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.

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.

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.

The Inverted Front Line: Listening to Polyrhythms

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

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

Traditional Front line

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

Inverted Front line

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

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

I’m glad you asked.

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

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

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

Panic stricken corporations

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

So, how do you define your front line?

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

Here’s Duke’s “Second Line

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

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

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

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

The Innovation Train

“Essentially, questions about experimentation in the arts are also questions about the relevance of tradition. They are questions, that is to say, about the practical application of traditional elements to contemporary problem situations. Hence, they are also questions about change and continuity.” – Albert Murray, The Hero and the Blues, 71

Innovation is all the rage. Businesses, educational institutions, healthcare organizations, and even government entities have all climbed aboard the “Innovation train” but few seem to know what to pack. Yet, this is an enthusiastic bunch that hangs from the windows shouting – higher profits! Higher test scores! Higher profits! Greater accountability! En route to a dream destination, people expend innumerable resources and too often realize only short-term gains because they haven’t packed well.

Hanging from the windows, passengers en route to Profit Land miss the scenery. They’ve not brought cameras; they’ve left sunglasses at the office, tanning lotion at the drugstore, and none have maps, a GPS, or first aid kit. You see, the journey to Profit Land is through the tunnel of Innovation but there are thorny branches along the route and wind gusts of hurricane force, trembling terrain and blazing rays of sun. Culture teaches passengers how to survive the journey, it has done so since the beginning of time through traditions that have helped people endure amidst catastrophes more sinister than financial meltdowns. The purveyors of this knowledge are artists. Why? Because art forces us to realize our humanity, to emote, relate to one another, build relationships necessary for our survival and develop coping mechanisms for navigating the tricky terrain of life and its labyrinth of personal and professional relationships. Art unsettles us, brings us out of our “comfort zones” and forces us to engage.

Relationships matter in business

In a McKinsey Quarterly article, “Developing Better Change Leaders,” the authors offer the example of “Annie, Conor and Pierre” to present the challenges and successes of navigating change. In each case, developing strong interpersonal relationships prevailed; demonstrating empathy, engaging socially, and creating bonds of trust led to improved outcomes. The improved outcomes, readers are told, serve as examples of “innovation”; change happened because exemplary leadership skills were honed and implemented and the success was measured in increased returns.

Through business model innovation, companies hope to restructure their organizations to leverage internal innovation capabilities. This is really smart and gets to the heart of what drives innovation – (cultural) identity. Instead of identifying innovation by an end result, profits, these businesses move towards deep integration of internal segments and create a tightly woven diverse fabric where different ideas and practices come into direct contact with one another and yield better ideas and best practices. Adaptability is then realized because a company becomes adept in navigating change and hence is resilient in times of corporate duress, those very times when flexibility is tested. Relying, as some companies do, “solely on product innovation” misses the point of identifying and then leveraging core beliefs and the associated corporate coping mechanisms that lead to continuance even in the face of change.

The Benefits of integration

The benefits of integrating business and revenue models are many. When these models are integrated, revenue is cast as an extension of the company’s core beliefs and becomes a measure of the extent to which employees are cognizant of and “buy-in” to corporate strategies, function systematically and adapt to change. Moreover, company differentiation is realized and when each business is made aware of its unique identifying features and offerings, the possibilities of scaling upwards are realized. This information is vital to branding. As the authors note, “A good product that is embedded in an innovative business model… is less easily shunted aside. Someone might come up with a better MP3 player than Apple’s tomorrow, but few of the hundreds of millions of consumers with iPods and iTunes accounts will be open to switching brands.” This leads to an environment of theoretical noncompetition because uniqueness cannot be duplicated.

Change Leaders

Nilfoer Merchant always has something insightful to offer. You should follow her Tweets (@nilofer) for ideas such as the following: “Innovation happens when ideas, resources and constraints collide” (4/18/2012 6:50PM). Indeed, like passengers on the train, ideas must come into contact with one another in order to be tested for relevance and viability. “To Innovate, we need to check what assumptions we carry forth from the past… that need to be released.” (4/18/2012 7:00PM) Or rather, we must discern what works and what does not, if we are to endure and perhaps prevail. “The real question” Nilofer asks, “is why are we doing what we are doing and what measures *that *.” (4/18/2012 6:59PM). Are we simply interested in achieving short-term gains and turning a quick profit? Or, are we invested long-term to the process of innovation, developing better business practices and relationships and working towards improvement of the human condition? She notes, “If we borrow the metrics of finance (scale) to fuel social change, we are using the wrong measures” (4/18/2012 6:58PM) because such measures capture tangential gains; the journey to long-term gains, cultural sustainability, is deeply embedded.

The passengers on the Innovation train must not only board but must engage one another as they yell from the windows, lest the ride become one of simple and unimaginative self-interest leading to a mad rush for a single pot of gold at journey’s end. Instead, by engaging one another, distinct identities can be realized; and through differentiation, each company can recognize its own pot of gold. The experience of the journey can inform practices, decisions, and become habits that create a tradition within which innovation can occur.

As Albert Murray reminds his readers, “The traditional element is precisely the one which has endured or survived from situation to situation from generation to generation… not only is tradition that which continues; it is also the medium by which and through which continuation occurs.” (Hero, 71-72) In other words, businesses seeking to innovate or to create the conditions within which innovation can occur, should work to identify their core beliefs so that strategies for success can be discerned, implemented, duplicated and disseminated throughout the organization. Furthermore, while tradition is often critiqued as being stagnant, it is the direct opposite. Its hybrid nature merely gives the appearance of a singular entity but hides its diverse inner workings. Never judge a book by its cover.

How Do we Assess Change?

Business and organizations of every sort are keen to rely on financial metrics for assessing the success of programs and practices. Determining success in restructuring something as significant as organizational culture requires asking different questions that queries that yield a more compete picture. These are some initial ideas:

  1. Monitor each stage of an implementation: beginning, middle, and end.
  2. Ask the same questions at each juncture.
  3. Ask probing questions yield depth of insight into areas such as: company mission statement; the way in which specific jobs help fulfill company goals; organizational structure (how many “bosses” can you name? what segments are related to yours and what are their tasks?); the relationship between non work support systems on workplace productivity; personnel “hidden” talent and interests (Multilanguage proficiency, mathematical or technological expertise, hobbies, volunteer work, musical tastes, etc.).
  4. Post assessment “follow-ups”

Check your Ticket to Ride…
In the United States, the blues and jazz form major cultural markers of identity and through their study, lessons can be learned in areas such as: collaboration; talent identification; resilience; strategy; innovation; leadership and competition. While companies seeking to work with US businesses can learn from the blues and jazz, US businessmen would do well to learn their own culture so as to root their corporate confidence in something that holds when storms occur and counter the historic and ongoing stigma of the US being profit-driven soulless.

For now… The humanistic qualities that served Annie, Conor and Pierre, are honed through art as a matter of disciplinary practice and professional viability. Artists are change agents, conductors on the train of Innovation and when they check your ticket to ride, check your ego – listen, learn, and innovate – meaningfully.

Theatre Reimagined

Elephant Sperm Banks — Good Idea for Business & for Jazz

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

Inbred businesses

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

Hybridity in business

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

Stagnant Jazz?

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

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

Change, Grow & Be Stronger…

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

Collective Improvisation

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

Six-part Harmony

Recently, I’ve written about seemingly disparate but related conversations. As if these conversations are individual musical notes, they fill my mind with a unified sound even as they retain their distinctiveness. Today’s discussion is an example of the six-part harmony I hear.

In Reuters, Lesley Wroughton’s article, “Okonjo-Iweala: World Bank Must Mirror Global Shift” reports on Iweala’s view that increased globalization should justify a shift in institutional leadership at the World Bank. That this is the “first time the [top] post has been contested” should come as no surprise. The world is increasingly interconnected; geopolitical shifts, multinational corporate efforts, diplomatic reach into realms that previously lacked engagement, and the increasing global presence of universities are all indicators of important global shifts. Yet, the process for selecting a leader of the World Bank has not changed. In “The World Bank’s Quota System for Leaders” Uri Dadush and Moisés Naím lament the opaque process for selecting leaders and the Reuters article notes, “[u]nder an informal agreement between the United States and its allies in Europe, Washington has laid claim to the top post at the World Bank since its founding after World War Two.”

In another Reuter’s article, Roman Kozhevnikov reports on a recent conference where Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad weighed in on the shifting balance of global power. His assertion that “the United States could no longer dictate policy to the rest of the world” was complemented by his commentary on the US role in Afghanistan, US relations with Pakistan, thoughts on NATO’s role in the region, and a declaration for building a railway between Afghanistan, Iran and Tajikistan. The US representative at the conference “left the hall when Ahmadinejad began to speak and returned after the conclusion of the speech.”

“When Other Voices are Drowned Out” is a New York Times editorial that delineates the consequences of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case. “This naïve, damaging view” has privileged the political assertions of the elite (via unlimited financial contributions to Political Action Committees or PACs) to the relative exclusion of engagement by the so-called 99% who cannot command unlimited funds. This shift has effectively constricted the discussions of national significance. Indeed, “financing a PAC is equivalent to financing a campaign.”

Adam Lee contrasts the laws of obedience hailing from religion with those of free thinking. In “How Religion’s Demand for Obedience Keeps US in the Dark Ages” Lee quotes various religious leaders and even provocative pundit Stephen Colbert who satirically noted, “If every rule made sense, they wouldn’t be learning respect for authority, they’d be learning logic” as examples of the rigidity of rules and the ways in which they restrict critical thinking. Indeed, Lee’s timeline of historical events and his alignment of blind faith and obedience with maintaining the status quo in oligarchies are convincing. He contrasts rigid structure with democracy, a relatively new way of governing societies in which power is believed to be dispersed amongst the citizens. Lee encourages his readers to “throw off that ancient and limiting mindset… act and speak as we choose” so that “humanity as a whole will prosper.”

Finally, and for now, “Overcoming the Stress of ‘Englishnization’ is an article written about a case study conducted by Tdsedal Neeley, “Language and Global ‘Englishnization’ at Rukuten” that describes the efforts of multinational corporations to mandate English as the language of business. Basically, when non-native English speakers were made to communicate only in English, they experienced high levels of anxiety and decreased self-confidence in their professional ability. Neeley explains, “There’s this universal experience of status diminution when people compare their native/formally trained language to this new language.” She continues, “[N]o matter how fluent some people are in English, they believe they’ll never be as sophisticated, as influential, or as articulate as they are in their native language.”

How in the world do such different “notes” harmonize in my head? After all, these segments represent taxonomical dissimilarity . However, thematically, the connections seem clear (to me!). The changing geopolitical topography noted in Wroughton’s article regarding candidacy at the World Bank is illuminated by the critique of the Bank’s organizational structure – its inherent hierarchy and nepotism – noted by Dadush and Naím. The inconsistency between the geopolitical reality and the organizational structure at the World Bank as noted by the authors, effectively obscures or silences the reality of new, different and multiple actors having a voice in global institutions. Similarly, the New York Times editorial laments the consequences of PACs, the powerful elite, shaping the political landscape in the US. Those silenced in the US represent the non moneyed and the majority of potential voters. This silence is evident in Kozhevnikov’s article as he takes notice of the US delegate who took leave when Ahmadinejad began to speak. Lee’s article about religion and obedience is essentially about the historic ways in which power has silenced disparate voices in order to retain the status quo. Neeley’s case study makes clear, such silencing occurs when people are not confident their communication is effective. In Neeley’s study, such silencing has consequences that lead to anxiety, which can have dire consequences on workplace performance. Here it is necessary to note, the silence may be countered with deeper, ongoing and more meaningful integration into the English language as part of the process of cultural osmosis.

The “notes” come together in harmony, to reveal a cohesive understanding of seemingly disparate voices. Duke Ellington was a master at illuminating individuality while advancing a singular mission or composition. Individually, each note articulates a single point-of-view; together, the harmony resonates broadly. In a jazz ensemble, this diversity is also captured in instrumental sections. In the present scenario, the diverse notes or voices represent cacophony while the voices of the powerful “few” move towards a particular type of cohesion; one that lacks diversity and is unified against the many. This is bad in music because it indicates monotonality; in business, it represents a lack of competition or monopoly; in language, it is monolinguistic; in politics, dictatorship.

As diversity in voices enriches music; so, too, does it enrich business, culture, politics and associated organizational structures. Harmony, the balancing of individual voices to create a rich sound, requires coordination and diversity. The silencing of voices, literally and metaphorically, is not only unimaginative but leads to no good place.

No Rhythm, No Rhyme

I participate in a lot of Blogs on Business, Education and International Relations. What’s always surprising to me is that people say the “same thing” repeatedly. We all want to be better and do better and we are looking for ways to achieve this utopian goal.

Oddly, I have found, business leaders (at least those who participate on the blogs I read) aren’t simply or exclusively profit-driven money fiends. The stereotypical 1% attitudes are missing. Don’t get me wrong, there have been some pretty nasty comments made amongst participants but they take the form of being sexist or elitist in terms of expressing educational or imagined intellectual superiority, not capitalist. While I’m tempted to begin a rant on the relationship between sexism, elitism and capitalism — I’ll refrain (for now) because I have more to say about engagement.

Engagement is understood as being vital to continued growth. I’ve written here about engagement pertaining to diplomacy and emerging markets. So, for now, I’ll focus on my observation on disparate entities saying the same thing but within their own circles, not across perceived (and so very real) disciplinary lines.

Take Jerry Weissman’s article, “When Someone Asks You a Question, Respond” for example. Jerry is frustrated with people not answering direct questions. I feel his pain; I mean, really, what gives? He uses a number of examples including some from the current US presidential race to finally tell us, “You must respond to all questions.”[1] In “Education Keeps America Safe” Condoleezza Rice and Joel Klein lament the lack of foreign language training in the US and using the case of Iraq note, “of 250 intelligence personnel, fewer than five had the aptitude to put pieces together to form a conclusion.”[2] Peter Campelli finds fault in the US “plug ‘n play” approach to hiring. “Here” he says, “the story is about getting a ‘just-in-time’ workforce, finding the precise workers we need just at the time we need them but letting them go when our needs change and then replacing them with new ones.”[3] International Education advocate Vincent C. Jonson recommends, “mainstreaming global and cross-cultural learning on all campuses across the higher education spectrum; making study abroad the norm, rather than the exception; and ensuring that foreign language instruction actually produces graduates who can effectively communicate in a foreign language”[4] as ways to improve overall competitiveness, build a stronger educational system and prepare workers for meaningful participation in the global economy.

… but these people aren’t talking to one another.

No rhythm, no rhyme people. Each person is sending out a “call” for help but there’s no meaningful “response” and so no rhythm (or conversation) is created or sustained. Rice and Klein’s understanding of international education and foreign language training is related toJohnson’s and both are related to Campelli’s dilemma with “plug ‘n play” hiring because the goal is for all is to create a sustainable workforce, long term and there is much agreement on what is needed. Expanding globalization can lead to increased GDP and I’ll just bet expanding or deepening the integration between seemingly disparate fields can increase innovation and lead to, at least, increased GDP.[5]

For all the talk of diversity and engagement, the rhythm section isn’t working together, there’s no collaboration just a lot of talk while each person plays solo. Call-and-response hails from the blues and shapes the jazz music we love to hear where instruments trade off on the melody. Call-and-response also shapes hip hop (S/O to C.O.D.E. Mizells blog) as is indicated in the rhyming pattern that creates the rhythm but I’ll let Ben tell you more about that. Know the culture people, no rhythm no rhyme…

Jazz Ensembles, Diplomacy and Emerging Markets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

[4] Clinton, 18.

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

[6] Ibid.

[7] Florida and Martin

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

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

[10]Navi Radju and Jaideep Prabhu

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

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

There’s a standard seating arrangement in a jazz ensemble; reeds up front, brass in back, rhythm to the side. Jazz seating arrangment imageThe configuration of the ensemble can be changed by the conductor to accommodate her/his artistic vision and the personnel can be expanded or contracted in order to evoke a certain sound, mood, nuance, etc. Chair positions within sections can be arranged to accommodate variations in desired sound. Individual sounds work together to express a common idea and the sound is enriched when there is a diversity of voices. The artistic director is a position that rotates and for a given performance, s/he has the authority to determine the set list. This arrangement has the benefit of being both flexible and diverse.

Will it Go ‘Round in Circles?

This is a great question posed by  Billy Preston but first, Nilofer Merchant’s ideas on concentric circles… In her HBR blog Nilofer explains, “In the concentric model (as in jazz), each party has a role to play that meets shared objectives. Each ‘layer’ has power. Yet each always shares the joint goal. concentric circlesCompared to top-down hierarchy where the things are aligned at the top but then divided into parts, the concentric model shifts power to each “circle” (or musician in the case of jazz).” hierarchy imageThis is similar to my own thinking about jazz ensembles where each ‘layer’ is an instrumental section (reeds, brass, rhythm). As concentric circles move around a given point, so too do ensembles change around the shared goal of performing the score. Chair arrangements change, personnel is increased and decreased, and the artistic director position rotates. All this allows differing artistic visions to be realized and different talent groups to be illuminated. Additionally, different outcomes are realized although the overall goal is singular. Billy Preston’s song is relevant here because in his song “that ain’t got no melody” in his story that “ain’t got no moral” and his dance that “ain’t got no steps” he dares to reimagine his lived reality and embraces uncertainty such as that in reimagining hierarchy. Not only will Billy sing the song with no melody to his friends, he allows the “bad guy” to win every once in a while” in his story with no moral, and in his dance with no steps, he “lets the music move [him] around.” Uncertainty imageTurning normality (hierarchy) on its head and daring to engage uncertainty, Billy wonders “Will it go round in circles? Will it fly high like a bird up in the sky?” What will be the outcome of such daring and bold moves?

When leadership is not stagnant things change. Everyone is engaged and can see potential (think no glass ceiling), has decision-making authority, and can also function as an effective team member when systems are flexible and reality is creatively conceived. When all voices are validated, the sound of ensemble is enriched. When all members of a team are empowered by having decision-making ability – when concentric circles pull in talent that exists near the circumference – they can view their contributions as meaningful in the journey to reach a common goal. As it happens, such “buy in” is likely to reap benefits. In “The US Needs to Make More Jobs More Creative” Richard Florida and Roger Martin suggest asking “employees to exercise judgment and [involve them in] decision-making in order to innovate and enhance the productivity of the operation” so that “the possibility for higher productivity, higher firm performance and higher wages exists.”

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

In their study of creativity and the US job market, Richard and Roger distinguish between types of employment (routine oriented and creativity-oriented jobs) and income (by occupational groups and industry types). They find that no matter the industry, wages are better in clustered industries (geographically specific and trade mostly outside their home area) than in dispersed industries (they note primary medical care). By extension we can consider global governing systems where each region in a multilateral system can be seen as a clustered “industry” having specific strengths and expertise.
Global IndustryEngaging our multilateral world will mean acknowledging strengths in various sectors and being cognizant of leadership therein. Richard and Roger are concerned about the “current challenges with income inequality” given the income disparity between creativity-oriented workers in clustered industries and routine-service workers in dispersed industries. While the authors note, “there is no quick fix for this problem” they insist “we have to rethink how we utilize workers in our advanced economy.” Asking workers what they think about various processes pertaining to their work-life can tap into resources we’ve yet to discover and increase productivity in ways we’ve not imagined. Flexible arrangements like jazz ensembles or concentric circles are two examples that appeal to me because they dismantle typical organizational hierarchy in favor of lateral, flexible arrangements of people who do a better job of realizing talent, engaging democratically, and altering leadership.

Who will Sing the Song, Tell the Story and Dance?

Yet, structures that lend themselves to flexibility and diversity also require much of the individual. People must not view their positions as “routine” and must “exercise judgment [and] decision-making.” (Richard and Roger again) In a jazz ensemble, for example, each person must be a master of her/his chosen instrument; which means demonstrating exceptional technical ability, infallible literacy, and a deep knowledge of the music and its associated traditions in order to adapt to ever-changing conditions or the possibility or likelihood of change. Each person must contribute her/his voice because to do otherwise would hurt the overall sound. Surely there will be anxiety surrounding the practice of engaging people who are not accustomed to being engaged. Even world-class musicians face difficulty and anxiety when faced with performing new music. Expressing the views of members of the Berlin Philharmonic as they prepared to perform the premiere of Wynton Marsalis’s Swing Symphony, Conductor Sir Simon Rattle said, “the trouble is, we just feel so stiff in comparison.”[1] Human frailty notwithstanding, the depth of knowledge and training of world-class musicians coupled with their ability to meet change head-on and prevail in spite of anxiety is required and the more experience a musician has, the greater the likelihood that s/he can enter into volatile situations confidently and deliver sound results.

Democracy, or Who’s Running this Show?

From jazz ensembles and concentric circles, my thoughts moved deeper into democracy, civic engagement and leadership. Global communicationDana Nelson’s provocative text, Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People came to mind. Far from arguing against having a president, Dana Nelson insists that the president is not our Savior and can’t solve our problems. She places that Herculean responsibility squarely on our shoulders and argues for increased civic engagement “something larger than federal and local government and definitely more expansive than presidential leadership.” (183) In insisting that we commit to the “never-ending work of negotiating democratic disagreement,” accept a “certain level of political disunity” and the “unpredictability that lives hand-in-glove with increased creativity” she holds people accountable for their own destiny and asks us to re-imagine democracy as currently practiced. (184) Unknowingly, she also harkens the lessons of blues and conjures Billy Preston’s song “that ain’t got no melody” because she wants people to move beyond their comfort zones. Dana Nelson like Billy Preston advocates “reimagining and expanding democracy as an open system, a project nourished by both our independence and by our interdependence.” (185) – jazz ensemble, concentric circles.

Back to Basics…

Businesses are changing various management styles as our global interconnectedness increases and becomes clearer and as social media challenges existing frameworks for operational efficiency. Going back in time and using the example of Bell Labs and a NYT article highlighting the company’s history of innovation written by Jon Gertner, I found several remarkable similarities between jazz ensembles and corporations, including: (1) the incremental improvements Bell made en route to (but with no guarantee of) revolutionary innovations; (2) the necessity of physical proximity to innovation; (3) deep integration of personnel; (4) physical structure/edifice conducive to business strategy; (5) autonomy; (6) mentorship; (7) time. Who knew a jazz ensemble had so much in common with a historic business known for its technological expertise?

Interestingly, this metaphor can be extended to include workers. Haydn Shaughnessy’s article in Forbes, “What Does Work Look Like When Half of Americans are Not in a Job?” highlights qualities workers will need – individuals who are networked and who can reliably “step into an expansion opportunity and fill it out quickly.” Even when musicians are regularly employed as house bands, they maintain extensive networks of colleagues near and far who play a variety of instruments and who can be assembled quickly for performance. Social mediaSocial media has only expanded these networks. Additionally, ensembles are commonly intergenerational and thereby take advantage of the skills of both younger and more experienced musicians. Shaughnessy acknowledges the trend in business of hiring, “the under 25” group because it has a “stronger grip on social media tools” so necessary today but he notes, “they have no grip on what business needs or how businesses operate.” The need obviously, is for a mixed-generational cadre of workers and such is typically the case in a jazz ensemble where there is deference for the experience only age can bring.

Quick fixes cure nothing at all…

Learning a musical instrument (or playing a sport or learning a foreign language) takes time and is an investment that can’t be easily quantified. Culture has trained us to privilege quick fixes for everything from weight loss and controlling diabetes, to educational testing and aligning cognitive ability with GDP (see my thoughts on PISA), to restoring the economy by putting someone new in the White House this fall. Repeat after me – Barack Obama is NOT the problem.

We don’t need to reinvent the wheel as we try to come up with ways to retain US vitality and harness the creativity that leads to innovation. We do, however, need to take lessons from our past and not simply, unimaginatively and arrogantly view history as irrelevant. In The Hero and the Blues, Albert Murray asserts, “[N]ot only is tradition that which continues; it is also the medium by which and through which continuation occurs.”[2] So, in taking the example of Bell Labs, we can alter the model to suit our current environment and perchance, realize similar successes long term. Innovation imageHowever, we must rethink our understanding of innovation. Gertner explains, “one type of innovation creates a handful of jobs and modest revenues; another, the type Mr. Kelly and his colleagues at Bell Labs repeatedly sought, creates millions of jobs and a long-lasting platform for society’s wealth and well-being.” Polly La Barre echoes this sentiment in her Harvard Business Review article, “Reimagining Capitalism” where she asserts, “It’s time to radically revise the deeply-etched beliefs about what business is for, whose interests it serves, and how it creates value. We need a new form of capitalism for the 21st century, one dedicated to the promotion of greater well-being rather than the single-minded pursuit of growth and profits…” We need to invest time and educate culturally from k-16, at least, because nurturing those activities that require an investment of time trains people to meet short-term demands en route to a long-term goal even when, as in the case of Bell Labs, the goal may not be immediately recognizable. Even when we are left wondering like Billy Preston, “Will it fly high like a bird up in the sky?”

Investing in time…

Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer discuss “Talent, Passion and the Creativity Maze” in their HBR blog in a way that really captivates me. While everyone raves about wanting top talent, innovating and creating new models, Teresa and Steve present a counter narrative – sort of. Quoting a Nobel Prize winning physicist, the authors write, “The labor of love aspect is important. The successful scientists often are not the most talented, but the ones who are just impelled by curiosity. They’ve got to know what the answer is.” Wait, wait! What about cognitive ability? What about test scores? What about grades? What about GDP! Teresa and Steve explain, “intrinsically motivated people are more creative because they engage more deeply with the work.” It really is that simple. Do we have the courage to sing a song that ain’t got no melody?

 

 


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

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