“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? 

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.

Pragmatism and the Blues

In the Introduction of his Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope and the American Political Traiditon, James T. Kloppenbeg writes, “Pragmatism is a philosophy for skeptics, a philosophy for those committed to democratic debate and the critical assessment of the results of political decisions, not for true believers convinced they know the right course of action in advance of inquiry and experimentation. Pragmatism stands for open-mindedness and ongoing debate. The flexibility of pragmatist philosophy, which helps explain Obama’s intellectual acuity and suppleness, may paradoxically undercut his ability to inspire and persuade the American electorate and the United States Congress at a time when strident rhetoric and unyielding partisanship have displaced reasoned deliberation and a commitment to problem solving.” (xiii)

Albert Murray describes the, “fully orchestrated blues statement” as “a strategy for acknowledging the fact that life is a lowdown dirty shame and for improvising or riffing on the exigencies of the predicament. What is that all about if not continuity in the face of adversity? Which brings us all to the matter of heroic action…” (The Blue Devils of Nada , 14)

Acknowledging life is a “lowdown dirty shame” is nothing if not pragmatic and “improvising or riffing on the exigencies” of a situation certainly requires open-mindedness and flexibility. Obama’s “intellectual acuity and suppleness” can be understood, culturally through the blues. When I think of the intractable US Congress and those who, as in the NYT article I recently cited, are reluctant to own up to their use of government subsidies; I think of the poverty in the area of US cultural intelligence. The delusions to which so many cling as noted by Todd Gitlin who ponders whether or not Americans can have an honest debate on government indicate a lack of cultural intelligence (at best). Staying away from the hard questions doesn’t make them go away.

The anxiety, the self-protection, that goes into a conscious denial and then reluctant justification of receiving government subsidies is deeply troubling. First, failing to acknowledge reality renders one incapable of contributing to improving a given situation.  Second, the inflexible ranting about the evils of government subsidies moves the topic into an ideological corner from which advancement is unlikely because it is populated — happily, due to delusions — by those who believe they know “the right course of action.” Third, progress and democracy stall when active engagement is withheld because we don’t reach full participation and only a relatively small portion of, say the electorate, is involved in the decision-making process. This undercuts democracy in really important ways because the “representative” majority lacks diversity in thought.

Ok… so for today… business leaders deal with this type of thing and they stay tuned into grumblings in “ideological corners” and move those people to the center of discussion as a matter of sound business practice. Was reading Scott Anthony’s HBR blog today on “Negotiating Innovation and Control” and was glad to see so many ideas flowing about how to develop innovation strategies. This type of flexibility, openness to ideas and pragmatic confrontation with hard truths is common in business and is necessary in a democracy.

How do we get there? Cultural education — blues-based jazz, swing — is my preferred method… what’s yours?