We can learn a lot about learning from jazz musicians

Metheny_Pat_131aJimmyKatzMetaphors are powerful ways of exploring ideas from interesting and apparently unconnected directions. During the course on organisational development that I teach each year, I introduce the idea that organisations can learn from how jazz musicians work together to perform their art. If we think about organisations as if they were jazz groups, all sorts of fascinating learning possibilities open up. Here are some of the things jazz musicians do that we in our organisations can learn from:

  • Develop individual competence | To be a valued member of the group, each member must be an accomplished musician with musicianship skills, a deep understanding of music theory (scales, chords, progressions), and a comprehensive knowledge of compositions that have become jazz standards. All jazz musicians must have not only the skills and knowledge needed to perform, but also the attitudes that make them a valued group member – a tricky balance between ego (think Miles Davis) and humility (think Pat Metheny)
  • Apply reflective practice | Improvisation (which is the essence of jazz as an art form) requires the ability to listen and think simultaneously whilst playing. It comes as a surprise to most people that for long periods in a performance the jazz musicians literally do not know what they will play until the notes come out of their instruments!
  • Challenge habits and conventional practices | Some jazz musicians repeat familiar routines rather than risk failure. They can be technically brilliant but lacking in imagination. The truly great jazz musicians continually push their own boundaries, move out of their “comfort zones”, and question their previous ideas about even the most familiar tunes they play. As the great pianist Keith Jarrett once said, “The music is a struggle. You have to want to struggle.”
  • Everyone solos | In a balanced jazz group everyone solos. This is seen as both a right and a responsibility –  musicians are expected to solo and they also want to take the opportunity to show what they can play.
  • Good accompaniment is necessary for good solos | In a jazz group, everyone is expected to accompany the soloist in a way that creates space for the soloist’s ideas to emerge and encourages their creativity.
  • Dialogue and exchange | Jazz musicians continuously “play off” one another, exchanging phrases and chords, interpreting, and building on each others’ ideas, and exploring new musical patterns and sometimes deliberately trying to defy each others’ expectations!
  • Embrace errors as sources of creativity and learning | Jazz groups thrive on improvisation and that means musicians must take risks with their playing – going outside of their comfort zone. Sometimes the risks don’t immediately pay off but everyone learns from that because of the continual musical dialogue between the musicians as they play together.
  • Balance structure with improvisation | Jazz music is created by improvising around songs. The songs provide the guiding structure for the music but do not constrain the musicians. In fact, the songs provide a sense of order – a continuous sense of cohesion and coordination (but not the individual notes and rhythm) from which the improvised music flows.
  • Meet and practice with others regularly | Musicians often take part in ‘jam’ sessions – informal opportunities to “hang out” together, share ideas, ask questions of experienced players, learn new techniques, and hear stories.

And if you want to hear how all this comes together, in my view you can do no better than watch Pat Metheny’s group here.


Great resources on innovation

WGICFRecently I have been working with Oxfam Novib on the issue of innovation. Whilst preparing for a workshop, I found some really great resources. Starting with books, I can strongly recommend Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, Tim Harford’s Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, and Adrian Cho’s The Jazz Process: Collaboration, Innovation and Agility. For practical tools try Dave Gray’s Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers and Changemakers.

There’s lots of on-line resources available too. The Australian Psychological Society produced a special publication on Innovation that you can download here Innovation-in-Organisations; NESTA has a great downloadable resource on prototyping , the Wikipedia article on innovation leadership is worth a look, and Olivier Serrat’s series Knowledge Solutions will help to expand anyone’s toolbox.

Lego and organisational development

Earlier this week I was invited to a seminar at the University of Edinburgh Business School. I have been invited to other evening events and usually decline to make the journey but two things made me decide to go this time. The first was the venue – the Business School has moved to new premises and I was interested to see the new setting for my alma mater. The second was the subject – playing with Lego for business purposes. Who could refuse? The seminar was organised by Invenzyme and used a trademarked approach called Lego Serious Play. I’m not a believer in people packaging old ideas in new clothes so I admit to being very skeptical at the outset. However, because I regularly ask people to draw ‘rich pictures’ of their organisational dilemmas (a technique I learned from Soft Systems Methodology) in my consultancy work I was interested to see how much difference adding a third dimension would make.
I think the answer is “a significant amount”. Though I have yet to use Lego in this way I am now planning to try out some model building on the course on organisational development I will be running in Oxford in a couple of weeks’ time.
Back to the Business School seminar. I was won over by the fact that we were each given a little plastic pot of Lego before the presentation. (But why did we all have to have identical pieces, I wondered.) Actually, it was just as well we had the Lego at the beginning because I found the presentation somewhat, how can I put it, lacking in energy. So I found I could easily listen to the speaker (15%), watch his rather good powerpoint (20%) AND doodle with my Lego at the same time (65%). Looking around the room at the fifty or so other participants, it was interesting to see the different reactions. There seemed to be two groups – those who didn’t open up their pots until told to do so and the rest of us who were already on our third construction before we were given the first assignment.
So, somewhat inadvertently, the speaker proved his point. That we learn better by using our hands as we listen and talk. All good Piagetian stuff.
The conditions were not the best for creative thinking. Ranked seating in a lecture theatre doesn’t make communication easy but the exercises were fun “Build a model of yourself as a leader”, “Build a model of a challenge you are facing in your work” each followed by a period of talking to the person next to you.
Before I attended I had looked at some of the background literature on Lego Serious Play and have since found other material explaining that LSP (as it is called) has gone Open Source. Well done Lego!
By an interesting coincidence (if there are such things), I found that one of the theoretical sources for Lego Serious Play is the book ‘Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience’ by Csikszenmihaliyi which I picked up recently and had started reading with great interest.
So what did I learn from the seminar? That playing while listening and problem-solving really does tap into interesting areas of creative thinking. That, as with all techniques, it is the quality of the facilitation that really makes the difference between a successful session and a flop. That I will try using Lego instead of rich picture methodology and see what difference it makes especially for those who say “But I can’t draw!” Perhaps most of all I learned that I still love playing with Lego almost fifty years after receiving my first set.