“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? 

Jazz and Management in Practice

On Sunday, January 26, 2014, the Jazz Standard Youth Orchestra (JSYO) performed its weekly gig, the jazz brunch at one of New York City’s premier jazz clubs, The Jazz Standard. This week, I was struck by the activity of learning to play a classic jazz tune anew and the leadership lessons contained therein. So, here’s some lessons from the bandstand… aka, “Sunday at the Jazz Standard.”

Guest Artist/New Manager
Guest artists are common at the JSYO. World-class musicians are brought in to diversify the group’s interaction, help generate and realize new ideas; and generally to offer a different creative lens through which to stimulate artistic discovery. In this sense, the sessions are like laboratories where ideas are asserted, tested, refined, and conclusions (however temporary) are reached, generate new lines of inquiry and the cycle of discovery continues. (Will deal with innovation in an upcoming article, stay tuned…)

Talent Identification/Assessment
Like a new manager, a guest artist comes with an understanding of her profession but with incomplete information about the skill set of the team with which she’ll be working and so the approach to realizing her artistic vision in steeped in uncertainty.

The JSYO is an eclectic assortment of students. The kids range in age from roughly 8 – 18; some are in traditional schools, some in performing arts schools; some have played since they were very young, others are in a solidly intermediate stage. I remember Master Drummer Michael Carvin’s words “I don’t teach beginners” when I think of the JSYO bc these kids are decidedly not in the early stages of musical or instrumental discovery. Some students are seasoned performers, the JSYO being but one of several performance groups; others are new to the stage. Some students don’t have regular band in school, others have band class almost daily. Some students know they want to become professional musicians; others have no clear picture of the path their career might take.

Getting Started
So, how and where is a Guest Artist/Manager to start? Here are a few observations from Sunday:

  • Introductions: Let me hear you play (quick assessment of skill, talent, ability). In the non music realm you might inquire about a current, recent, or upcoming project. You might ask about hobbies or what the person finds interesting outside of work because this can help you identify otherwise hidden skills.
  • Call and Response: While the playing/speaking is happening, get into the performers/speaker’s space. Show you are listening by giving feedback, verbal or nonverbal cues to indicate you are engaged. In music you’d snap your fingers, sway to the rhythm, bob your head. In business, you’d offer verbal affirmations, extend the thought and create a brief conversational flow, and/or express appropriate emotion to what’s being described.

Now that you’ve established a rapport with your team, you can move towards getting them to “buy in” to your artistic vision (project, product, strategy, etc.) because the people involved, your stakeholders, feel humanized, validated. Engaged musicians are like engaged employees; and as a recent Bain study indicates, “Engaged employees go the extra mile to deliver. Their enthusiasm rubs off….”

Ted Rubin’s ideas on the Return on Relationship Ted Rubin are valuable here

While in music, this type of interaction is common practice, in business it is not. Residents of the C-Suite know the value of relationships and engagement but according to a recent Bain study, they don’t practice what they preach. Another Bain study found troubling trends as outlined in “The Four Secrets to Employee Engagement.”

In Practice

Olivia Trummer came to work with the kids on Sunday. Hailing from Germany, she’s a pianist and vocalist of note. Known for her original conceptions and use of timing and rhythm, Olivia’s innovative arrangements honor tradition (in both the classical and jazz genres) while being unmistakably modern.

Like many of you, the JSYO kids know “Miles Davis’s” famous “So What” from his classic album, Kind of Blue. Olivia challenged the students to play the familiar song in an unfamiliar time signature (¾). In other words, “do something different, with impact” — innovate.

Oh, it was a rough start replete with fits and starts and lots of giggles and side commentary from the musicians! The sounds were awkward, the attempts to play the tune were alternately frustrating and comedic as the kids struggled — creatively, intellectually — to carry out the assignment. Like marathon runners training for the big race, the kids never played the whole song in the new meter during rehearsal. Instead, they played short sections, reviewed the trickiest parts, and tried out solos individually when the group took breaks. They moved on from the song and rehearsed other tune in the day’s set list.

What just happened?
Olivia trusted the students’ talent. Students “bought in” to Olivia’s vision bc they trusted her to lead them through the song’s complexities. The working relationship congealed around a newly formed bond of trust and students worked to deliver their best efforts to help Olivia realize her vision of the song, a revision of a standard.

Show time
Olivia stood before the band in front of a capacity crowd at the Jazz Standard’s brunch and directed the band for its first ever full performance of her arrangement of “So What.” Miles’ version runs 9 minutes, 22 seconds; Olivia’s version is a full 15 minutes. A trusted leader with full band support; Olivia communicated with the band verbally and nonverbally during the performance — she remained engaged — transmitting cues to guide the band. Micromanaging? Not at all, this was the band’s first time performing the tune in Olivia’s arrangement, her involvement was necessary to offer real-time assessment and tweak accordingly. This way, she can be assured the band is on track and remains focused on the vision.

Through extended solos, Olivia gave the band room to explore its own musical ideas and fine tune its efforts to realize the song in the new time signature. Playing extended solos on “So What” was not only a new challenge for band members but was do-able bc Olivia had assessed individual skills in advance, she knew the band could deliver even in front of a live audience. Soloing allowed band members to integrate the tune into their own voicings, testing the song, and making it their own. Ownership improves outcomes.

Outcome

When the song ended, the audience was delighted — the performance was a success. How do we know? A real-time assessment via soft metrics: audience attention during the performance; applause, head bopping, body movement; follow-up commentary between audience members and musicians; and the interaction between musicians and audience members during and immediately after the performance. Such soft metrics remind us to trust our own judgement of human interaction.

Olivia’s vision was delivered and affirmed. The students demonstrated not only their obvious musical talent but also the creative and intellectual agility necessary to meet the demands of uncertainty. Significantly, they didn’t run from the challenge. (How do we measure “grit, determination, courage?) “One reason for this superior performance is that” musicians like “engaged employees, direct their energy toward the right tasks and outcomes.” The students were focused on the demands of the time signature, playing and creating. (How do we measure focus?)

Teaching workers and students to adapt to uncertainty means moving them away from the familiar even as we rely on it to guide change. The kids, like so many of us, already knew “So What.” In asking the students to play the song differently, Olivia challenged them to be engaged at every moment. They could not rely on autopilot or muscle memory to play the song; the new meter required self-conscious thinking with each note. Being self-conscious and focused for long periods of time requires mental and intellectual stamina . (How do we measure intellectual stamina?) The extended solos required careful articulation, real-time processing of information and consistent self-conscious co-creation, individually, with band members, and Olivia.

Metrics is no easy thing. For far too long, we have been trained to privilege systems of efficiency and have developed metrics for assessing the disparity between the 100% (mechanically impossible) efficiency of work and our efforts. This compounds feelings of inadequacy and undermines our confidence in using human judgement and common sense when assessing situations. Fortunately, our kids are learning to trust in their hard work, face challenges, and manage uncertainty with confidence and courage. Lucky for you, you don’t need to be a kid to swing; you, too, can use jazz as a management tool.

Cultivating Creativity in Classroom, Jazz & in Business

Creativity is not a skill but cultivating it is. As an educator, I facilitate the student’s learning process; identifying, bringing out, and pairing the student’s creativity with whatever “lesson” needs to be mastered. This journey begins with hearing the student’s voice, forming a rapport and developing trust so that the environment is one in which the student can share information and ideas freely. Master Drummer Michael Carvin shared his approach with me in a discussion on Trading Fours. He noted, “I allow [my students] to be free.”

Freedom don’t come easy.

Freedom to deviate from the rules of play must be earned. How do educators figure out how much “freedom’ to give students? By actively engaging students and conducting real-time assessments that let the educator learn what the student brings to the classroom and then determine what needs to be done to move the student in the direction of mastering a given lesson. The educator’s role is to prepare the student for self-guided learning, for self-sufficiency, self-reliance. The assessment process is ongoing, it’s a continuous feedback loop and requires the educator to guide — not dictate — the process. This also means students cannot be passive receivers of information transmitted by the educator. Instead, students and educators are participants in the process of co-creating the learning environment and so owners of the content discovered. The educator’s role is to keep the process on track.

Carvin at the drum set

Pedagogy

Michael Carvin’s pedagogical practices are instructive. He says, “As a teacher, you have to lead that student. As a bandleader you have to lead the guys in the band. The way I decide whose going to be in my band is to ask them to call and song and play it. That way when you hear my band play, you can hear the urgency” of co-creation. Dictating to the student is a signal of the educator’s inadequacy for the task at hand. Carvin notes, “If I have to show you, then I’m not fit to teach you. Then I don’t know what I’m doing. It’s not about me doing it; it’s about you doing it.” In this way, educators develop self-reliant and self-guided learners and simultaneously refine their own pedagogical skills. Carvin’s humorous take on this drives home this point. “You’d be outta your mind to pay some drum teacher to play an hour in a lesson. You’re paying him to practice. What are you learning? Do you go to a restaurant and order steak and have the chef eat it?” He notes, “Some may argue that some people need to be shown. No they don’t. The only time they have to be shown is when you [the educator] can’t articulate it.”

The assumption here is that students enter the learning process, not as beginners, but at an advanced stage. Michael Carvin does not train beginners. This is important to note because the novice must learn the basics, the rules of play, before s/he can articulate, explore, and develop an individual voice. The novice has limited freedom; rules are for beginners or as Jazz Code Founder Carl Stormer notes, “control is for beginners” — and that applies to both the student and educator.

It also applies to businesses

I could replace the word “educator” above with “business leader.” If we demand creativity of our workers and want them to innovate (because we realize this has a direct impact on revenue); then, we must create environments where creativity can flourish. Business Model innovator Karl Burrow of Tokyo-based Karllestone Capital noticed that when he played jazz in his workshops, the energy in the room changed. He explained, “When we were going through the design session, the [clients] picked up the speed, the speed really increased… it really turned the workshop around.” He noticed, “When I put on the music… it really [got] the creative juices flowing and [clients] could really grasp the content.”

Karllestone_image

No surprises here

People like jazz and like talking about the music. Sharing experiences of concerts attended, music collections, and such helps establish a rapport between colleagues, breeding familiarity, and developing trust (in musical taste and judgment, at least). The velocity of work increases, as Karl notes, because the speed picks up; and the ideas shift direction, becoming a complex amalgamation of project or task-specific “work” and creative interplay with music, associated commentary and perhaps some finger snapping, head bopping and foot patting along the way. Work begins to feel like jazz and if the creativity is really flowing, work — like jazz — will swing.

Communication styles can prohibit creativity. Call-and-response isn’t just a necessary component of the blues and foundational element of jazz; it’s a requirement for creativity. Hierarchy and deference can stifle creativity by keeping workers from voicing their ideas. This means, of course, leaders can’t hear new ideas and that cross-pollination of ideas with coworkers cannot occur. Karl Burrow notes that in emerging market economies there is great enthusiasm for workshops on innovation. This is true even in established companies in emerging market economies where Karl notes, the “audience jumps right in at the start” exuding “eagerness, enthusiasm and drive.”

This means a couple of things, including:

  • Hiring competent people who already know the “rules” of play
  • Actively engaging employees, encouraging them to share ideas, opinions, etc.
  • Guiding, not dictating, project completion
  • Fewer rules

Greg Satell’s recent article, “How Jazz Can Transform Business” is instructive. One of the most important takeaways, often hidden in discussions with musicians and business leaders is the need to “practice, practice, practice” because only through repetition can work look like play. While one workshop may lead to welcome breakthroughs, it won’t substantively change the culture any more than one practice session will create a master musician. When success looks easy, it’s because the hard work has become reflexive, rules are submerged, and the practitioner has learned to “play.”

Albert Murray’s Influence Beyond the Blues

Albert Murray was 97 when he passed away in his Harlem apartment on Sunday, August 18, 2013, at 7:30PM. It was a moment those of us closest to him had been expecting and when the moment finally came, the foot soldiers in his command knew just what to do. A series of calls, emails, and text alerts signaled to all — the time had come. Some of us convened in his home to offer comfort to the family; hear his long-time caretaker’s stories of his final moments, watch a VHS of his 50th wedding anniversary, toast the magnitude of the man, and contact the media.

Albert Murray, Jackie Modeste

Albert Murray, Jackie Modeste

 

In the days that followed, there have been many tributes to Murray. I have remained silent; the articles written – when combined – offer a fair assessment of Murray and his work. Fellow Murrayite Paul Devlin shared an article written by Daniel Matlin that motivated me to join the discussion. Matlin gets off to a good start, quoting Henry Louis Gates Jr. in describing Murray as a “militant integrationist” Ahhh yes; that line of thinking will move us in a direction we’ve not yet ventured in re-membering Murray. In his seminal text, The Omni Americans, Murray famously defined American culture as “incontestably mulatto.” (22) Matlin’s historical timeline — his delineation of the riots, their impact, and the shifting discourse from the civil rights issues of the South to the urban blight in the North — is insightful. His deft positioning of the intellectual and philosophical divide between those who laid bare the urban blight of Northern cities and those who celebrated the “creativity and agency of the black poor” is instructive. As Matlin asserts, Murray’s writings often countered “pathologism by adopting a diametrically opposed position that was no less partial and exaggerated, and that tended toward a troubling romanticization of the lives of the black urban poor.”

Indeed. So, let’s begin THAT discussion….

The integrationist ideology advanced in Murray’s nonfiction and depicted fictionally in his Scooter series lacked the overt edginess and violence of the Jim Crow era, the tumultuous Civil Rights era, and subsequent racial strife. As Matlin suggests, Murray’s writing seemed out of touch. This criticism is not without merit. However, there are two aspects about Murray you should know: Albert Murray was an Air Force officer and a man who believed, unwaveringly, in the power of educational excellence. As such, Murray saw a world beyond localized conflict. Instead of harnessing the energy of legitimate resentment or anger towards social and economic injustice and transforming these emotions into more of the same in a “boots-on-the-ground” effort to effect change; Murray employed a strategy that had the potential to change the governing structure of society.

In the culture of so-called black Americans, Murray found the arsenal for revolutionary change — the creative transformation of the blues and the harmonious collaboration of jazz in the form of swing. In the trenches of civil unrest words, ideas, and bodies could become casualties of sectarian fighting. So from his Spyglass tree – the eighth floor of his Harlem apartment – Murray looked down on the rooftops and streets, considered the vast expanse of human endeavor and possibility, and developed a strategy – a cultural coping mechanism – for combating injustice, long term and worldwide.

The Necessity of heroes 

The Scooter Murray created was a storybook hero, an archetype, whose exploits were meant to instruct the masses. If Scooter’s do-good nature seemed to belie the very real dangers of Jim Crow, it was because he saw a world of possibility in spite of the perpetual threats to his mind, body and spirit. Indeed, Scooter was Murray’s “(local) personification of the hope… of mankind.” (Hero and the Blues, 92) Armed with a rich culture, solid education, an inquisitive nature, and steel-rugged determination, Scooter was a “prediction and even a promise” a “warning as well as an inspiration” of the meaningful change to come. (Hero, 92) Those, who like Scooter, wielded razor-sharp intellect and demonstrated intellectual and emotional agility could be central players in societal transformation – not in the streets – but on the level of policy; an effort that required deep integration into new and more complicated environments and the “high grade point average” Murray wrote about so often. (Briarpatch, 20)

JALC Wall: Emilio, Jose, Albert Murray

 

Education & revolutionary change

Murray noted, “Many confuse revolution with rebellion.” (Briarpatch, 18) Murray reminded his readers that the “rebellion part, as rugged as it may get to be from time to time, is only incidental. It is the revolutionary change that counts” and in Murray’s estimation, education would be the key. So, at the 1978 Honors Convocation at Howard University, Murray advised his audience to be “outstanding students.” “What” he asked “could be more subversive in the United States!” (18) Indeed, in light of the privatization of education, the frenzied high-stakes testing, the rising cost of higher education, etc. – Murray’s insights are as timely as ever.

From the particular to the universal 

The dichotomy Matlin creates – castigating or celebrating black American life – is not sufficient for studying Murray. Murray’s writing on the hybrid nature of the blues and jazz and their rightful place in discussions of US identity are key to understanding the vast influence of his thinking. The blues and swing represent the relationship between the particular and universal. For Murray, “the intellectual’s very first step should represent an effort to approach life in universal terms…. To become as cosmopolitan as possible.” Further, he advised, “you reach the universal or the cosmopolitan through the particular.” (Briarpatch, 18)

So what does this mean?

It means by recognizing the individuality expressed through the blues we gain insight into larger group dynamics. The blues with its deep emotion, inherent call-and-response pattern, and ultimate catharsis, acknowledges and affirms humanity. The human desire to connect is revealed through the blues as is the potential to transform, endure and perhaps thrive amidst even the most inhumane circumstances or conditions. Jazz with its polyrhythms, multi instrumentation, and varied configurations represents the complexity of group dynamics. The blues is the common denominator, connecting individuals emotionally. When individuals recognize their shared emotion — when they listen to one another – they can develop empathy for each other. When jazz musicians bend their instrumental sounds to the fragility of the human voice, the wailing, moaning, and longing so often associated with the blues; they acknowledge, integrate, and emulate human emotion and make it part of the group’s consciousness and forward movement. When this is part of swing, it is the ultimate form of cooperation or collaboration because it indicates we’re listening to one another and moving in the same direction.

Writ large, the relationship between the blues and jazz offers insight into community formation, organizational structure, and the possibilities of large-scale collaboration. Championing the blues as a necessary component of jazz acknowledges the myriad contributions of Americans of African descent in the creation of the broader US national identity. It is also a mechanism by which to acknowledge and integrate the historically marginalized and disenfranchised into the broader fabric of American life. By transference, this is a template that can be applied across geopolitical borders because every region, every country has its own blues. Swing represents a coordinated effort. Make no mistake, spreading jazz – especially in the form of swing – whether by musical tours, educational programming, online streaming, etc., is an inherently radical act because it makes people aware of their individual voices and their collective power. This is the connection between jazz and democracy. One need look no further than to the Arab Spring to understand the transformative power of people acknowledging individual suffering, collaborating, and effecting meaningful change. Historian Penny M. Von Eschen insightfully noted, “jazz consistently represented a stealth weapon” during the Cold War – the same is true today. (Satchmo, 28)

 

Beyond the Blues…

And there’s more… When multinational corporations enter into established or emerging market areas, their activities are not unlike that of the musician playing blues-based jazz. The corporate behemoth must bend its “ear” to the streets in order to better know the desires of potential consumers. To better understand the dynamics of crowds? Look no further than a Second Line parade or a jam session. To integrate innovation into business models or company culture? Look to the jazz musician soloing, improvising collectively, or in a small group. Hierarchical organizations in general – corporations, governments, and higher education institutions – pose particular challenges to progress and innovation, the blues and jazz studied as related processes offer insight into how and where to make necessary improvements. Through his writing, Murray projected an “image of man (and of human possibility) that is intrinsically revolutionary. Such an image… is automatically at radical odds with the status quo.” (Hero, 81)

Do Murray’s methods of combat belie the grittiness of the struggle for socio-economic justice? Hardly. Like the military man he was, Murray formulated strategy above the fray (an Air Force officer would) that would take care of us individually but that could serve the cause of socio-economic injustice globally.

My mentor Albert Murray will be memorialized tomorrow, September 10, 2013, at 1PM in the Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center, an organization built in large part on his intellectual framework. We do ourselves a great disservice if we think of Murray as a man who presented simple dichotomies such as – black v. white or “misery and social breakdown” v. “joyful and carefree.” Not only do we miss the breadth and depth of Murray’s thinking and reveal ourselves as poor students of culture with only a tangential understanding of his voluminous writings; we simplify the struggle for socio-economic justice and so become consumed with distractions at the margins of the debates. Honoring Albert Murray requires intellectual integration, moving our thinking from margin to center; being “incontestably mulatto.” After all, we are Omni-Americans.

 

The Gorilla & the Deep Blue (Ocean) Sea

This is a tumultuous time in the US. The Sanford, Florida, trial that let a murderer walk free reinforced various laws designed to protect assailants and insure the silence of targets of violence. In blatant opposition to public discourse, the judge in the case did not allow racial discussion to enter meaningfully into the proceedings. The outcome of the case has been contested in the media and public discontent stands in stark opposition to the court’s ruling indicating a most troubling disconnect between the public and the laws that govern our lives.

Part of a Larger Trend

This disconnect is part of a larger trend. Our human capital is our most valuable asset. We do ourselves a great disservice when we fail to recognize the potential of our diverse US population in bridging obvious gaps in the cultural capital we need to broker multinational deals in emerging market areas. The world is round, brown, young, rural and poor (by Western economic standards). Global access to the market economy is conduced largely via mobile transactions. This is why Facebook, Apple and Google have been in a push to open Internet access and sell cheaper versions of their devices in emerging market areas. It’s no surprise that multinationals see and appreciate this value; potential for new customers is an ocean that is vast and blue. Blue oceans represent continued growth for multinationals, longevity. However, so many of us don’t see similarly; we are not swimmers, we are afraid of the water and of the enormous gorilla sitting at the shore but more on that in a bit…

Population & Income

Neil Ungerleider notes, “tens of millions of American [US] Android and iPhone owners are struggling to make ends meet – and there are even more who are senior citizens, who live in rural areas, lack college or high school degrees…”

Income & Age

Income & Age

These people most closely resemble the billions of people in emerging market areas. Yet, the startup technology sector tends to preach to the choir – creating apps and opportunities for the “suburban/urban, and middle-to-upper class.” Neil insightfully notes, the “technology world is missing out on a lot of innovation” and tech companies are “missing out on potential profits.” Tech companies simply and unimaginatively create for each other and seem content investing in each other’s ideas; splashing around rather merrily in the backyard pool, they are oblivious to the big blue ocean.

The 800lb Gorilla

Diversity is a term that has become cliché and that’s unfortunate because we miss its nuances and so its value. The history of racial heritage bias in the US is so long and deep that it obliterates more complex discussions, such as the conflation of racial heritage and economics. We are left with relatively simplistic discussions of race that not only lack intellectual nuance but also that leave the structures of division unchallenged and so firmly in place, reinforcing socio-economic stagnation. These days and certainly with the re-election of the nation’s first President of African descent, discussions of race and racially realized power are considered outdated or irrelevant.

800lb gorilla

The 800lb gorilla blocking our access to sustained progress is race and its myriad combinations (gender, sexuality, power, etc.). Our efforts to ignore the gorilla are directly proportional to our delusions of grandeur. We simply cannot be effective players on the global stage if we refuse to engage matters of race in a brown world. So when an adult, whose father was a judge and served 10 years at the Pentagon, carries a concealed weapon and murders an unarmed teenager, the presiding judge’s decision to prohibit discussions of race from courtroom proceedings makes good sense – if you don’t think about it.

Youthful Future

In “Killing our Competitive Edge” I lamented the killing of our human capital. That our youth is our future is not simply a cliché; it’s a matter of fact; and, as the population expands, so does the growth of the nonwhite US sector. Likewise, the world’s population is growing steadily, particularly in emerging market regions. Internationally, growth is projected to be most robust in high-fertility countries such as India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Additionally, the populations of several African nations are expected to increase by at least five fold between 2013 and 2100. Young brown people, those under 25, comprise approximately 40 percent of today’s overall population and the number of people older than 60 is projected to triple by 2100. Despite this, technology companies create for the relatively few moneyed and well educated, seemingly blind to the existence and so the demands of the 800lb gorilla.

So What Gives?

We discuss diversity in terms that eliminate mention of race and so leave race and its related discussions void of complexity and nuance. We dance around the gorilla. In her well-meaning, thoughtful and even insightful article “Innovation Needs a Lingua Franca” (and by the way, that lingua franca? it’s called jazz) Whitney Johnson discusses the benefits of foreign language (Spanish in this case) and travel (to Uruguay) and describes how being on the “margin of culture” and “reaching out into unknown territory” were invaluable personal and professional experiences. Innovation, Johnson “discovers” happens when we put ourselves in “unpleasant” situations because it “opens a space for truly new ideas.”

Indeed, people of color no matter their socio-economic status live at the margins of culture everyday; and at least since W.E.B. DuBois articulated the notion of two-ness in his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), we’ve had a language to describe and critique this allegedly newfound condition of being. When, like Whitney, we acknowledge and then disrupt our largely self-imposed segregated communities by daring to venture into realms unknown – like so many native-born, forced and willful immigrants who courageously integrate into “majority” societies the world over – we encourage creativity and position ourselves to “discover” all things anew. Through “two-ness” (three-ness, four-ness…), we discover the complexity that brings with it the benefit of helping us see more of the spectrum of human endeavor, behavior and desire. Through complexity, we build the confidence and the capacity to face the beast (otherwise known as the blues) and move beyond it into the vast blue oceans that await (knowing all the while there will be other predators to face).

Where Do We Go From Here?

When foreign travel and in-country language training become the recommended solutions for experiencing so-called diversity; when technology companies create apps, products and services for those within their own elite communities; when justices silence racial commentary from entering into legal discourse, we feed the gorilla while continuing to deny its existence and so reveal the breadth and depth of our delusions and essentially admit to the world our inability to partner effectively on matters of global consequence. We also perpetuate “otherness” and relegate diversity to a trendy “add-on” experience for the moneyed and well-educated and distance ourselves from the global reality of a growing youthful, brown and non-moneyed population. So when, as Mary Driscoll notes, we discover “major supply-chain disruption” in multinational corporations due to “unforeseen events” the problem is indeed blindness, cultural blindness to “many crucial strategic risks.” Ralph Ellison wrote eloquently on the dangers of these so-called “sleepwalkers” in his 1952 classic, The Invisible Man. Sleepwalkers are ill-prepared to contribute effectively to matters of global significance. I know it’s scary but it’s time to acknowledge the gorilla and call it by name — these are the first steps of change.

Midday Riffs: Don Tapscott, Knowledge & the Suite Life

“A blues riff is a brief musical phrase that is repeated, sometimes with very subtle variations…”

–Albert Murray, Stomping the Blues

Did you know Don Tapscott plays the Hammond B3 organ? Don’s commentary always makes good sense to me because I “hear” where he’s coming from. His ideas on collaboration are applied on the Hammond B3, that’s what music is – applied knowledge.

Watch this 5-minute video of Dan, Making Internal Collaboration Work, on McKinsey’s site. There are a couple of things I really like:

  1. Collaborative decision management: Don says we should think of social media tools – blogging, ideation tools, jams (more on that later), etc. – as the “new operating systems for the 21st century enterprise.” He says, “these are the platforms upon which talent – you can think of talent as the app – works, and performs, and creates capability.”
  2. Knowledge: rather than viewing knowledge as something we should contain once a valued employee (in Don’s example) leaves a firm; we should view knowledge as an “infinite resource.” We should not try to contain it but should use knowledge to collaborate.
  3. Collaborative suites: facilitate the movement of ideas within and across sectors.

Brilliant! But then, Don’s a musician and so he “gets” the notion of working collaboratively.

My take:

1. What I really like about this is that it is user-friendly; it invites participation in the decision-making process.  At every point of integration — where ideas come into contact with one another — there is the opportunity to forge deeper meaning and more complete understanding. You can get to best practices doing this. From novice to expert, ideas are cultivated and expressed. This yields the ultimate “buy in” because everyone’s voice is validated; it’s democracy in action, it’s jazz. Think about jazz as an open platform and the saxophone as a tool. You can give the horn to a novice and the music created will sound a certain way and serve a certain purpose. Now, give the same horn to a virtuoso…

Sonny Rollins performing, “St.Thomas”

2. Containment conjures images of the Cold War and the ideological battle between the United States and Russia as we tried to “contain” the spread of communism. Here’s the thing, democracy “won” by spreading the idea of free and open societies. When knowledge is freed — when it is thought of as an “infinite resource” — it works the same way and for the same reason, collaboration has a multiplier effect. Ideas regenerate and penetrate barriers, both real and perceived.

3. Musical suites are collaborative extended works, divided into sections or themes that are connected by transitions. While each segment could stand alone, it does not; instead, each part is integrated into a unified whole via carefully considered, nuanced transitions. I can imagine Don’s collaborative suites working the same way, connecting related and/or seemingly disparate ideas drawn from different segments of an organization into a unified elaborate whole. The processes developed to do this work help businesses cultivate ideas and create a culture for so doing.

My all-time-favorite suite is Duke Ellington’s, The Queen’s Suite … Here’s the most popular segment, “Single Petal of a Rose” 

…so, now I’m off to think about assessments. Why?

Because if social media is a “platform upon which talent works”; then, we learn can learn much about the nature of work, skills required to perform tasks and efficiencies, and the way in which these skills lead to or support desired outcomes. Lots of transference in the educational sector regarding testing and school, student, and teacher assessments. But for now, check out this video of Jimmy Smith, playing “Back at the Chicken Shack” … I’d love to know the back story on that… and Don, this one’s for you. Keep swingin!

Morning Riffs: Apple & MOOCs

Duke Ellington, “It Don’t Mean a Thing” (1943)

“A blues riff is a brief musical phrase that is repeated, sometimes with very subtle variations…”

— Albert Murray, Stomping the Blues

Apple

As I sat reading Nick Wingfield’s NYT article today lamenting Wednesday’s sharp decline in Apple’s stock and the subsequent quotes from various financial “experts” and investors whose pessimism over the stock decline has turned “once-euphoric investors” into “nervous” (neurotic?) bunch, I want to scream ENOUGH ALREADY! Apple is a solid company and will be for decades to come.

So, here’s my take:

Apple is an enviable company and will remain so. Apple’s move to provide less expensive products signals market expansion, a meaningful effort to reach out to the next billion consumers at a price point they can afford. The United States can be seen as one big beta test. Apple will also save billions on marketing because US consumers – Western consumers in general – have been an impressive sales and marketing force, buying so many Apple products that even when stock slides, revenue remains solid and sales are up. The rest of the world is now convinced that Apple’s products are reliable and superior.

Nick’s assertion that Apple is moving into “cheaper product categories” is instructive and indicates the hyper consumerism and greed that have gotten us into all kinds of trouble (remember the housing bubble and financial fallout?) The pernicious language gives insight into behaviors that have allowed otherwise smart, savvy financial experts and investors to ignore the fact that Apple’s profits remain sizable and that Apple earns profits beyond US borders. The “nervous” twitches are the result of a gluttonous hunger for fast and furious financial gains. Apple’s success should be valued long term. It’s great that Apple’s financial acceleration was dizzying for so long but expecting constant acceleration is shortsighted, at best. For now, I’ll say this: use different metrics to assess Apple’s viability and value. Apple is not a crash-and-burn type of company. Chill.

 

MOOCs

How do we monetize Massive Open Online Courses? That’s the essential problem for higher education. Thanks to the Internet and companies like Apple and Google, we are able to give away course content free of charge. The problem is this: universities rely so heavily on tuition as a source of revenue, that MOOCs totally disrupt and simultaneously fascinate higher ed boards, administrators, and wily investors as they devise ways to generate more money. What do we do? It seems to me that the more we democratize knowledge acquisition via the Internet’s open platform, the more we increase the value of face-time. Here are two ideas, let me know what you think:

  • Change the education delivery model: Roving professors would create dynamic classrooms where professors and/or traveling educational teams move globally from campus to campus – like jazz musicians on the road – delivering global lectures in person. This is also a powerful diplomatic tool that helps integrate students around the globe, putting them in actual — not just virtual — contact with one another and creating opportunities for increased cultural understanding and innovative ideas.  This also has the potential to effectively combat the rising cost of US tuition as – like Apple – we expand our pool of students. Break-out teams can help reach and monetize the next billion students. Creating international campuses on the same stagnant model of delivery is nothing new; same thing, different country. Time for change.
Jonathan Batiste

Jonathan Batiste

  • Change the revenue model: As a knowledge economy, we should place primary value on the transfer of ideas, not the number of butts in a seat.

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates opted out of higher ed. The tuition they might have paid a single university pales in comparison to what they could afford to do as successful businessmen. In the spirit of collaboration via jazz, engage students on a lifetime journey of learning, social responsibility, and associated philanthropy.

Bill Gates

Bill Gates

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs

Big Data, Change, and Swing

How Big Data is Different” — by Thomas H. Davenport, Paul Barth and Randy Bean (henceforth known as DBB) was published in the July edition of MIT Sloan Management Review and explores the question:

How do the potential insights from big data differ from what managers generate from traditional analytics?

DBB: “Very little of the information is formatted in the traditional rows and columns of conventional databases.”

Global Jackie: We  need people who think in nontraditional ways, who are trained in fields beyond STEM

DBB says: Companies want “To understand their business environments at a more granular level, to create new products and services, and to respond to changes in usage patterns as they occur. In the life sciences, such capabilities may pave the way to treatments and cures for threatening diseases.”

Global Jackie: It’s not just business people and scientists who engage such processes! Jazz musicians understand their environments on a “more granular” level” every time they play the blues. Amidst the complexities of rhythm changes, time and key changes, audience cheers, applause and activity, bandstand dynamics, nightclub culture, and an assortment of randomly occurring disruptive forces, jazz musicians “respond to changes in usage patterns as they occur” and create classic if not legendary compositions and solos. (Listen to Louis Armstrong’s extended solo from 12s – approx 1:44) 

DBB have three on-point recommendations for improving data-handling capabilities and since they, somehow, left out jazz musicians (gasp, shock, horror) and the associated culture, I’ll improvise on the changes they’ve laid out…

DBB:

               1. Pay attention to flows instead of stocks: In real-time monitoring contexts, organizations need to adopt a more continuous approach to analysis and decision-making based on a series of hunches and hypotheses. Social media analytics, for example, capture fast-breaking trends on customer sentiments about products, brands and companies.

Global Jackie: Jazz is social. Improvisation happens in real-time, there are no second chances, no do-overs. Musicians must process information continuously, coalesce it and  articulate it in a way that makes sense (remember, they must respect time, key signatures) and sounds good. The “hunches and hypotheses” occur as musicians craft  improvisations and new hunches and hypotheses are integrated into each new performance. These are skills that can be learned, honed, and performed in the corporate sector.

DBB: 

               2. Rely on data scientists and process developers instead of data analysts: “Data scientists,” as these professionals are known, understand analytics, but they also are well versed in IT, often having advanced degrees in computer science, computational physics or biology- or network-oriented social sciences. DBB notes that this type of  “upgraded data management skill set” also requires, “business acumen and the ability to communicate effectively with decision-makers.” DBB admits,  “This combination of skills, valuable as it is, is in very short supply.”

Global Jackie: Wow, ya don’t say? A whole team of data scientists and traditional IT people with advanced degrees? Well, I guess I can see why this is an improvement over using only data analysts but geesh, no wonder business can’t swing. Great to train tech people to build social skills but why not also take those trained in design, the creative arts and culture and train them to adapt or apply their skills and ways of thinking, processing and evaluating information to analytics? Not only will you create the disruptions necessary for innovation to occur but you’ll integrate thought processes that can lead to more effective team building, and realize hidden talents within your team. Not to worry, your organization can be trained to build a culture of resilience, innovation, and swing.

DBB: Early users of big data are also rethinking their organizational structures for data scientists. Traditionally, analytical professionals were often part of internal consulting organizations advising managers or executives on internal decisions. However, in some industries, such as online social networks, gaming and pharmaceuticals, data scientists are part of the product development organization, developing new products and product features.

Global Jackie: I like this… a lot because there’s a great deal of integration happening.  Rethinking organizational structures is fun for creative people; designers, musicians, and the like find this fascinating. Making data scientists “part of the product team” is a major step in the right direction. We’ve moved past racial segregation in the US (just go with me on this), let’s address the segregation of knowledge.

3. Move analytics from IT to core business and operational functions. The traditional role of IT— automating business processes — imposes precise requirements, adherence to standards and controls on changes. A key tenet of big data is that the world and the data that describe it are constantly changing, and organizations that can recognize the changes and react quickly and intelligently will have the upper hand.

Global Jackie: A key tenet of jazz is change. Musicians deal with uncertainty every day in every performance and in every articulation of a song. Musicians deal with pitches that vary, disagreeable reeds, sound boards affected by changing weather or internal climate conditions, etc. Constant change, uncertainty and all its associated anxiety, is an inextricable part of US cultural identity. Dudes, it’s called the blues and when individual angst is integrated into complex structures — like jazz, like corporations — we retain the “granular” even as we flow towards Six Sigma like efficiency, even as we swing.  .

 

 

Train Whistle Diplomacy: Blues-Based Jazz & National Identity

Train Whistle Diplomacy: Blues-Based Jazz and National Identity (47 – 67)

  • Blues and swing, 48 – 51
  • Blues-Based jazz, 51 – 53
  • Business strategy and corporate culture, 54 – 56
  • Government and Governance, 57 – 58
  • The President, 59 – 60
  • The Significance of Culture, 60  – 61
  • Spain: 61 – 62
  • Mexico: 62 – 64

Thanks to the Editorial Board and the Advisory Board for your helpful comments and suggestions in brining this article to print.

Blues You Can Use – Lesson #1

Ma Rainey – “Deep Moaning Blues” (1928)

Blues You Can Use – Lesson 1

“While it’s hard to find people that do the technical things, it’s even harder to find people who can interpret them, who can use creativity to ask provocative questions, who can think about experiments to run that would be interesting.” – Sam Ransbotham

We’re not looking in the right places for talent. It amazes me how many times I read about innovation, creativity, performance, talent, soloing, collaboration, etc., in business journals, blogs and such but rarely come across an engaged or sustained discussion about the performing arts. Do these high-level corporate executives and MBA types really use the words without getting the connection? I’m beginning to think so.

Business leaders need to engage artists, and vice versa. Businesses could gain valuable insight into the much-touted creative process and jazz musicians could begin to identify ways their creativity and talent for innovation could open new professional opportunities. Sam says businesses want people who can think creatively. So, in addressing the “expertise shortage” and in response to a void in management skills, companies are “sending people out to explore what other people are doing and trying to simulate some thinking in that way.” Huh?

Who can blame business leaders for using business leaders to seek out other businesses to see what they’re doing? It’s not their fault; we all do it. We seek the familiar because it makes us comfortable. Besides, in the US art is consumed as a dilettante experience and one largely reserved for the elite. So, the take-aways from artistic experiences are ethereal; people sit, enjoy, clap and leave. Here’s the thing: the differentiation made possible virtually through social media and that yields the highly-coveted detailed data Sam discusses is actually part of our lived experience.

Here’s why: the detailed data – transactional-level, customer-level or front-line information – is the stuff of the blues. The blues is a highly individualistic music that addresses the most mundane needs and a full range of emotion. There’s a blues song for just about everything and while the lyrics reveal the specifics of a situation (a lost job, lost lover, and the like) and so constitute the transaction-level information we need; the music itself is the “big data” the guiding structure of the blues, the choruses, call-and-response and repetition. But there’s more – the individual nuances of the song, both instrumental and vocal, indicate complexities that cannot be duplicated. The blues signal our onlyness and differentiates us even if we experience the same malady. Musicians can talk informatively on this stuff all day – just ask.

While initiating a conversation between business leaders and artists may be really interesting, it’s unlikely to result in much if any immediate quantifiable change. (We’ll need metrics for that but SLOW DOWN! These things take time; and besides, we don’t yet know what questions we should ask; now do we?) Having the conversation is only the beginning to building reliable and trusted networks, relationships that can guide growth and be mutually beneficial long-term. Business leaders need results. Guess what? So do musicians. They “need” to compose songs, perform at gigs, master certain techniques or phrasing, hire personnel, etc. They are continuously engaged in the process of differentiating themselves. All this and more is necessary for professional viability. Musicians, however, know mastering their instrument takes time. Do you want to master the art of change? 

So, what do we do? I’m so glad you asked!

  1. Convene an integrated group of business leaders and musicians (various artists would be great).
  2. Set the agenda to include such things as: basic introductions; brief descriptions of each craft; professional trajectories and skills sets.
  3. Identify common topics and discuss.
  4. Business group – translate lessons into the language of business and move to incorporate these into practices, associated trainings and workshops. Artists – translate lessons into the language of your specialty. Move to incorporate these into new marketing strategies, management techniques, administrative efficiencies, and the like.
  5. Do joint activities so that talent pools mix, bonds are strengthened, and assessments can be conducted.
  6. Follow-up! I cannot stress this enough. On-going conversations and trainings yield the best results because like musicians, businesses are invested long-term. Think of this as a Board of Trustees, the group must demonstrate its commitment to advancing the collaborative enterprise; and yes, we are building “trust.”

What can you do right now? I’m glad you asked.

1. First and foremost, listen to the blues… listen for call-and-response patterns and for repetition of lyrics and instrumental voices

2. Read Sam Ransbotham’s interview in MIT Sloan Management Review (April 2012)

3. Buy and Read Albert Murray’s, Stomping the Blues (pp.45 – 54, 93 – 128; don’t worry, it’s mostly pictures)

Bessie Smith – “Oh, Daddy blues” (1923)

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