“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? 

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.