‘Mind the Gap’ — Develop Cultural Competence

The alleged “skills gap” dominates conversations about the relationship between education and work. Peter Smirniotopoulos and his co-author Natalie Pregibon offer an insightful analysis and some solid recommendations for how we might better prepare students for the demands of the workforce, today and tomorrow. One thing I really like about Peter’s approach is his uncompromising insistence on the value of creative thinking. Read Peter and Natalie’s series, Public Education and Job Readiness, here. Peter and Natalie were also recent guests on my radio show, Trading Fours with Drs. Modeste & Wes. You can listen to the show by clicking here.

Content is Crap (S/O to Greg Satell)

My classrooms are laboratories for engaged discussion and the development of new ideas. ConversationMy hope is that this will lead to an informed understanding of the content under scrutiny and also more meaningful and smarter work lives and civic engagement. I am passionate about educating. In my mind, the practical application of knowledge, can’t be beat. Over 20+ years of educating, I’ve put in the “deliberate practice” of 10,000 hours. What’s this mean? In part, it means the content I deliver doesn’t suck.

Why is THAT important?

In “Content is CrapGreg Satell tells the story of Ed Catmull who, as president of Pixar films, was committed to moving the films from “suck to not-suck.” This is important because Catmull wasn’t just looking for a gimmick to trick more people into seeing his films. As Greg notes, Catmull wasn’t merely seeking an audience” he wanted to “share something important with the world.” For all my love of content — American culture & jazz, ethnic studies  — “content” as Greg notes “is crap.”
But academics are genuinely delighted by content. We spend decades studying our fields of interest and by the time we reach the dissertation level, we have narrowed our chosen fields to an esoteric spot in the universe that no one else has considered in exactly the same way. Academics are the most blase entrepreneurs.

Here’s the thing — the content we find so fascinating sucks to most of the world. The way to salvage not just our egos but our beloved fields of inquiry from extinction, is to deliver the content is such a way tBoringhat connects us with the audience, that creates an emotional link between the content and something meaningful in their lives. We must create not just a new audience for our ideas but “share something meaningful with the world” which necessarily requires pushing beyond classroom walls. We must “mind the gap” between disciplinary specificity and the pragmatic demands of life outside the academy.

Education and Employers

A recent Guardian article lamented the state of economics education. Students and employers are struggling to see the relevance of skills honed in class because theoretical models fail to impress beyond the classroom. “Employers complain that recent economics graduates, while being technically proficient, know very little about the real world. Lacking knowledge about the historical backgrounds, institutional details and political idioms of real-world economies, they end up being idiot savants – they can manipulate most complicated mathematical models but cannot translate their insights into business strategies and economic policies in the real world.” — Ouch!

Disconnect

Here’s another biting critique: “When graduate economists do have something to say about the real-world economy, their advice is incomprehensible to noneconomists – and noneconomists make up almost all their audience.”

How do we Bridge the Gap?

First, educators must educate as if most students will not pursue PhDs (because most don’t). Second, academics must write for non academics. Since tenure is growing ever more elusive, this is practical because it’ll help academics secure jobs beyond the academy. Those scholars seeking to spread messages and educate the public broadly through MOOCs and/or social media (blogs, video blogs, Twitter, Facebook, radio programs, etc.) democratize education and include the global masses by using language that is easily understood. Third, seek professional viability beyond the academy — please.

You’re on your own!

According to the Guardian article, students in Norway were told by professors, their role was to offer “an analytical framework” for the material and students themselves would “have the rest of [their] lives to learn about current affairs.” This is such a cop-out. The aura of elitism is used to obscure poor pedagogy, lack of creativity, or just plain laziness. However, as hierarchies go — “‘pure’ research is more prestigious than applied or policy-relevant research, and research is more important than teaching. So, the more detached from the real world your work is, the higher up in the intellectual hierarchy you are.” Higher Ed is responsible for its own marginality, is doing its part in maintaining the status quo, and is abdicating its responsibility to prepare students for the future.

The Necessity of Mess  

This is no surprise. Our cultural quest for increased efficiencies (think Six Sigma), has led to hyper specialization, the mechanization of human beings, and the devaluation of emotional connections. We seek linear explanations and simple dichotomies to explain complex phenomena. Regarding education in economics, the Guardian writes, “In the past, economics was taught as a series of interrelated debates about competing theories and the different policy recommendations of those theories. Imprecise, even messy, but useful.”

In economics, the most popular reform proposal is “The introduction of mathematical models of complex nonlinear systems – the kinds of models which, at least with hindsight, might have predicted the 2008 financial crisis.” This is great but without practical application, this will be — yet another — theoretical model. Lively debate, interactive class assignments, collaborative projects that involve field work, and actively engaging social media to disseminate and test ideas are just some of the ways that will make the experience of learning economics (and all fields) meaningful and practical. Let’s transfer this pedagogical approach beyond the classroom to the workplace and boardroom.

The swing of things

John Coates wrote a really insightful NYT Sunday Review article, “The Biology of Risk.” In a nutshell, he likes the idea of uncertainty in markets because it teaches us — via practical experience — to be agile and creative. If our bodies are physiologically conditioned to respond to stress such as that caused by volatility; then, reducing change leads to a reduction in our ability to respond effectively to stress. The result? More and more devastating bubbles.

Coates explains, “Under conditions of extreme volatility, such as a crisis, traders, investors and indeed whole companies can freeze up in risk aversion, and this helps push a bear market into a crash.” StressCompanies, however, have no coping mechanism. Fortunately, we have the blues and jazz — cultural coping mechanisms with built-in features like call and response, swing, and improvisation that endow practitioners to manage change confidently and even gracefully.

MurrayAccording to Cultural Historian Albert Murray, “what is ultimately at stake” in a moment of crisis “is morale, which is to say the will to persevere, the disposition to persist and perhaps prevail; and what must be avoided by all means is a failure of nerve.” (Stomping, 10) Seizing up is not an option. Coates notes, “risk aversion” [amongst traders and the like] “occurs at just the wrong time, for these crises are precisely when markets offer the most attractive opportunities…” Indeed, we need people who are agile, who can respond reflexively and creatively to changing conditions. Murray’s explanation of a musical break is relevant to, at least, those working in finance. On dealing with uncertainty, he writes: it’s a matter of “grace under pressure, creativity in an emergency, continuity in the face of disjuncture. It is on the break that you are required to improvise, to do your thing, to establish your identity, to write your signature on the epidermis of actuality which is to say entropy.” (Blue Devils, 95) But you can’t just read Murray’s writing, you have to apply his theories practically and develop a trained, reflexive, response to change. If you want your business to swing, develop cultural competence.

The similarity in thinking expressed in Coates’ 2014 NYT article and Murray’s 1974 nonfiction text belies the 40 year time difference. There’s been a gap between theory and practice for decades, at least. What’s more, the notorious racial segregation in the United States is compounded by the segregation of ideas — science and technology are necessarily divorced from music and culture — and this hurts us all. What we need is an integrated approach to educating; the practical application of Murray’s 40 year old ideas in realms beyond the art and humanities and in forums beyond the traditional classroom and stage. We must mind the gap between theory and practice, bridge it and (perchance) close the skills gap. Educate holistically and move from crash to swing.

 

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.”