managemnet company strategy managemanet What Jazz Can Teach Leaders about Innovation and Teamwork

What Jazz Can Teach Leaders about Innovation and Teamwork

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ANNOUNCER: HBR On Leadership.

HANNAH BATES: Welcome to HBR on Leadership, case studies and conversations with the world’s top business and management experts, hand-selected to help you unlock the best in those around you. Today, we bring you a conversation with jazz pianist and management professor Frank Barrett. You’ll learn how to move beyond problem-solving and embrace an improvisational mindset, as a leader. And what one of the greatest jazz albums of all time – Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue” – can teach us about teamwork. This episode originally aired on HBR IdeaCast in August 2012. Just a note — we recorded this by phone. While the audio quality isn’t great, the conversation is. I think you’ll enjoy it. Here it is.

JEFF KEHOE: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Jeff Kehoe. I’m talking today with management professor and accomplished jazz pianist, Frank Barrett. His latest book is called Yes to the Mess– Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz. Frank thanks for talking with us today.

FRANK BARRETT: Thanks, Jeff. It’s great to be here.

JEFF KEHOE: I have to start with the title of the book, Yes to the Mess. What mess are you talking about? What do you mean by that?

FRANK BARRETT: Well, in addition to the mess of my office, as a metaphor, I mean really on the mess that we all face on a daily basis as the pace of change quickens. We live in a high-velocity world with so many cues and signals that don’t come to us with clear messages. We are constantly interpreting vague cues, and we have these unstructured tasks.

And we have no guarantee whether our actions are going to be successful or not. We don’t know the consequences of our actions. So, we’re constantly faced with a barrage of possibilities that could go in several directions. And so, it’s kind of a mess. And the manager’s instinct often, a leader’s instinct, is to try and control it. And there’s a certain degree in which that’s true.

You do have to find ways to reduce the equivocality in, as Karl Weick said, to reduce the equivocality of information so that the world shows up in a more clear way. But there’s a degree to which you just can’t. You have to just face to mess, that it is unstructured. It’s equivocal. And we are always facing incomplete information, and yet we have to take action anyway.

JEFF KEHOE: So that’s where, I guess, obviously, improvisation comes in. And in the book, you talk about something called an improvisational mindset. So, what’s an improvisational mindset, and how is it different from other mindsets?

FRANK BARRETT: Improvisational mindset refers to the “yes” part of the title. Improvisational mindset means you have to leap in and take action to say yes. And yes is sort of a mindset of affirmative, I call it affirmative competence, the capacity to continually see that there’s going to be some pathway open if we can leap in and take action.

You can’t stop and problem solve. Although problem solving is necessary, it’s just not sufficient. And if you’re just in a problem-solving mindset, your imagination is going to be shrunk. The interpretive possibilities of action will be smaller. You have to have a mindset that says yes to the possibility that something new and interesting and creative can emerge.

And that yes is sort of empowering. It’s self-empowering, and it’s empowering to others. When you’re around others who have a yes affirmative mindset, it creates an environment that makes it safer for everybody to leap in and take some risks. And comedy improvisers have this expression, they call it yes and.

And what they mean is, in the comedy scene, if one of your co-actors makes a statement, it’s your moral obligation to say yes and, and to build on it, to take that offer. They make you an offer when they make a statement, and you build on it to help it expand. You don’t stop and problem solve and criticize and then critique it. That’s true in jazz as well.

JEFF KEHOE: Right. So, let’s get to the jazz part. I think a lot of people coming to this book– there’s going to be an element of surprise or interest there in thinking about what is the connection between jazz music or jazz bands and their everyday challenges and organizations. So what makes your approach relevant for these folks right now, with relation to jazz?

FRANK BARRETT: Well, jazz is interesting because it’s a group activity. You’re making things up as you go along in a sense. And then you’re having to do it in the context of others who are also creating on the spot. So, you’re acting and creating on the spot, which means you’re responding in the moment to each other. You’re being responsive to each other, and pulling on– responding to the best ideas with the hope that if we work together, the best will emerge, something good and creative will emerge. That’s what happens when jazz bands are improvising.

And it also happens when great teams are working together. Great teams, when they work together, are withholding criticism. They hit a groove the same way jazz band hit a groove. They offer ideas. They take turns soloing and supporting.

So sometimes it means letting someone else on the team take charge or let them shine or let them get credit the same way soloists in jazz are supported by people who comp or accompany them. So, it’s, in a way, it’s a metaphor for thinking about what teams can be like when they’re absolutely at their best.

JEFF KEHOE: You talk about a lot of different great jazz musicians and leaders in jazz. And one of them is obviously Miles Davis. You tell a terrific story about Miles Davis in the book. Can you tell that story and what it teaches about leadership?

FRANK BARRETT: Sure. Well, one of the principles that jazz musicians live by is what I call mastering the art of unlearning because the enemy to jazz improvisation is your own routines and habits and success traps. There’s a temptation to play what you’ve done well in the past because you’re on the spot having to make something up in front of an audience. And it’s in public, and you can’t take it back, much like executives have to take action, and they can’t take it back. It’s in public. It’s a commitment. So, jazz musicians have to sort of trick themselves into unlearning their own routines and habits so they don’t automatically fall back into cliches. And great leaders are able to help people dislodge their routines so that they pay attention. They sort of show up with a receptivity, I call it a radical receptivity. So, they can respond in creative ways on the spot. And the story you’re referring to, I think, is the 1959 recording of Kind of Blue. At the time, in the jazz world, bebop was king. Most jazz players were playing bebop, which was hard driving, lots of chord changes. And this one recording session, Miles Davis’s quintet comes to the recording studio. And Miles had sketched out, roughly, these modes, these strange forms that had never been played before, or at least not by many, including the very first song, where he sketched out these two Dorian modes. And instead of lots of chord changes going fast, he just laid out these two modes. And showed it to the musicians, and then turned to the recording engineer, and he said, hit it. So, everything on this recording is a first take. And those musicians are exploring this for the first time. And they could not rely on old routines and habits. They had to be sort of receptive and use all the skills at their disposal to respond on the spot. And, in a way, they were discovering as they were acting. They were noticing and creating and discovering all simultaneously. And it turned out to be, most people think, the greatest jazz recording of all time. It’s the highest-selling jazz album of all time. It still sells a million copies a year, and changed the history of jazz really.

JEFF KEHOE: Yeah, I love that album, as many millions of other folks do, too. And I can only imagine the kind of pressure that the musicians who were at that session must have felt being put on the spot like that and operating in that kind of uncertainty. And it makes me think of fear of messing up, fear of mistakes. And I know mistakes play an important role in your approach. How do mistakes figure in?

FRANK BARRETT: Well I love Miles Davis’s quote. He says, if you’re not making a mistake, it’s a mistake. And what’s behind that is, he’s saying you need to be experimenting and exploring and trying new things all the time. So if everything you play is clean and fresh and slick, that means you’ve given up experimentation. And so, for jazz improvisation to work, there’s going to be mistakes and wrong notes. You just treat those as more material to be explored and gleaned and to see where they can lead. So, there’s what I call an aesthetic of forgiveness, when musicians offer up the best of their thinking on the spot. And it produces wrong notes. It’s seen as sort of a failure of reach or a failure of really trying hard. Those kind of efforts need to be forgiven. And I think that’s a good lesson in organizations for executives as well. I mean, in organizations, there are some places where mistakes are intolerable. And if it’s a mistake of carelessness or sloppiness, that’s simply intolerable. And, of course, there’s some organizational settings, like high-reliability settings, like aircraft carriers, where you don’t want to say we need to experiment a lot, and we’re going forward an aesthetic of forgiveness. But most organizations, most of the time, also need to be in a mode of exploration and experimentation. And what that means is taking time out to learn from mistakes, and, as much as possible, to do it publicly. And, by the way, mistakes also happen on aircraft carriers and in emergency rooms and in nuclear power plants.And the culture in those organizations needs to be such that when they do happen, it should be seen as an opportunity for learning, rather than something people have to hide because they’re so ashamed and because mistakes are so intolerable. There’s a certain point at which, in the life of a group, or the life of a person, there’s not much more that can be learned by more success. There’s a certain point at which your real learning and your real transformation, as a person or as a group, happens after an unexpected mistake. And so great groups and exceptionally creative individuals know that. And use mistakes as a gift, in some ways, as an opportunity to expand, to explore, to become something new.

JEFF KEHOE: You mentioned that some people have this idea of jazz improvisation as pulling notes out of thin air. But as a former musician myself, it seems like there is also a very structured, disciplined, foundation part of it. Is that true?

FRANK BARRETT: Absolutely. You spend a lot of time learning phrases, learning chord changes, various rhythms. And that’s what makes it such an ironic art because you try to master these skills, but then that becomes your enemy. If you’ve mastered it too well, you’ll just play what you’ve learned. So, in a way, you master these skills, and at the moment you’re playing, you try and forget them and then see what emerges. So, the best jazz is always on the verge of falling apart.

JEFF KEHOE: One of the chapters in the book is called– and you had used this phrase before– “Taking Turns Soloing and Supporting,” And the subtitle of that chapter is “Followership as a Noble Calling.” What do you mean by that?

FRANK BARRETT: It’s my favorite chapter in the book actually. And if you look at bookstores in airports, they’re all about these homages to leaders, these great leaders, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates. It used to be Jack Welch. All these leaders, and you have to ask yourself, where are the followers? Do followers make any difference here? And behind that question, I would say, is there anything good about followership or does everybody have to be a superstar leader? And I think it raises a question– can followership be a noble calling such that it’s a fulfilling act that feels like you’re making a contribution and one you can be proud of? And in organizational life, we don’t even ask that question. We just don’t think about it. And we should because it leads to a competitive individualism and egotism that I don’t think is healthy. So, where would be a model of what followership as a noble calling looks like? And, again, by that I mean you contribute to someone else’s contributions. You contribute to someone else’s ideas, so the other person can be a star for awhile, or the other person’s ideas can be more articulate. And in jazz, we call it comping, or short for accompanying. So, when a saxophone player or a trumpeter is soloing, the other instruments, like the piano, guitar, and the rhythm section, they are comping. And their mission in life is to make that person brilliant, is to listen so closely to what this person is playing and thinking out loud, that they help them be even more articulate. That they support their thinking in real time. So sometimes it means sort of laying back and listening closely, not get in the way. And sometimes it means feeding them ideas. Sometimes it means joining their thought process and the direction, joining the phrases they’re playing in real time. And what it does, when you’re the soloist and this is working, it just lifts you up off the ground. And it makes the person more brilliant than they would have been without the presence of that followership. When we say followership is a noble calling, it’s a way of saying we make each other happen. And if you step back again, and look at all these books and stories about Steve Jobs and these leaders who have become demigods in our culture, in a way those are all the fictions. They’re lies we tell ourselves and each other because all of those people had great followers. They all had great listeners around them who helped them be more articulate and helped them think out loud. And we need to tell stories like that in organizations.

JEFF KEHOE: Now Frank, you’re an accomplished jazz pianist yourself. And it makes me wonder, is there a favorite leadership story or just a favorite story from your own personal experience as a musician that really illustrates some of these ideas?

FRANK BARRETT: I guess the one that came to mind immediately was the time I was playing in Houston at this big auditorium. I think it was called The Omni, where the professional basketball team played. I was playing with the Tommy Dorsey Band. But Kenny Peplowski, who’s now a superstar jazz clarinetist and saxophonist, we would do a special feature of Kenny Peplowski with a rhythm section. So I was on piano, we had a drummer and bass player. And in the middle of this piece, we were all supposed to drop out, and Ken was going to solo by himself. And there’s about 10,000 people in the crowd. And I remember I was really nervous that day because it was the first big job I’d ever done. And I think, probably even now, it’s the biggest crowd I ever played in front of. There was one of those big cameras up above, zeroing in on someone’s face, and you could see the guy’s face. Now you see them in all kinds of auditoriums, but this was back in the early ’80s. So, we’re in the middle of a song and everybody’s supposed to drop out, and Kenny was supposed to play. And the signals got crossed. And all of a sudden, the only instrument you could hear was me on the piano. Everybody dropped out. I remember looking up, and I looked up for a second, I kept playing. And I remember Ken raised one of his eyebrows, and he looked over at me, and he said, take it, man. And I just put my head down and thought, oh my God. And I’d started to play, at first tentatively. And then I thought, I just kept saying to myself, just keep the beat going, so everybody else can come back in at the right time. And all of a sudden, I guess I got going. I let go, and I started to play with a little bit more confidence. And all of sudden, I heard somebody in the audience shout out, yeah. And I actually took two verses. I got greedy with it. I played two verses. And then the band came in and everybody clapped. I mean, we made it look like, oh yeah, we meant to do that. That was on purpose. But it was a crucial turning point for me because I realized, first I was just absolutely terrified, knowing it was unplanned. But I surprised myself. It was a moment where I thought, OK, that’s what this life is about. There’s a little bit of being on the edge. And I think in organizations, we need to do that more often. As leaders, we need to practice this notion of provocative competence I mention in Chapter 7. Provocative competence means to do it, like Miles Davis did in Kind of Blue, is you sort of throw people in over their head upon occasion. But what makes it provocative competence in art is you disrupt them just enough so that you demand that they have to be receptive in new ways. But not too much, you don’t want to disrupt them too much because then they become more reliant on routines [INAUDIBLE] the leadership skill we need to take seriously.

JEFF KEHOE: That seems like a fine line. For leaders and managers who are out there in the world, who really want to take on a more improvisational mindset and skills, what would you say is the first thing they should do? What’s the first step?

FRANK BARRETT: Well, I think one thing is– I guess a first step would be to loosen up on structure and control. One of the chapters in my book is called “Minimal Structures and Maximal Autonomy.” And so, one thing you could do is loosen up structures, but at the same time, make sure you keep an affirmative mindset. Remind people that you know who they are at their best, even if they’re not showing up at their best. So, sometimes you have to know their potential, who they are at their best when they themselves have forgotten, even if their behaviors are disappointing in real time. And if you can keep that in mind, and then let go of structure a little bit, I think you may be surprised by what people are capable of. But, again, the notion is, when you say let go of structure, it doesn’t mean completely let go of structure. It’s just the right amount of structure so that new things can show up.

JEFF KEHOE: Well thanks, Frank. It’s been a pleasure soloing and supporting with you today.

FRANK BARRETT: Thanks. Yeah, it’s been great. Thanks, Jeff, good conversation.

HANNAH BATES: That was jazz pianist and management professor Frank Barrett – in conversation with HBR Press Executive Editor Jeff Kehoe on the HBR IdeaCast. If you liked this episode, check out HBR IdeaCast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. They release new episodes every week. HBR On Leadership will be back next Wednesday with another hand-picked conversation about leadership from the Harvard Business Review. In the meantime, we have another curated feed that you should check out: HBR On Strategy. And visit us any time at, where you can subscribe to Harvard Business Review and explore articles, videos, case studies, books, and of course, podcasts, that will help you manage yourself, your teams, and your career. This episode of HBR On Leadership was produced by Anne Saini and me, Hannah Bates. The show was created by Anne Saini, Ian Fox, and me. Music by Coma-Media. Special thanks to Maureen Hoch, Adi Ignatius, Karen Player, Anne Bartholomew, and you – our listener. See you next week.

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