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.


If you have to make a choice between codifying knowledge and connecting people, choose the latter


Some organisations invest heavily in knowledge management systems that aim to codify knowledge in the hope that colleagues can readily find answers to the challenges they face in their work. In my experience this can run the risk of creating expensive to set up and maintain database systems that provide answers to questions that no-one is asking. When resources are tight (and when is that not the case?) an organisation is likely to get a better return on its investment if it focuses on facilitating connections between colleagues, and less on trying to ‘capture’ knowledge – especially in written form. There are a number of reasons why an investment in connecting people gives good returns. Firstly, it is through dialogue that the nuanced exchange necessary to address the challenge of context is more likely to occur. Secondly, connecting people doesn’t just help one person to find an answer to their question it encourages the emergence of ideas that may be new to both colleagues. Thirdly, engaging in dialogue builds relationships that strengthen the organisation as a whole and help to create a culture of openness, exchange and mutual support.

There is, of course, value in codifying knowledge and making it available in a recorded (written, audio, video) form that can be accessed widely.  But in reality codifying knowledge is very difficult, so what tends to get recorded and managed is not knowledge but information. Codifying information is important – especially if it provides a springboard to making connections. For example, colleagues need to know who to look to for the kind of expertise they seek, and their search can be accelerated by creating something as simple as a staff directory – or what is often called an ‘organisational yellow pages’. But information has limitations. Information doesn’t carry with it the richness of analysis that knowledge implies. A staff directory can point us in the right direction, but it is the conversations we have, the often unique questions we ask, the considered answers we receive, and the experiences we share through person-to-person connections that provide the most valuable return on investment when it comes to learning in organisations.

The illustration in this post is by Tamsin Haggis. You can find more of her wonderful work at http://tamsinhaggis.blogspot.co.uk

What I have learned about learning in organisations

This year, 2015, Framework (the consultancy collective I work in) celebrates its 30th birthday. As well as being a time for celebration, an anniversary is also a good time for reflection. I have been a member of Framework for 15 of its 30 years and during that time I have worked with dozens of organisations. Many of those organisations have asked me to work with them on issues related to organisational learning and knowledge management.

Last week I was asked by Save the Children UK to give a brief presentation to around 70 of their advisers on the subject of ‘Becoming a Learning Department’. The time was short so it was difficult to know what to cover. Preparing the talk really made me think about what I could say that would be of practical use and wasn’t simply a few sweeping generalisations. To try to make it relevant I focused part of my presentation on how learning relates to Save the Children’s theory of change. I also introduced the ideas of planned and emergent learning and motive, means and opportunity from my INTRAC paper Organisational Learning in NGOs: Creating the Motive, Means and Opportunity.

After the morning’s event with Save the Children I walked along Euston Road to visit one of my favourite places in London – the Wellcome Collection. It has a great cafe and bookshop and over coffee I was thinking about my experience earlier that day. It is some time since I wrote the MMO paper, and the discussions following my presentation prompted me to reflect on some of the nuggets I have learned over the past few years about learning in organisations. In his book, Better: A surgeon’s notes on performance, Atul Gawande writes about how he makes five suggestions to his medical students. The fourth suggestion is “Write something … You should not underestimate the power of the act of writing itself …Even the angriest rant forces the writer to achieve a degree of thoughtfulness.” Whilst I was browsing in the Wellcome bookshop after my coffee, I came across Matthew Frederick’s 101 Things I Learned at Architecture School. At an early age I hoped one day to become an architect and I love books that encourage visual thinking so I quickly became absorbed. I could see how the format – a graphic and a few sentences or paragraphs of accompanying text – was liberating for the writer – no need to develop a well-argued narrative structure, just get the ideas out! I decided right then to try writing my own version – exploring learning in organisations.

So I have set myself the challenge to write about things I have learned concerning the reality of learning in organisations. Most will be ideas that have emerged from my experience of working with thoughtful and dynamic individuals in the organisations with which I have consulted. Others may be new perspectives on topics I have written about before, that seem to have stood the test of time. Some I hope to be able to illustrate – using the format of the 101 Things series. All will focus on the demands and realities of organisational learning in the real world … and there may even be the occasional rant. I’m about to start writing the first one now.

The illustration in this post is by Tamsin Haggis. You can find more of her wonderful work at http://tamsinhaggis.blogspot.co.uk

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!

Learning for Change at the Asian Development Bank

In January I visited the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in Manila where I worked with Olivier Serrat, ADB’s knowledge management specialist. I’m more used to working with NGOs so it was an enlightening challenge for me to experience first-hand the internal workings of a very large donor organisation.

Olivier has done some great work in ADB including the production of a series of short ‘Knowledge Solutions‘ leaflets that introduce a range of tools and methods for knowledge management and learning.

Before I arrived in Manila, Olivier and I had been in regular contact concerning a strategic document that he was writing on ‘Learning for Change in ADB’. My remit was to get up to speed on organisational learning and knowledge management in ADB  so that I could contribute to and help finalise the document and also help develop potential ‘learning and development’ programs for knowledge management and learning in ADB.

As is often the case when working with an organisation for the first time, it was a pretty steep learning curve developing my understanding of how ADB encourages individual and collective learning and makes use of the knowledge they create. In-depth discussions with a range of staff members helped me move up the curve and gave me valuable insights into the organisation’s challenges and achievements.

During my week at ADB, I was fortunate enough to attend a presentation given by the renowned economist Dr Jeffrey Sachs of the Earth Institute at Columbia University on ‘Achieving Global Cooperation on Economic Recovery and Long-Term Sustainable Development‘ and for the first time felt I had gained an (albeit short-lived!) understanding of the causes of the current economic recession.

On the second last day of my busy five-day schedule I made a presentation of my findings and suggestions in the ADB atrium – an enclosed space of light, flowers, trees, books, magazines, an enormous Google Earth touch display, cyber cafe and a Starbucks – that combines relaxation with stimulation in a way that is familiar in a Borders bookstore but unusual in a Bank! The atrium is part of ADB’s Knowledge Solutions area and provides a great place for informal presentations. I particularly enjoyed using the inspiring space bounded by four pillars which represent information, data, knowledge and wisdom – the classic hierarchy of value-add in knowledge management. The atrium is a valuable reminder that the getting of wisdom relies as much on social interaction as it does on intellectual effort.


Wall-E and the search for identity!

I went to the cinema with my family to see the new Pixar movie about the planet-saving robot Wall-E a few nights ago. After the initial ‘wow’ factor had died down and I had got over the in joke for Apple users of hearing Wall-E’s Mac-like reboot sound (what is that sound called?) I started thinking about a scene near the end which raised for me some thoughts about the nature of identity. This is a tricky enough issue when applied to humans and even more so for robots, but I started thinking about the nature of organisation’s identity.

After Wall-E is badly damaged, EVE (another robot but more iPod-like – I’m not going to explain the whole plot so just go to the movie!) is trying to repair/save him by replacing numerous damaged external parts and his badly damaged circuit board. When he revives he appears to be suffering from amnesia having forgotten everything that has happened to him during the period covered by the movie and the previous 700 years during which he has been compacting waste and evolving a ‘personality’. There is, of course, a happy ending when his ‘memory’ returns – this is a Disney movie after all!

It left me thinking about the nature of identity and where it resides. Starting with a robot, could you replace all its component parts but still have the ‘same’ robot? Technically, yes. You can try it yourself with a Lego Mindstorms robotics kit. What about a robot with a ‘personality’ like Wall-E? Hmm, a bit more complex especially given that the movie is fiction but bear with me. It seems that at least in the minds of the movie makers the answer is also ‘yes’. Wall-E’s identity resides as much in the sum total of his experiences and how others relate to him as in his physical components (even including his combined ‘brain’ and memory – the circuit board). It is physical contact with EVE that re-kindles his memory and his sense of identity.

So – what about humans and groups of humans in organisations? As individuals, I believe our identities are as much extrinsic (dependent on how others see us and relate to us) as intrinsic (how we see ourselves). Identity seems to be a complex mix of appearance (which changes), behaviour (which can be unpredictable), our experience (which shapes us intellectually, physically, emotionally and spiritually), our sense of belonging (although our allegiances may change over time), the meaning we make of our experience and our memory … and probably a number of other things besides.

I’m interested in how all this might relate to organisations. What gives them their sense of identity? Organisations can be very dynamic but they can also retain a very strong sense of identity. For example, they can generate deep mistrust and inspire incredible loyalty even when many aspects change. Organisations can and do re-structure, re-locate, re-engineer, re-focus, re-strategise and adopt new names and logos and yet somehow yjtough all of this retain their identity (even when they are trying to shake it off as Exxon has tried to). They may change what they produce in the way of goods and services, attract new leaders, alter direction, and even change their staffing like a complete blood transfusion but what they can’t change (though many try to forget it) is their history. In other words, their collective experience (which involves outsiders as much as insiders). So where does an organisation’s collective identity reside? Some would say that the essence of organisational identity is the ‘brand’. It’s an interesting thought. But somewhat depressing if the marketeers have managed to achieve what philosophers have been pondering over for centuries! So how much of an organisation can change without its identity being irreparably altered? And does this really matter?

I think it matters a lot. It is essential that organisations working for social and environmental change continue to maintain loyalty and inspire action. It is their vision, core values and track record that are most likely to be the continuing source of this loyalty and inspiration. Of course, many things in an organisation can and should change: organisations need to be able to adapt to new challenges and take advantage of emerging opportunities. Adaptability and change require those involved in an organisation to collectively understand and learn from their experience. It seems to me that it may be the collective ability to understand and learn from experience that offers an organisation the chief means of sustaining its identity. If this is correct, then an organisation’s capacity to learn not only facilitates change but also provides stability – both of which are necessary for and contribute to a strong sense of identity.

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).