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.


What can OD practitioners learn from TV thriller box sets?

I am a big fan of TV thriller series such as ‘The Killing’, ‘Arne Dahl’, ‘Life’ and ‘Homeland’. Maybe you are too. If so, have you noticed how often charts – comprising photos (usually suspects and victims), maps, Post-It notes and the connections between them – feature on the office walls of the investigators? You can see a couple of examples in the background of these photos.

Homeland Life

I assumed these wall-charts were a device used by the makers of the TV series to provide an interesting backdrop and aide memoire for us viewers who are often trying to keep track of multiple characters. However, it turns out that the use of wall charts is standard criminal investigation practice these days – and with good reason.

Trying to keep track of multiple pieces of data and then build an understanding of the relationships between them is challenging for most of us. When we are working in a team where each person has access to different pieces of the data it can be almost impossible to see the bigger picture using more conventional means of communication. Talking together and reading each others’ notes and reports are, of course, useful but what can really help is a visual representation of all the information. Hence the wall charts. These enable teams of investigators who are often trying to unravel complex crimes, build a shared understanding of the complicated web of relationships between the suspects, victims and other key players. The wall charts also act as a constant but subtle reminder of the investigation as a type of systems analysis, and can trigger insights into interconnections in a uniquely visual way.

It occurs to me that when we are conducting reviews and evaluations we are in a somewhat similar situation to the police investigators in ‘Arne Dahl’ and ‘Life’ or the spooks in ‘Homeland’. We usually work individually or in small teams and have to build a rapid understanding of the complex relationships within and between projects and programs. And yet, although I consider myself a visual thinker, until recently I have never thought to use the kind of wall chart that seems to be standard practice in criminal investigations.

So what might be the organisational development equivalent of a criminal investigation wall-chart? The most similar tool I can think of is the ‘rich picture’. The term ‘rich picture’ is borrowed from ‘soft systems methodology’ and simply means a drawing (often cartoon-type) or other visual representation showing the main actors in a situation and the relationships between them. I have used rich pictures in my organisational development work to help clients explore organisational problems and opportunities for development. Drawing a picture can feel uncomfortable at first for people who are more used to poring over lengthy reports or spreadsheets. But by encouraging us to make more use of the right-hand side of our brain which is responsible for creativity, intuition and synthesis, drawing can facilitate a deeper understanding of complex organisational issues.

Inspired by the investigators in my favourite TV series, I intend to adapt their wall charts and try them in other settings such as learning reviews and program evaluations. Step aside Sarah Lund!

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.

Organisational Development in Oxford

In the last week in June I had the privilege to facilitate a five-day course on Organisational Development at St Edmunds Hall in Oxford. The course is part of INTRAC’s short course programme and I have been facilitating it annually since 2001. Fourteen participants attended the course from civil society organisations in Afghanistan, Denmark, Ethiopia, Georgia, India, Macedonia, Malawi, Nigeria, Norway, Sudan, Switzerland the United Kingdom and Yemen. Working with such a wide geographical range of participants and organisations is one of things that makes the course a high spot of my year.

The course covers all of the phases of organisational development from initial contact through to evaluation and uses a range of methods from presentations and case studies to triads (mini action learning sets) and drawing ‘rich pictures’ to illustrate real issues facing the participants.

It was a great group to work with, the setting of an Oxford college was inspiring, the logistical backup from INTRAC was excellent and the weather was warm and sunny – what more could a facilitator ask for?!

I have facilitated the course nearly ten times now, and it has evolved a lot thanks mainly to the feedback from participants gathered daily (through the ‘home’ groups that meet at the end of each day to reflect on what went well, areas for improvement and ideas for the course) and through more conventional evaluation forms at the end of the course. Two other factors have helped to shape the development of the course: changes in the field of organisational development and my own developing experience which I use as much as possible to illustrate the concepts we discuss.

The course always raises interesting issues concerning confidentiality. With participants, I encourage everyone to be as open as they feel comfortable to be and to ensure that it is the learning and not the names that goes beyond the boundary of the training room. For myself, I have written up a few of my consultancy experiences as case studies – almost all of which are heavily ‘anonymised’ to protect client confidentiality. In a few case examples that focus only on methodology rather than ‘issues’ I have retained the real names of the organisations as there is definitely a different ‘feel’ to using authentic names in illustrative examples. My ‘fail-safe’ position is “if in doubt, retain anonymity”.

One of the topics I find particularly interesting on the course is the subject of Organisational Assessment (OA). OA – as I use the term – is a systematic process of assessing the overall capacity of an organisation. Many of the international organisations I work with use (or are planning to use) a process of OA with their partner organisations.

There are, of course, countless OA tools around and on the course we examine only a few of them. Tools can be broadly categorised into those that are intended for ‘self-assessment’, those that are used for ‘self assessment with support’ (from outside the organisation) and those that are used by one organisation to make an assessment of another. Conventional wisdom suggests that OA should always involve self-assessment but the reality is invariably more complex especially in the context of ‘partnership’ relationships between organisations where one provides funding for the other.

I’m working with two organisations right now that are jointly building an OA process into their respective impact assessment frameworks. By examining changes in partners’ organisational self-assessments over time they plan to identify improvements in capacity that can be plausibly associated with the input of their development workers.

Most of the OA tools available use performance-related indicators. These provide a way of assessing organisational effectiveness. But very few examine what can be characterised as organisational ‘health’. At our most recent Framework Community Day I facilitated a session examining the indicators that a tool taking organisational health seriously might include. For me, the most powerful indicator of organisational health that was suggested was that people feel they are cared-for by their colleagues. Imagine if we could say that about every organisation.

My colleague, Andrew Woodgate, and I have started working on an OA tool using some of the ideas that were generated during the Community Day session. We intend to make the tool available through the Framework website.

What is a ‘learning agenda’?

A major source of inspiration for me in my organisational development work has been the Canadian writer on organisations and management, Henry Mintzberg. When I was working for Save the Children UK back in 1989 I read his book ‘Mintzberg on Management’ and one of the many ideas that leapt off the page for me was his explanation of the realities of strategy development. Mintzberg’s model introduced the idea of emergent as well as planned strategy. For me it was liberating to see someone formally recognise what we all know – that the best kind of strategy is open to adaptation in response to circumstances (emergent strategy), always bearing in mind the plans the organisation makes for achieving its mission (planned strategy). It seems incredible now that this was an insight that few other management writers had thought of, but back in the late 1980s it was a revelation!
The more I thought about it, the more I realised that the idea of emergent and planned could be applied in other ways – particularly in the field of organisational learning. It fits very well with the idea that organisations need to create an enabling environment that encourages individuals and teams to reflect on and learn from their experience and from others (what I call emergent learning) and the importance of developing a more structured and planned approach to learning (planned learning). This is where the idea of a ‘learning agenda’ comes in. I don’t know who first coined the term ‘learning agenda’ but I think it is a useful concept for all organisations to consider. In simple terms, a ‘learning agenda’ is a set of questions – broad in scope – directly related to the organisation’s work that, when answered, will enable the organisation to work more effectively. A good example of a learning agenda can be found in the Bernard van Leer Foundation’s issue area framework paper on promoting ‘Social Inclusion and Respect for Diversity‘ in their work on early childhood development. The learning agenda related to policy influence on social inclusion comprises the following two questions:
1. What kinds of policies are supportive of reduced violence and enhanced social inclusion and respect for diversity?
2. What evidence, processes and strategies are successful in influencing these policies?

These questions help to shape important decisions such as their choice of partners, who they fund (they are a Foundation) and how they commission research.

Questions in a learning agenda work best if they are open, broad in scale, and genuinely interesting (to stimulate the curiosity of staff and others). A good learning agenda can help an organisation focus its work priorities and link together learning at the four main levels (individual, team, organisation and inter-organisation).