of the disruptive nature of the blues — with no finite number of predictable responses) in data analysis. But for now…

Controlling the chaos of crowds is meaningful for jazz, Facebook, and democracy. Swing jazz with its mechanically efficient time signature, is an important step in ordering action. However, this is not the Pied Piper, leading his passive followers to doom. This is a Second Line parade, a dynamic ordering of people where participants are meaningfully and creatively engaged in shared time for a specific purpose. The band and audience members need each other to sustain the forward momentum.

Similarly, in Facebook, the power of the crowd lies in its differentiation realized collectively. Administrators of Facebook Pages create spaces where people can convene and actively and meaningfully engage one another around a common topic, event, goal, or activity. In democracy, the voices of the people must be integrated into the governing party lest questions of legitimacy arise. There should be active engagement, not merely representation, between members. In each case – jazz, Facebook, democracy –individuals have the power to disrupt order despite organized efficiency (think metronomic swing, timelines, status updates, “likes”, and Six Sigma).

The voices of the people are integrated into an ensemble (if the sound is smooth) or by way of collective improvisation (if it’s edgy) – no single entity or small group reigns. According to Mc Kinsey Quarterly, this type of interaction “requires a more direct, personal, and empathetic exchange than a traditional town hall meeting allows.” It’s team building or creating a band.

The Competitive Edge?

This emerges over time as a result of differentiated focused action. Get inside the crowd; integrate into the masses and change your vantage point and your steps accordingly. Crowds don’t walk in straight lines; they are nimble, agile, and ready for change. Beware of systems of efficiency because these do not take into consideration the volatility of humans. Structures that don’t bend, break (NOLA levees and Hurricane Katrina)

The Inverted Front Line: Listening to Polyrhythms

Essentially Ellington is an annual international high school jazz band competition sponsored by Jazz at Lincoln Center. Members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO) shared the stage with high school students at various points and also performed charts for the upcoming season’s competition. The JLCO’s performance of Duke Ellington’s “Second Line” was compelling and got me thinking…

Second lining is very important in New Orleans. It’s part of a parade and is even part of funeral processions and helps transform the sad occasion into one of celebration. In a traditional New Orleans funeral procession, the front line is composed of the group of family members and friends who have convened for the purpose of laying a loved-one to rest. Musicians may play a dirge as the pallbearers carry the casket through the streets and before long, upbeat music begins. The second line is the crowd of revelers that follows behind the front line, performing a highly syncopated, rhythmic stepping-sliding dance. The first line and second line are intricately connected but what’s clear is that the front line is the leader, the reason why the second line can exist.

Traditional Front line

If we think of a company’s front line, managers who represent core beliefs, execute strategies, and engage directly or are close to the customer level; then, consumers make up the second line. When strategies change, the second-line dancers or consumers respond accordingly. With agility, they adjust their steps, or preferences, in such a way as to accommodate sonic shifts or shifts in corporate tactics due to change in leadership, global markets, the competitive field, etc. Consumers, like second liners, are vital in the feedback loop and give businesses the type of detailed transaction-level data discussed in Sam’s interview. Consumers, like second liners let companies know which, whether and to what extent implemented business strategies are effective. They allow the company to keep doing what it’s doing.

Inverted Front line

What happens when we think, instead, of consumers as the front line? What if consumers were believed to be the holders of core beliefs and the executors of strategies for engaging the marketplace? Businesses would then form the second line and have to be nimble, like dancers, to adapt to ever-changing consumer desires. Here the consumer defines demand and businesses must create the rhythm/tempo or product/service stream that supports the consumer’s preferences or the dancer’s steps. The corporate behemoth must learn to anticipate consumer demand and become agile enough to support the consumer/dancer’s complex moves. Hmmmmm…

But wait! Wait! Doesn’t this mean the business will have to sacrifice its core beliefs in order to provide “rhythm-on-demand”? Consumers are fickle, how can a business remain vital long-term given such uncertainty? Doesn’t this work better for small businesses whose size is an advantage?

I’m glad you asked.

The short answer is, “No. Companies don’t compromise their core beliefs by providing on-demand services” and “Agility builds the skills necessary for resilience, thriving amidst change.” Remember, too, “Size does not indicate flexibility.” Core beliefs don’t change, strategies do.

By providing “on-demand” services or products, companies don’t forgo their core beliefs; rather, they strategically align their beliefs with consumers or end users whose preferences are similar. Instead of retaining a tight hold on customers they already have and so intensifying business to business competition for a finite number of consumers, businesses that dare to dance lay to rest strategies that served the older model; they diffuse B2B tensions and take advantage of the opportunity to reach the next billion consumers by altering their strategies and extending their reach into new (let’s call them, global) markets. There is much cause for celebration here. No longer the “gatekeepers” of a product or service, businesses that invert the front line must articulate their brand identity forthrightly in order to devise strategies sufficient for securing new potential consumers. By identifying their “onlyness” businesses differentiate themselves from would-be competitors, become stronger and better able to manage change. While some traditional customers may be lost in the shuffle, businesses have the potential to attract many more and capitalize on the benefits of globalization.

Social media fuels this change and helps companies realize greater potential even as the familiar consumer base shifts. Companies most successful at anticipating consumer desire (think Steve Jobs) will be most successful long term because their operations will serve as a template for leveraging social dynamics to corporate advantage and thereby make businesses more nimble operationally. They will be able to anticipate, integrate themselves into, and perhaps lead the “next big thing.” Agile companies are poised for innovation because they are resilient amidst change, they know how to provide the music that supports a dancer’s steps in real time. (Be sure to see the clip below)

Panic stricken corporations

Recent corporate downsizing and the ongoing reluctance to hire is an indication of corporate panic. Behemoths can’t dance ( S/O to Code Mizell) and so their response to uncertainty has been to shed as many employees as possible to protect revenue, to hide their lack of agility. However, when we invert the model, we see the need for employees has grown. Companies need people who can read, interpret and translate data into viable strategies that reflect not only the company’s core beliefs but who can also provide an appropriate response to the changing environment. Companies need people who can adapt easily to today’s global polyrhythms and who can teach others how to participate most effectively. Consider the music from emerging democracies or emerging market regions and how different it sounds from say, Western classical music. The polyrhythms of jazz and of New Orleans jazz in particular are a composite of the complexities of our global environment and the collective improvisation inherent to New Orleans jazz culture is the sound and the template for the global collaboration and nimbleness needed to sustain successful multinational corporate and diplomatic efforts today.

So, how do you define your front line?

This clip of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is from a December 2011 performance at City Center in NYC and features the Alvin Ailey dancers. Note, the band is performing live on stage while the dancers perform. This is extremely difficult because the band must anticipate the dance steps (and vice versa). Both sides must be poised for change at every moment or the performance will fail.

Here’s Duke’s “Second Line

1. Listen for the integration of sounds. In the beginning, the rhythm section (piano, bass, drums) is led by a clarinet who articulates the melody. The voice of the clarinet is neutralized by the crowd of instrumental revelers who join in (at about 23s) but re-emerges (approx 1m) and reasserts its voice, forthrightly, throughout the song.

2. Listen for individual instrumental expressions (especially the trombones and trumpets) as they take advantage of the opportunity to articulate their sound. This enriches the score, giving it texture and power as it progresses.

3. Listen to the clarinet. Follow its journey from beginning to end; its clear melodic cry in the beginning, its nearly muted sound that struggles to be heard in the middle sections of the score, and its periodic vibrant wail from mid section onward and exhaustive but jubilant cry at the end.

Now listen to Wynton’s clarion call to join in a traditional Second Line parade and practice your dance steps!

Elephant Sperm Banks — Good Idea for Business & for Jazz

“Inbreeding presents real problems… [and it] isn’t just a problem for captive elephants” – it’s a problem for businesses and is an often-sited critique of jazz. Scott Anthony delves into his discussion of “innovation inbreeding” by using the example of Jackson, a Pittsburg area elephant who has sired so many calves in the US there is concern that the gene pool is homogenous and the species is at risk. Scientists want to create a sperm bank so as to diversify the gene pool in the creation of future calves. You see, whether in elephant sperm or in business, homogeneity (across sectors, within divisions, in the talent pool, etc.) is a bad thing. In business “inbreeding” occurs – when “innovation efforts are consistently led by the same group of people who have lived their life within the company.” In jazz, so the critique goes, “inbreeding” takes the form of musical stagnation and institutionalization.

Inbred businesses

Businesses seeking to retain or initiate their presence in established or emerging markets face a problem of integration. People stick to what’s familiar, it’s a herding mentality that provides psychological comfort through homogeneity. Valerie Gauthier notes managers in today’s globally interconnected businesses “feel a constant tension between the need for agility… and the quest for purpose, direction, and meaning.” They flounder, sensing the need to do something different but are unsure about just what to do and how. Their angst, she notes, “leads to irrational and erratic behaviors.” Yet it is this very tension that encourages the innovation necessary for business success, especially in the midst of ever-changing conditions. Managers not accustomed to hybridity in the workplace “gene pool” develop symptoms of neurosis and are indicators of systemic damage or worse, financial extinction. They need cultural coping mechanisms.

Hybridity in business

In “Learning How To Grow Globally” Christopher Bingham and Jason Davis use a “Soloing vs. Seeding” analogy to illuminate the differences between homogeneity and hybridity. Soloing and seeding represent direct and indirect approaches to learning respectively. Businesses need both. The soloing arm tends to realize financial success faster; while seeding yields slower growth initially but performs better long-term. Blending these approaches to create a hybrid seed (see, we’re back to elephant sperm) would seem to strengthen the company overall while also maximizing the talent pool. Moreover, a combination approach allows both a full-scale unified effort as well as a small group concentrated effort, a nimble arm to meet specific demands. In botany as with elephant sperm, the cross-pollination of ideas creates hybrid seeds that are resilient; they are better able to handle shifts in the (financial) environment such as wind gusts (wild market swings), tsunamis (depressions and recessions), and earthquakes. Growing globally will require adaptability to changing conditions.

Stagnant Jazz?

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestraand its institutional home come under regular attack for being unimaginative and restricted in their programming – homogenous. Eric Porter’s, What is This Thing Called Jazz??, offers a thorough overview of various critiques noting, the organization and its music “became a lightening rod for conflict, stemming from the attempt to craft a jazz cannon, from personnel decisions made regarding the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and from personality conflicts between major players at Lincoln Center and the jazz press.” As the Artistic Director of the JLCO Wynton Marsalis has often been condemned for “cultural gatekeeping” and espousing the “ideologies of social and cultural conservatism and neoliberalism”; and likewise, his music has been critiqued for being dated.

The charges are not without merit. You see, when cultural osmosis (like cellular osmosis) is thorough, the entity loses its apparent “two-ness” and becomes a singular new entity. So, as the ensemble performs in its characteristic swing style; tightly woven instrumental sections move convincingly through the score with locomotive power, difference gives way to the riveting dynamics, and the steady rhythm suggests automation. However, we must remember, the score is likely to have been arranged specifically for the performance; meaning, it is already a departure from the original. Also, solos are always current on the night they are performed; they are not written down and so cannot be repeated verbatim from night to night. Innovation is inherent within these conditions and the response to changing conditions is reflexive.

Change, Grow & Be Stronger…

Jackson’s efforts notwithstanding, the scientists in Pittsburg, businesses and jazz musicians know – hybridity is a good thing. Enduring long-term means coalescing disparate parts and making a whole, new thing. Call it what you will – cultural osmosis, hybridity, integration, diversity – when we are made to move beyond our comfort zones, we adapt, change and grow.

Collective Improvisation

The clip I’m attaching to this post is an example of collective improvisation (listen closely for this beginning at 2:45s); everyone is playing a different take on the melody at the same time – sonic hybridity.

Practice What You Preach

I am no fan of Sarah Palin. So I was irritated by the TODAY show’s decision to use her as a guest host today. I admire Palin’s outdoorsy ruggedness and her athleticism. I am intrigued that she is from Alaska, a state I’ve always wanted to visit. My disconnect hails from the moment Palin entered the national spotlight as John McCain’s choice for VP running mate in 2008. What a smack in the face for women, I thought. How could such an unintelligent, disconnected, ill-informed person advance the interests of anyone? How could she represent the nation? Surely thinking people of all stripes and women in particular would see though John McCain’s offensive attempt to secure the female vote by choosing a running mate whose only commonality with women broadly is physiology. So, today I was determined to opt-out of watching TODAY in protest.

… and then my twelve-year old said to me, “You have to watch TODAY because you say we can’t just listen to people we agree with.” Grrrr! So, I watched the show and I’m glad. Not only because I demonstrated by my own example that “Mommy stands by her word” but because watching the show was instructive. My opinion of Palin has not changed; in fact, I’m more convinced than before that she is ill-informed on a variety of issues and intellectually weak. I am also more convinced than ever that responsible journalism is a thing of the past, at least on morning TV.

My twelve-year old’s reminder reminded me of my recent blog posts, “Six-part Harmony” and “No Rhythm, No Rhyme” where I lamented the lack of listening by elected officials, professionals in a variety of fields, and the resulting lack of meaningful engagement and productive conversation. Our problem in finding answers to the innumerable problems we face as a nation and as global citizens, is not a lack of intelligence but a lack of engaged conversation. When we only listen to like-minded people, we stagnate; we flat line and effectively stop growing and learning. Innovation does not/cannot happen.

I am reminded of a musical collaboration between Wynton Marsalis and Yacub Addy, a Ghanaian master percussionist. The two agreed to work on a joint project due to their mutual respect for one another and the often-sited commonalities between West African music and jazz. Musically, however, these two forms just didn’t gel; they were too different. Wynton explained,  “In performance, we discovered things about balance, orchestration, and the beat – our two musics are very different. We realized that a collaboration showing both groups at their best might not be possible.” Well, if two world-class musicians can’t find a way through “dissent” what hope is there for the rest of us?!

Short answer, there’s a lot of hope for us. Here’s the thing: musicians spend a lot of time in rehearsal. Rehearsal is where they test their musicianship, artistry, and their ability to collaborate. SWOT is exposed in rehearsal. Wynton and Yacub worked through their musical differences and found commonalities that allowed the musical project to move forward. They engaged their differences, struggled through the learning process and created an outstanding piece of music, Congo Square.

Here’s a clip from Wynton’s first trip to Africa. This clip might be my favorite. He is listening to a group of South African children sing a traditional song. He’s never heard the song and doesn’t speak the language but when the children are finished, Wynton “sings” the song back to them through his trumpet. This clip demonstrates humility, respect, and the subsequent and immediate result – learning.  

Musicians engage difference as a matter of professional necessity; do we? Imagine if we extended this to engaging difference in politics, education, business, diplomacy, and relationships of every kind. You know the “right” thing to do. So, go practice what you preach and make the world a better place.

Jazz, Billy Preston and Global Governance: the song that ain’t got no melody

There’s a standard seating arrangement in a jazz ensemble; reeds up front, brass in back, rhythm to the side. Jazz seating arrangment imageThe 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. concentric circlesCompared 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).” hierarchy imageThis 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.” Uncertainty imageTurning 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.”

Bird flyingWill it Fly High Like a Bird Up in the Sky?

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.
Global IndustryEngaging 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.”[1] 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. Global communicationDana 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 mediaSocial 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.”[2] 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. Innovation imageHowever, 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?

 

 


[1] Kate Connolly, “All Das Jazz: the Berlin Phil Swing with Wynton Marsalis” June 2010

[2] Albert Murray, The Hero and the Blues (New York, Vintage Books, 1973), 72.

What happens when we change a standard?

Last night I had the pleasure, once again, of hearing the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra perform in Rose theatre. The celebration was in honor of Stan Kenton‘s centennial and featured one time Kenton band member, Lee Konitz.

The performance was powerful; the brass and reeds sections were bold and forceful as would be expected of a presentation of Kenton’s work. The added personnel filled the sections and enriched the performance. The bass trombone added depth and fullness to the section’s sound that made me want to jump from my seat. The trumpets were brilliant and the virtuosity on display last night was breathtaking. My bias in favor of reeds aside (I played alto), the reeds section was tightly woven, powerful, and added texture to the performance that simply carried the show (smile).

So, I really enjoyed the performance and hearing Kenton’s music was a special treat. I was particularly intrigued by the Bill Holman arrangements, “Stompin’ at the Savoy”“Malaguena” and “My Funny Valentine.” Bringing so much brass to those songs changed them (in good ways) for me but the uniqueness of the arrangements really made an impact on me and got me to thinking…

“Stompin’ at the Savoy” is a personal favorite and I was prepared for a different rendition but got more of a change than I expected. Wynton announced the song from the stage but when the band began to play, I couldn’t identify the melody. I just couldn’t find my way into the song I have loved for decades. What would I do? How could I access the piece? Where was my point of entry? Before those thoughts set in, I was pulled into the piece by the sheer power of the sounds on stage, the breadth of talent and the virtuosity of the solos. I applauded enthusiastically when the song was done but still, I wondered: “What happens when we change a standard?”

So, I talked with Vincent Gardner (trombone) who explained Bill Holman’s style of arranging, his use of counterpoint, and the general work of arranging. Victor Goines (reeds) talked to me about the melody and gave me some history on Kenton and Holman. All good stuff that will certainly help in my research. I am always grateful for the time musicians give me and their patience in explaining the intricacies of what they play and what I am hearing.

In seeking an answer to my question, “What happens when we change a standard?” I’ll need to delve into arrangements and consider their different variations (the actual chart and the sound performance) for a given song.  If we think of jazz as improvisational music; then, shouldn’t the score be open to change as well? Changing the structure of what is written, also changes the improvisation that occurs. Albert Murray says, “not only is tradition that which continues; it is also the medium by which and through which continuation occurs.” (Hero and the Blues, 72). So, the change that comes from altering the score on a well-loved standard is an indication of continuing the tradition of innovation associated with jazz.

Is it problematic that I didn’t recognize what I was hearing as a song I loved? Not necessarily. You see, I loved what I was hearing even though it was different than what I expected. When I think of governing systems and of documents like the US Constitution that set the parameters for conduct and societal expectations — the contract, if you will, for guiding the populace and checking  the power of government — I think of how emerging and even established democracies may devise relevant documents that share certain characteristics but that also may differ markedly, reflecting individual or country-specific desires.  I also think of a recent NYT article, “We the People Loses Appeal With People Around the World” by Adam Liptak that considers the idea of changing the US Constitution because it is not in step with contemporary needs and the efforts of emerging democracies to create more vibrant documents that govern in accordance with their current realities.

Well-loved standards represent a certain level of comfort and familiarity. I really enjoy “Stompin’ at the Savoy” and listening to it delights me and also brings back memories I associate with hearing the song over the decades. Changing the arrangement in such a way that it doesn’t immediately register with me, changes my interaction with the song; limits my access to the memories I’ve linked to it over the years and makes me uncomfortable. This type of uncertainty is the stuff of the blues.

Managing uncertainty from my seat in the audience is tricky business because it requires me to engage difference and exist outside my comfort zone. Managing uncertainty requires an openness to innovation and to difference, top items for business leaders seeking to maximize their profits and relevance in today’s global economy. The good thing is, musicians work in the realm of uncertainty and change every day; they actually sit down and alter standard charts, transcribing structural change and then test it via performance. So, as part of my thinking on why cultural literacy is so important, I’ll say this: by infusing the creative arts into various sectors, we stand to improve the ability of people in various sectors to successfully manage change, face difference and innovate. Harvard is really onto something in this regard. (See the Harvard Arts Report)

What happens when we change a standard? Well, a lot happens and it is instructive. We can think of a standard jazz chart such as the one that led me into today’s post but we can also, by extension, think of a standard as the US Constitution or governing document for a country, corporation, school system, etc. I listen to the music and the delight I experience is multifaceted. I keep going back to the music because it feels good and it inspires me to think creatively. I am enriched immeasurably.

So for the purposes of my specific research projects, thinking about arrangements and the requisite technical and creative work, helps me reconsider the relationships between the US and foreign nations because there are guidelines that manage those relationships and policies to be written and revised. This will require creativity, innovation and technical skill. Also, restructuring the jazz ensemble by adding instrumental voices changes the sound and dynamics of the group’s performance as well as the interpersonal interactions (personnel). The organizational structure is decidedly not hierarchical/vertical, but operates on a horizontal plane, multilaterally. This, too, is an important feature to examine in earnest as relationships with foreign nations and within and between corporations and government agencies takes on new form.