“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? 

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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.”