In May last year, I attended a great talk by Ken Norton – partner at Google Ventures – titled Product Managers: Make Yourself Uncomfortable. In his talk, Ken talked about the book Yes To The Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz by Frank J. Barrett, a management consultant and jazz pianist. Ken talked about feeling uncomfortable, his point being that uncertain and unstable times call for embracing uncertainty, improvising, learning and improving.
In “Yes To The Mess” Frank J. Barrett highlights the leadership lessons that can be learned from jazz music and jazz greats. These are the main lessons I learned from reading this fantastic book:
There’s no such thing as making mistakes
Fig. 1 – Coleman Hawkins “If you don’t make mistakes, you aren’t really trying” – Taken from: http://izquotes.com/quote/81208
How often do people get chastised for he mistake(s) they’ve made!? Having to lower one’s tune because of having tried something that ultimately failed? Or trying to cover up a mistake or an error? In contrast, jazz music is all about ‘failing’. Like the great saxophonist Coleman Hawkins once said: “If you don’t make mistakes, you aren’t really trying” (see Fig. 1 above). In jazz music and in business, Barrett argues, there’s no such thing as making a mistake.
Instead, the focus is on not missing opportunities and embracing errors as a source of learning. For me, Miles Davies is the ultimate embodiment of the courage to make mistakes; “If you’re not making a mistake, it’s a mistake” is one of Davis’ famous quotes. “Do not fear mistakes. There are none” is another one (see Fig. 2 below). As Barrett points out, Davis was talking about the importance of continuing to take risks and to try new possibilities. Because when you do, something new and unexpected is likely to happen.
Fig. 2 – Miles Davis “Do not fear mistakes. There are none” – Taken from: http://www.ideachampions.com/weblogs/archives/quotes/
Informed risks and constructive learning
If mistakes don’t exist and we should all learn by trying, does this mean that we can just act recklessly and stop caring about what could happen!?
Absolutely not. Barrett explains how well conceived plans not always pan out as expected. “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth” as Mike Tyson once said (see Fig. 3 below). I came across an organisation once where project people probably spent a good 40% of their time drawing up great detailed project plans and 60% of their remaining time continuously adjusting timings on their project plans and “controlling the message” towards their stakeholders. Perhaps if they’d read “Yes To The Mess” they might have instead embraced unexpected factors or errors, and built on them. In jazz, the artists don’t correct mistakes as much, opting to recognise and ride with them instead.
Fig. 3 – Mike Tyson “Everyone has a plan ’till they get punched in the mouth” – Taken from: http://quotes.lifehack.org/quote/mike-tyson/everyone-has-a-plan-till-they-get/
What I like about this approach is that jazz players will learn by leaping in, learn from taking action and adjust accordingly. Barrett describes this approach as taking informed risks, taking action based on something that happen before and discover as you go. Jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus once famously said: “You can’t improvise on nothing. You gotta improvise on something.” Even improvisation needs rules and some kind of order. As a result, especially in jazz bands, improvisation will lead to collective discoveries.
In my experience, improvisation isn’t easy. It can be pretty daunting when something doesn’t go according to plan – or when there isn’t a plan to begin with. An understandable first reaction is to try and fix the error, make sure the plan can still be executed upon. However, the results of not following this instictive response can be amazing, and can lead to new insights and approaches.
A key point Barrett makes is how improvisation requires jazz musicians to do lots of listening. Jazz players need to be attentive not only to the music they’re playing, both individually and as a group, but also to what isn’t being played. When Miles Davis was asked how he went about improvisation, he explained that he listened to what everyone in the band was playing and would then play what was missing.
Although I’m not yet great at it, generous listening is all about listening more then talking, or asking questions even when you might already know the answer. As a product person, it means not trying to be a rockstar or to push through your opinion. In contrast, it’s about truly listening to what someone else is thinking or might have to offer. In jazz, there’s even a term for this: “comping” – the rhythms, chords, and countermelodies with which the other players accompany a solo improvisation.
Fig. 4 – Duke Ellington “The most important thing I look for in a musician is whether he knows how to listen” – Taken from: https://www.apassion4jazz.net/quotations4.html
Taking informed risks and listen generously leads to organisations developing “affirmative competence”, where the organisational system is no longer top down and deliberate, but much more emergent. As Barrett stresses, “an emergent system is smarter than the individual members.” Andy Grove applied this approach whilst at Intel when being faced with the challenge of Intel’s existing business drifting away. Since that experience, Grove’s advice is to “set aside everything you know.” Organisations and teams will thus learn while doing and by building up an underlying confidence in the competence of their group of people, taking the following steps in the process:
- Take action
- Revise assumptions
- Value learning from failures
- Try again
- Discover as you go
Main learning point: I absolutely loved both Ken Norton’s talk and “Yes To The Mess” by Frank Barrett. The idea that well conceived plans are fallible and that that it’s ok to learn from one’s mistakes really resonates with me. Even if you’re not a jazz lover, it’s really worth reading “Yes To The Mess” and studying the lessons we can learn from jazz and its musicians.
Related links for further learning: