“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:

Interdisciplinarity
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.

Swing
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.

Improvisation
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.

Superhero

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? 

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Gigging in Australia: Project-based Learning via Kickstarter

Full disclosure – my son, Emilio, launched (with my help) a Kickstarter campaign to raise money so he can participate in his jazz band’s trip to Australia in March 2014. You can learn about the project and donate by clicking, Gigging in Australia.

Kickstarter and Project-based learning

The idea of building a Kickstarter project was suggested by two band parents during a meeting about the planned trip to Australia. “What a novel idea” I thought. Instead of simply (painfully and often with great angst) writing checks for our kids to participate in enrichment activities, why not let the event be child led? Of course, given my work as an educator and consultant, I view this as an opportunity to help my son develop skills as an entrepreneur. I got excited about the learning experience. Here’s just some of what he’d have to do:

  • Build the project by selecting and organizing content; meeting Kickstarter specifications; designing his project “story”
  • Use social media and technology in a professional manner to develop and promote his message strategically
  • Engage with fans and supporters
  • Create a Rewards system – deliverables based on varying levels of support

That said, I knew I’d have to guide various elements of the project. For starters, you have to be 18 to launch a project. Also, this is his first time coordinating various skills in such a way for such a purpose. So, we’ve had lots of “teaching” moments about how to create a compelling story, crowd funding, the strategic use of social media, etc.

There’ve been a lot of educational “delights” for me regarding Emilio’s process. First, we spend a good deal of one-on-one time together, talking about the project. I can hear how he thinks, what parts of the discussion he is/is not following, and advance or readjust my delivery accordingly. For example, discussing crowd funding was easy. Emilio is a musician trained in jazz. Explaining crowd funding via a discussion of Second Lines was a simple matter: the crowd comes together for a specific event, builds/participates, and disperses. Using social media, however, was tricky. Emilio figures he “already knows” how to use social media. So, the conversation shifted from technical know-how to strategic know-how. “What you say to your friends and how you say it” may differ from what you might say to a potential supporter (client, investor, etc). “How does the message differ?” and “What’s important for you to share?” Also, “At what point – is there such a point – when the types of messages converge?”

Several skills already in use in school.

Students are accustomed to Rubrics. On Kickstarter the project specifications that must be met in order to gain approval are the “rubric.” Given the specifics, Emilio was able to assemble content – videos, stories, images – he wanted to use. Project acceptance meant that he successfully met the criteria. Explaining the trip required creating a narrative from the planned itinerary. Taking an uninteresting, data filled-numbers, time and location heavy document and creating an interesting storyline is like technical writing. Emilio also had to decide on the types of Rewards to offer at various levels of support. Of course, the Rewards require more work. He’ll be recording 1-2 songs in a professional recording studio and sharing the music with some supporters. He will also compose original music influenced by his trip for a quintet and share the electronic file with supporters (skills: music writing, arranging, and technology in transferring the file to electronic form). Emilio is a visual artist too and will provide original artwork for t-shirts he’ll design. I showed Emilio HootSuite, how it works and what it does. We discussed timing messages to be released according to time zone; how to identify and contact key recipients; and how to track successful dissemination.

Digital Divide?

One unexpected topic has come up often during our Kickstarter process and has led to more great discussions with Emilio. Many “would-be” supporters who are well-educated and successful working professionals want to write paper checks or offer cash as support. This is most curious to me. In this experience, we’ve noticed the people who want to write checks do not live near major metropolitan areas; and while they happen to be very well-educated and successful professionally, they do not directly use technology in a professional manner (staffers use the technology). They have expressed great discomfort with donating online. On the other hand, some who want to offer cash do so because they can give immediately, hand-to-hand. Emilio has had to explain how Kickstarter works; the value of a crowd in crowd funding; and the problems of tracking donations and returning money if the funding goal is not reached. We’ve also been wondering about a Digital Divide in the United States and where it might exist, specifically:

  • To what extent do medical professionals and/or members of higher socio-economic classes use social media and technology for professional purposes (as opposed to staffers or other designees)?
  • In what ways does the professional use of social media and technology by medical professionals and/or members of higher socio-economic classes change as we move away from urban centers?
  • Also, to what’s the relationship between cash donations and employment or credit status?

That said, I’ve been delighted to find social media and technology use high in New York City across all age groups. One 70 year-old user and supporter of Gigging in Australia, described the project to me, identified the funding goal ($6,250 USD) and deadline (February 2, 2014, at 11:32AM ET); and offered suggestions for a push during the last week of the drive. Wow, just wow.

Being an Entrepreneur

Is hard and often frustrating. Failure is a constant foe. Emilio has invested a lot of time, energy, and thought in a project that may fall sort of the funding goal. So, there is the very real possibility Emilio will not join his band mates in the March trip to Australia. This has been a good discussion to have. Emilio is no stranger to such anxiety-ridden experiences. He performs regularly for audiences that can be as enthusiastic as they are ambivalent. No matter, he must get on stage each time and bring the fullness of his talent and ability to each song. What’s more, he might tank in a solo by not knowing the rhythm changes or having a “brain freeze” and not being able to translate his ideas into sound when he’s called upon to solo. Emilio also plays soccer and the angst of losing a game even when you did your very best, is al too real. Losing never feels good but it’s a fact of life. Musicians (and athletes) live in a world where “no” means recalibrate and try again.

So, Gigging in Australia has been a lot of fun and has been a great learning experience for many reasons. If we are fortunate, we’ll meet our funding goal; if not, we’ll recalibrate and try some other project, some other time. Of course, we’d appreciate your support of Gigging in Australia and you can DONATE NOW by clicking, Gigging in Australia.