Ambiguity, risk, urgency, public scrutiny: Nothing is more inevitable.
Anxiety, negativity, fear, shame: Nothing is more sabotaging of success.
These statements are equally valid for a business leader—and for a jazz musician. Frank J. Barrett is intimately familiar with both of these roles. A management scholar and executive-education lecturer with a PhD in Organizational Behaviour, Barrett is also an accomplished jazz pianist and the author of Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz.
In Barrett’s view, business is a mess just like life on the jazz stage. You find yourself in situations you didn’t choose, dictated by the decisions and actions of others. You have countless options for moving forward, but no clear rules to tell you what the right answer is. The only way to succeed is through improvisation and innovation, rooted in a positive, unrestrained mindset.
After carefully studying tools and techniques that facilitate success both on the stage and in the boardroom, Barrett has identified seven principles of jazz improvisation that can help those who leads teams.
1) Mastering the art of unlearning
“We all have routines, habits based on what has worked for us before. But this can lead to us getting better and better at the wrong things—what I call skilled incompetence,” says Barrett. We need to be suspicious of our own patterns and be fully present in the moment, he advises, seeing situations for what they are now and not what came before.
2) Affirmative competence
If we only focus on solving problems, we limit our scope of vision and ignore much of the positive potential at our fingertips. Barrett asserts, “We are at our best when we’re open to the world. Effective improvisation is born out of an attitude of radical receptivity—saying ‘yes’ to whatever situation is handed to you.”
3) Performing and experimenting simultaneously
In a fast-paced environment, it’s not possible to learn first and then execute. You have to learn while executing. Errors are an important source of learning. Instead of punishing or ignoring mistakes, Barrett encourages leaders to adopt a policy of “enlightened trial and error”.
4) Minimal structure, maximal autonomy
Too much structure kills innovation. Jazz has basic fundamental structures that serve to facilitate coordination among players, but they’re loose enough to allow for freedom. A similar balance of clarity and flexibility is ideal in the workplace, giving teams what Barrett calls “guided autonomy”.
5) Jamming and hanging out
In jazz jam sessions, rookies have the chance to learn from the experienced veterans. In an atmosphere of relaxed exchange, casual incidents while hanging out lead to insight and inspiration. Barrett points to Apple CEO Steve Jobs as an example of someone who created the “architecture for serendipity” in the workplace—by building central bathrooms at Pixar to foster conversation among members of different teams.
6) Followership as a noble calling
A good jazz musician knows when to quiet down and give others the spotlight. Although being a “follower” has gotten a bad rap in contemporary corporate culture, Barrett insists that there is great nobility in taking a step back in order to bring out the brilliance in others. “As a leader, don’t just reward the shining stars on your teams—also give recognition to those who have been critical catalysts for others’ success.”
7) Leadership as provocative competence
While performing onstage, Miles Davis was known to call a song for his band to play, but change the key from what everyone was used to. Everyone had to adapt quickly and learn new skills in real time. Similarly, it’s important for executives to break their teams out of “competency traps”. “Leaders should aim to introduce incremental disruption in their teams,” says Barrett, “to encourage people to jump out of their comfort zones and provoke a vulnerability that inspires learning.”
Yes, improvisation can be intimidating. Outcomes are unclear, and nobody wants to be embarrassed. But when it comes to situations requiring improvisation, Barrett concludes, “Those are the crucible moments in our lives, the once that create our true identity. Say yes to the mess.”
Author Bio: Laura Montgomery is a higher-education expert who blogs for The Economist Careers Network. This article was first published on Executive Education Navigator
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