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Isaiah Smith
Isaiah Smith

The Art of Unlearning: What Jazz Can Teach Us About Leading and Collaborating in Organizations



Yes To The Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons From Jazz




Introduction




How do you cope when faced with complexity and constant change at work? How do you lead and collaborate effectively in a world that is unpredictable, volatile, and ambiguous? How do you unleash creativity and innovation in your organization?




Yes To The Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons From Jazz Books.pdf



If you are looking for answers to these questions, you might want to look at how jazz musicians do it. Jazz is a musical genre that is characterized by improvisation, spontaneity, and interaction. Jazz musicians create novel and expressive responses to changing situations without a scripted plan or a safety net. They negotiate with each other as they play, and they don't dwell on mistakes or stifle each other's ideas. In short, they say "yes to the mess" that is today's hurried, harried, yet enormously innovative and fertile world of work.


In this article, we will explore how jazz can teach us valuable lessons about leadership and teamwork in the 21st century. We will draw on the insights and experiences of Frank J. Barrett, an accomplished jazz pianist and management scholar who wrote the book Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz . Barrett shows how this improvisational "jazz mind-set" and the skills that go along with it are essential for effective leadership today. He also introduces a new model for leading and collaborating in organizations based on seven principles of jazz thinking and performance.


What is the jazz mind-set and why is it important for leaders?




The jazz mind-set is a way of thinking and acting that embraces uncertainty, complexity, and diversity as sources of opportunity rather than threats. It is a mind-set that values learning, experimentation, and adaptation over planning, control, and optimization. It is a mind-set that fosters creativity, innovation, and resilience in the face of change.


The jazz mind-set is important for leaders because it helps them cope with the challenges and opportunities of the modern world. As Barrett writes, "The world we live in today requires us to improvise much more than we may realize. We are constantly confronted with situations that are too complex to be captured by simple rules or recipes" . Leaders who adopt the jazz mind-set can respond more effectively to these situations by inventing novel solutions, taking calculated risks, and learning from feedback. They can also inspire and empower their teams to do the same by creating a culture of improvisation that supports collaboration, experimentation, and learning.


How to improvise like a jazz musician in a complex and changing world




Improvisation is not just a random or chaotic process. It is a disciplined and deliberate practice that requires skill, knowledge, and experience. Jazz musicians improvise by drawing on their repertoire of musical patterns, structures, and styles, but also by breaking away from them when necessary. They improvise by listening attentively to their fellow musicians, but also by expressing their own voice and vision. They improvise by following certain rules and conventions, but also by challenging them when appropriate.


Similarly, leaders can improvise by drawing on their repertoire of mental models, frameworks, and best practices, but also by questioning them when needed. They can improvise by listening attentively to their stakeholders, but also by articulating their own perspective and purpose. They can improvise by following certain norms and standards, but also by disrupting them when beneficial.


To improvise like a jazz musician in a complex and changing world, leaders need to develop four key skills: sensing, responding, reflecting, and integrating .



  • Sensing involves being aware of the environment and detecting signals of change. It requires paying attention to both external cues (such as market trends, customer feedback, competitor actions) and internal cues (such as emotions, intuitions, assumptions). Sensing helps leaders identify opportunities and threats, as well as gaps and inconsistencies in their current situation.



  • Responding involves generating novel and appropriate actions based on sensing. It requires being flexible, agile, and spontaneous. Responding helps leaders seize opportunities and mitigate threats, as well as create value and meaning for themselves and others.



  • Reflecting involves evaluating the outcomes of responding and learning from feedback. It requires being open-minded, curious, and humble. Reflecting helps leaders assess what worked and what didn't work, as well as identify strengths and weaknesses in their performance.



  • Integrating involves incorporating the insights from reflecting into future actions. It requires being adaptive, creative, and resilient. Integrating helps leaders improve their skills and knowledge, as well as enhance their repertoire and mind-set.



By practicing these four skills, leaders can improvise like a jazz musician in a complex and changing world.


The seven principles of jazz thinking and performance




In his book, Barrett proposes a new model for leading and collaborating in organizations based on seven principles of jazz thinking and performance. These principles are:


Mastering the art of unlearning




This principle involves challenging one's own assumptions, beliefs, and habits that may limit one's ability to improvise. It requires being willing to let go of what one knows or thinks one knows, and being open to new possibilities and perspectives. As Barrett writes, "Unlearning means being able to move beyond one's habitual responses, to stop oneself from jumping too quickly into familiar but ineffective routines" . Mastering the art of unlearning helps leaders avoid complacency, rigidity, and stagnation, and embrace change, diversity, and innovation.


Performing and experimenting simultaneously




This principle involves balancing action and reflection, execution and exploration, doing and learning. It requires being able to act confidently and decisively in uncertain situations, but also being able to experiment with different options and learn from feedback. As Barrett writes, "Performing and experimenting simultaneously means being able to act your way into better thinking rather than thinking your way into better acting" . Performing and experimenting simultaneously helps leaders achieve results, but also improve processes, solve problems, and generate new ideas.


Taking turns soloing and supporting




This principle involves alternating between leading and following, speaking and listening, contributing and facilitating. It requires being able to express one's own voice and vision clearly and persuasively, but also being able to support others' voices and visions effectively. As Barrett writes, "Taking turns soloing and supporting means being able to shift fluidly between foreground and background roles" . Taking turns soloing and supporting helps leaders create a culture of improvisation that fosters collaboration, engagement, and empowerment.


Provoking competence




This principle involves challenging oneself and others to perform at higher levels of excellence. It requires being able to set high expectations, give constructive feedback, and offer encouragement. As Barrett writes, "Provoking competence means being able to inspire confidence in others by affirming their strengths while also stretching them beyond their comfort zones" . Provoking competence helps leaders develop talent, build trust, and enhance performance.


Embracing errors as a source of learning




This principle involves accepting mistakes as inevitable and valuable parts of improvisation. It requires being able to acknowledge errors without blame or shame, analyze errors without fear or judgment, and learn from errors without regret or guilt. As Barrett writes, "Embracing errors as a source of learning means being able to treat failures as opportunities rather than threats" . Embracing errors as a source of learning helps leaders foster a growth mind-set, promote a learning culture, Creating a "minimal structure with maximum autonomy"




This principle involves finding the optimal balance between freedom and constraints, order and chaos, structure and flexibility. It requires being able to design and implement simple rules, processes, and systems that enable coordination and alignment, but also allow autonomy and variation. As Barrett writes, "Creating a 'minimal structure with maximum autonomy' means being able to provide enough guidance and direction without stifling creativity and initiative" . Creating a "minimal structure with maximum autonomy" helps leaders manage complexity, foster agility, and enhance efficiency.


One example of a company that has created a "minimal structure with maximum autonomy" is Futurice, a tech consultancy that has grown from 30 to 600 employees in 10 years without adding any middle managers or formal hierarchies. Futurice has adopted a 3x2 framework that consists of three strategic themes (people first, trust, and transparency) and two strategic goals (happy people and happy customers). These themes and goals provide a clear direction and purpose for the company, but also leave room for experimentation and adaptation. Futurice also uses enabling mechanisms such as peer feedback, coaching circles, self-organized teams, and profit-sharing schemes to coordinate and motivate its employees .


Jamming and hanging out




This principle involves creating and maintaining social bonds and networks that support improvisation. It requires being able to interact informally and frequently with others, share information and ideas, build trust and rapport, and have fun. As Barrett writes, "Jamming and hanging out means being able to cultivate social relationships that enable learning and collaboration" . Jamming and hanging out helps leaders create a sense of community, belonging, and identity.


One example of a company that has fostered jamming and hanging out is Wolt, a last-mile delivery company that operates in 23 countries. Wolt has developed a culture of jamming and hanging out by organizing regular events such as hackathons, workshops, parties, sports activities, and trips for its employees. These events help Wolt's employees connect with each other across teams, functions, and locations, exchange knowledge and feedback, celebrate achievements and milestones, and have fun together. Wolt also uses digital platforms such as Slack, Zoom, and WhatsApp to facilitate communication and collaboration among its employees .


Conclusion




In this article, we have explored how jazz can teach us valuable lessons about leadership and teamwork in the 21st century. We have seen how jazz musicians improvise by sensing, responding, reflecting, and integrating in complex and changing situations. We have also seen how leaders can adopt a jazz mind-set by applying seven principles of jazz thinking and performance: mastering the art of unlearning, performing and experimenting simultaneously, taking turns soloing and supporting, provoking competence, embracing errors as a source of learning, creating a "minimal structure with maximum autonomy", and jamming and hanging out.


By learning from jazz, leaders can improve their skills and abilities to lead and collaborate effectively in today's world. They can also inspire and empower their teams to do the same by creating a culture of improvisation that supports innovation, learning, and resilience.


FAQs





  • What is the jazz mind-set?The jazz mind-set is a way of thinking and acting that embraces uncertainty, complexity, and diversity as sources of opportunity rather than threats. It is a mind-set that values learning, experimentation, and adaptation over planning, control, and optimization. It is a mind-set that fosters creativity, innovation, and resilience in the face of change.



  • What are the benefits of improvisation?Improvisation is the ability to generate novel and appropriate responses to changing situations without a scripted plan or a safety net. Improvisation helps leaders cope with the challenges and opportunities of the modern world. It helps them invent novel solutions, take calculated risks, and learn from feedback. It also helps them inspire and empower their teams to do the same by creating a culture of improvisation that supports collaboration, experimentation, and learning.



  • How can leaders improvise like jazz musicians?Leaders can improvise like jazz musicians by developing four key skills: sensing, responding, reflecting, and integrating. Sensing involves being aware of the environment and detecting signals of change. Responding involves generating novel and appropriate actions based on sensing. Reflecting involves evaluating the outcomes of responding and learning from feedback. Integrating involves incorporating the insights from reflecting into future actions.



  • What are the seven principles of jazz thinking and performance?The seven principles of jazz thinking and performance are: mastering the art of unlearning, performing and experimenting simultaneously, taking turns soloing and supporting, provoking competence, embracing errors as a source of learning, creating a "minimal structure with maximum autonomy", and jamming and hanging out. These principles are based on the insights and experiences of Frank J. Barrett, an accomplished jazz pianist and management scholar who wrote the book Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz.



How can leaders apply the jazz mind-set to their own leadership and teamwork challenges?Leaders can apply the jazz mind-set to their own leadership and teamwork challenges by following these steps:


  • Identify the situation or problem that requires improvisation.



  • Analyze your own assumptions, beliefs, and habits that may limit your ability to improvise.



  • Challenge yourself to unlearn what you know or think you know.



  • Sense the environment and detect signals of change.



  • Generate novel and appropriate actions based on sensing.



  • Evaluate the outcomes of your actions and learn from feedback.



  • Incorporate your insights into future actions.



  • Interact informally and frequently with others who are involved or affected by the situation or problem.



  • Share information and ideas freely.



  • Build trust and rapport with others.



  • Have fun together.



  • Set high expectations for yourself and others.



  • Give constructive feedback and offer encouragement.



  • Accept mistakes as inevitable and valuable parts of improvisation.



  • Treat failures as opportunities rather than threats.



  • Design and implement simple rules, processes, and systems that enable coordination and alignment.



  • Allow autonomy and variation within these rules, processes, and systems.



  • Alternate between leading and following,



and listening, contributing and facilitating.



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