• John Chambers, PhD

Jazz in the Office


In Louis Armstrong Park, toward the edge of New Orleans’ French Quarter, we pay homage to this one-of-a-kind city. Embracing its musical heritage are monuments of artists that are no longer with us. And there are expressions from new artists that are with us, like Shelena Jones-Adele, who sculpted New Orleans Marching Brass Band. Her piece reminds us that individuality of expression and uniqueness of instrumentation gift us with collective beauty.

Inspirational Paradox

While conjuring darker, sadder institutions, we can still embrace a better, more prosperous future. When we walk Congo Square, the location carries the paradox of historic desolation with optimism. There was vile disregard and pain, which was survived through the human need for gathering, socialization and support. It is where slaves would come together on their so-called “day off,” to talk and dance. And live. Centuries later we remember.

As if New Orleans needed any more tourists, the great city’s precursor to Lent explodes in a Fat Tuesday celebration of life, confined chaos, and spiritual depth. For those who partake – rather, excessively consume – in a bath of bourbon and beads, they may not remember what they saw, nor heard.

And that would be a pity.

This city is a treasure, far more than wild fanfare hanging from suspended porches; although, hey, that’s fun too. Architecturally and aurally, it is a story of suffering and recovery, hurricane and historical diversity. It is artistry and, in case we didn’t know, it’s the cradle of jazz.

Management Lessons of Jazz

With fingers on valves and breaths on the mouthpiece, there is something miraculous inside the brass sounds of jazz.

Something similar is miraculous inside the walls of the corporate office.

It is called “collective improvisation.”

In this musical style, whether a standard or a new composition, each instrument supports and adds to the piece’s theme. Each player in the ensemble contributes to the interpretation, allowing the musician to create his own ideas and to share them with the other members. Isn’t that the core of innovation, the key of creativity, the respect of originality?

A decade and a half ago, Katrina’s violence left behind submerged homes and broken dreams. While renovation and recovery continue still, that is only one aspect of the city’s struggle with poverty. As in most cities, poverty’s generational cycle has few answers, yet many ideas.

And I am biased toward my own belief: the answer sings inside of economic expansion and development. The answer is more enterprise and an informal institution called awareness of our fellows. It is a skill every executive and leader needs. It is a song that will carry us to the promised land of prosperity. Well, at least it will lead us there. In the corporate office, surrounded by colleagues with differing talents and roles, New Orleans has gifted us a musical metaphor and a guide to the light. The soul of jazz is the lifeblood of the finest firms…

There are so many threads that chronicle and explain the origin of jazz; it’s like trying to explain the origin of business, trying to define what we call “the firm.” But there’s a fundamental slice of humanity’s evolution in jazz and in business. It is called innovation.

Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and Dave Brubeck are a few immortals that all likened jazz to “freedom,” not only in its musical form but in its passion and expression regarding the human condition. There is a continuum – serene to celebratory, contemplative to sad. But did you ever feel that no matter how real B.B King’s blues were, there was still a shrug toward the doldrums and a grin toward better days ahead? When Louis Armstrong sang “The Saints Go Marching In,” there’s poignancy and harsh reality, but still the dream of tomorrow.

Nevertheless, one cannot say that the centuries-old, prejudice over physical differences is the only impetus of jazz. That would disrespect multiple factors, European, Creole, as well as African. At the heart of every ethnicity is humanity’s love of freedom, forever threaded inside of music.

Relatively close to the park in the central business district, is the corporate enterprise of today, the enterprise who seeks differentiation, who struggles to build cultures of innovation. These are enterprises who can emulate jazz’s most startling and powerful phenomena – fluidity, respect and originality. But rolling with the rhythm of innovation and creativity still requires norms. To be sure, jazz has rules. It is no more about disregarding structure as agile programming is about disregarding project management. There is a framework. There is form and cohesion. But it balances the attributes of structure with the freedom for discovery. That discovery hums across all disciplines in the company…..

Moments in the Sun

The ensemble instruments, perhaps clarinet, trumpet, bass, drum, and piano, all have a specific part in holding the rhythm, or driving the melody, or enriching the harmony. Yet, in collective improvisation, something evolved in musical performance. Each player got his “moment in the sun.” As the musical piece flowed, a variation of interpretation was allowed, and the virtuoso skill in the clarinet, trumpet, bass, drum and piano interjected its genius, its thoughts about the performance.

In every group, conference, scrum resides individualized wealth for the firm. Each member of the department has something useful -- no, something wonderful – to add to the problem solving, creation, objective. If we are an innovative culture, which so many firms aspire to be, or insist they are, every leader in a meeting’s circle is expected to offer his or her own improvised, yet structured, moment in the sun.

In your meetings, is each one contributing? But moreover, is each one listening to the sounds and passions of the others who spoke before? The mature leader does not seek a parroting of his own notes. As Brubeck said of jazz, “It's supposed to be the voice of freedom: get out there and improvise, and take chances, and don't be a perfectionist - leave that to the classical musicians.” This isn’t disrespect to the classicist, just a recognition that genesis of creativity lives in free form of artistic expression, geared to new approaches and new tonalities.

Your direct reports, your own “ensemble,” will meet a few times per month, in what is called the staff meeting. And it’s often far less dynamic than a quintet’s jam. So, how are you inspiring the session?

We’ve discussed, in other essays, the need for focus and thematic consideration; meaning, whether it’s a discussion on a strategic attribute or a new endeavor, an organizational change or a product launch, the session has a focus. After decades I still haven’t heard a compelling rationale for the round table, so-called status update, where each manager spouts off a few items that are less about departmental advantage and more about proving that the manager did something the past week.

As leader of the session, as driver of the music, what is it that we want to accomplish? If you must, then capture a weekly status from the mouths of the team, but that ought to be a small, very small, measure of the staff meeting’s purpose or value.

The meeting is collective improvisation, borne of focus on a specific theme, a specific problem, a project or program. Inspire your ensemble, provoke contemplation and many moments in the sun. Don’t spend precious time on a laundry list of, “We finished testing the monitoring widget…” “I have a meeting with Tom on Monday to discuss the merger…” “The contract with Amazon will be signed today…”

Really? Who dat?! Of course, we expect that’s what you did!!

We expect the musician to polish the instrument, tune the strings, lubricate the valves. We don’t need to see that during the jam. There’s an expectation that each valuable player is doing his or her own housekeeping. The ensemble in the meeting room is the ensemble focused on delivering the musical piece. Keep your meetings thematically focused. Use your meetings to solve problems and drive strategy. And if you’re going to have a round-robin, then the individuals in the room should be sharing items that contribute to the theme.

Diversity is about perspective

When you stop inside some of New Orleans’ more informal, musical bars, those that are as casual as a beach-side watering hole, you’ll find another miracle. You’re going to hear some talent that is as good (and I truly mean, every bit as good!) as Aretha Franklin in her prime, or Ellis Marsalis immersed in his keyboard.

You’ll hear some of the greatest jazz you never knew existed, belted out by unassuming women that look like they just came from cleaning their household’s laundry, or changing their car’s oil.

Behind a trombone you’ll see a guy who better watch his eating habits or he’s going to leave us, years before his time. You’ll hear diversity in speech and see diversity in attire -- Nigerian nightwear and a three-pieced Wall Street suit with impeccably dimpled tie knot. The diversity of presentation is a reflection of the diversity of your teams. I don’t refer to ethnicity or skin color but what diversity really means and should mean in our companies – varying models of experience and perspective, depth of thought, and empathetic yet unique paradigms of advantage.

And oh, you’ll see a lot of T-shirts and jeans too. All of the above, that's diversity; and that is a priceless asset.

By the way, need I say it? I am not suggesting that folks should disregard a company’s culture and an expectation of neat and professional attire. But please do expect and demand that your team is constantly innovating and transforming its competencies and capabilities.

So if you are sitting at a board meeting, and all eyes look at you, what is your offering? What is your unique perspective on the subject at hand? What is the uniqueness and innovation and creativity that sounds the horns of your group’s value? What is its contribution to collective improvisation?

Taking it home...

Jazz’s roots and its evolution bequeathed us a history of artistic expression, one that demands freedom within form. It is not cacophony among disparate sounds but rather a miraculous mesh of interpretation. Sounds leverage personal perspectives, by players listening to other sounds and other perspectives.

While each musician is given his “moment in the sun”, the other musicians are absorbing that creativity, which inspires them to elevate and develop their own thoughts toward the performance’s needs.

When we hear someone before us speak, our ideas expand. We hear new inspirations and thoughts. This will color our own musical output. As the clarinetist listens to the improvisation of the pianist, the clarinetist will be moved to phrase and change his own performance and enhance his own moment in the sun. When Marketing’s leader is explaining a new outreach approach, the Sales leader will color and improve the perspective concerning prospecting.

Leaders build innovation and creativity as cultural expectations.

Improvisation is not freedom to just change your operation for the sake of it. It’s not fist pounding a keyboard for the sake of being different or outrageous. There are constraints within jazz, borne of form and musical structure and collaboration -- just as there are in the firm.

This does not undermine freedom nor creativity. It enhances it through the harmonious originality, and listening ears, of the professional.

Apply the same dynamic and culture in your leadership accountability. Listen to the music of your teams, because collective improvisation is the heart of enterprise success.

Finally, wherever you’re celebrating Mardi Gras this year, shouting on Bourbon Street or simply working in your office, please be safe, and listen to the inspiration of jazz.


Note: There’s a great jazz tutorial/example on "collective improvisation," right here from jazzacademy.org.

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