“Super Competence” and the Death of Management

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jazz band clip art

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

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

Billie Holliday

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

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

Data image

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

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

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

Super competence

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

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


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

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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

Is super competence the death of management? 


Hip-hop and Jazz: cultural models for business and education

Today’s NYT article, “Using Rap to Teach Pithy Lessons in Business” caught my attention because of my interest in the relationship between jazz structure, business strategy and corporate culture. So, help me work through some ideas…

The relationship between jazz and business is being fleshed out by several people including: myself (you’ll just have to wait, the article is coming out this spring in the Journal of Global Studies); collaborative enterprises between professors of business such as John Hollwitz at Fordham University and pianist Eli Yamin; trombonist Chris Washburne and members of the Columbia Business School. But the connection between business and hip-hop is a new one for me and I am intrigued.

So, in today’s article, Claire Cain Miller reports that Ben Horowitz uses rap lyrics to help manage emotion, articulate needs, and generally give voice to what may otherwise go unsaid. Ben acknowledges that “much of rap is about business” and he gives the examples of using hip-hop’s often rough language to help clients deal with troublesome board members or to help explain his own ideas on why founding CEOs are better than those appointed externally. Hip Hop imageFor Ben, rap is an efficient and powerful tool for addressing ambiguous or hostile situations; it provides the language for self-expression. Dealing with the stress of last-minute decisions can be frustrating or even debilitating; rap, for Ben, transforms this angst and channels it productively. In Miller’s article, Professor Adam Bradley situates the use of language culturally and says, “rap is such a direct mode of expression…because of the emphasis of language, of words above melody or harmony.” Bradley notes, “people think of rap lyrics as being only about money, women, status, and cocaine” but highlights its “more pervasive themes [of] leadership, collaboration and the vulnerability beneath the swagger” which are “all relevant in business.”

So, I have a couple of initial thoughts. Rap has the advantage of lyrics while jazz may or may not have lyrics. In my own work, lyrics are lacking. I tend to use instrumental pieces even when I discuss the blues because I deal with the music’s sounds and emotions and these don’t require lyrics. Rap is a vehicle for the unheard and allows a mode of expression that is powerful and empowering in its rhythmic flow. African griot imageThis tradition and its force comes from the African-American oral tradition which comes from West African griots.
I love the cultural transference indicated in Ben’s story. Who would think a Silicon Valley investor would use West African traditions as a meaningful part of his business strategy?  Who would think the vernacular language of hip hop would/could penetrate the corporate technology sector which is not known for its high numbers of African-American employees or investors?

Concerns and Questions…

  1. That the culture of hip hop penetrates the corporate divide is really not so surprising and is an indication of the pervasiveness of African-American culture, its marketability, and its practical use. As Ben’s story makes clear, there is a definite need (and a high-level need at that) for hip-hop knowledge in the business world. So my question on this point is: how can we create jobs in the corporate and technology sectors that leverage the skills of people who are knowledgeable about rap, hip hop, oral culture and the like?
  2. One thing that piques my interest is the hostility of rap lyrics and the common misogyny. Thinking imageConsidering Ben’s use of a song with “superaggressive” lyrics to help guide a client through a difficult situation: what is the impact of bringing hostility into the workplace on men; and also, to what extent does this contribute to an environment of increased hostility for women?
  3. It’s great that Ben is so well versed in hip-hop that he could open his discussion before the Congressional Black Caucus with rap lyrics (I’d totally fail). Considering my interest in educating culturally, I wonder how we might deepen the understanding of the culture that led to the creation of globally recognized rap lyrics. How can we move from a topical consideration of the culture’s use for profit into a deeper understanding of the culture in order to, perchance, cultivate innovation in areas such as business and technology?
  4. My thought is to enrich the k-16 curriculum with oral history courses, poetry and performance studies.  My guess is that by delving into oral history, in this case, we might recognize  or identify cultural coping mechanisms or strategies for negotiation that move us in the opposite direction of misogyny.

But then there’s jazz…

Jazz hails from the African-American oral tradition too. The emotion Ben seeks to manage through rap is negotiated in jazz through the blues. Whereas in rap the verbal acuity can be seen as emanating from games such as playing the dozens or signifying; in jazz, this is a matter of “trading fours” (or eighths or twelves), a call-and-reponse pattern that flows in an obvious rhythm. The commercial market for jazz is certainly not what it is for hip hop. Jazz has institutions that hip hop does not and so is integrated into the culture differently. Both jazz and hip hop have bodies of scholarship that delve into their traditions. Opposites imageJazz and hip hop are both part of the cultural exports by the US Department of State. In thinking about the points of commonality between jazz and hip hop and also the current interest in mining their traditions for use in business strategy, it would be great to have a conversation about collaborating in order to devise a strategy for meeting market demands through educational initiatives, corporate workshops, job training, etc. (Cory Booker, are you listening?)

The relationship between hip hop and jazz for business…

I guess my question on this is: in what ways can the joint cultures and traditions of hip and jazz be instructive in devising a model for collaborating, drafting policy, articulating needs and desires, etc., that connects the dots between education and business? How can we move the joint discussion in practical ways from the classroom to the boardroom or from theory to practice?