Almost a decade ago I had the pleasure of meeting and first working with Olivier Serrat from the Asian Development Bank. We worked together on a range of initiatives for ADB including developing a series of courses on learning in organisations. During that time Olivier wrote nearly 100 short and readable papers on issues related to organisational learning, knowledge management and leadership. In 2010 he brought these together in a single volume and it has been a constant and valued companion to me in my work. More recently, Olivier has added to the already comprehensive list of topics he had covered in his original publication and has now published a new collection of 126 of his articles in e-book form. Knowledge Solutions comprises an encyclopaedic resource on learning in organisations and is a significant contribution to the field. In an extremely welcome gesture of generosity his publisher – Springer – has made all of this content available Open Access which means we can download all the chapters free. You can browse through this cornucopia of materials here.
I have recently been reading a lot about the phenomenon of ‘groupthink’ which is described by Irving Janis as “a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when members strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action” in other words people in a group commit to decisions they don’t necessarily agree with in order to avoid creating emotional tension or conflict with their colleagues. It is a fascinating topic and illustrated by a number of ‘classic’ case studies such as the ‘Bay of Pigs’ scenario in the 1960s when the US almost invaded Cuba over the positioning of Soviet missiles there, potentially leading to a nuclear face-off. Another well-documented example of groupthink was the Challenger space-shuttle tragedy which involved the deaths of seven astronauts just over a minute after take-off in what turned out to be an entirely preventable (because clearly anticipated) disaster involving the low temperature-related failure of rubber sealing rings in one of the solid fuel booster rockets.
The Challenger case is interesting for me not just because of the ‘groupthink’ dimension but because it illustrates the power of political influence on technical decision-making. It also illustrates the tension between ‘groupthink’ and what has become known as ‘the wisdom of crowds’ (in which it is argued that collective decisions are likely to be more effective than individual decisions because they take into account a wide range of knowledge, wisdom and experience). I’m interested in where the boundary between crowd wisdom and groupthink lies and what prevents one slipping into the other. I think the answer must lie somewhere in the idea of diversity. For example, a diverse team is less likely to become cozy and avoid emotional tension, I think. A diverse team is also likely to have a range of interesting perspectives on complex problems which should, or so the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ proponents tell us, lead to better decisions.
All of this begs an important point about the context and consequences of the decision. In terms of consequences we might reasonably think that the potential for loss of human life is the most important conceivable bottom line. Tragically, the Challenger space shuttle and countless military debacles show that fear of losing face, defending careers and simply avoiding conflict with colleagues seem to be even more important.
Although it may sound like an unlikely combination (that happens to bring together two of my key interests) I’m not the only person to think that jazz improvisation may provide us with some insights into the way effective teams and organisations work and learn. The tired metaphor of an organisation being like an orchestra doesn’t really fit present-day realities. Orchestras work from detailed scores and the analogy of organisations working from predictable strategic plans no longer seems relevant when our working environments are so unpredictable that flexibility and responsiveness are what’s needed. But start thinking about organisations as jazz groups made of individuals with the skills and knowledge necessary to improvise around a basic tune, able to solo when necessary and ‘comp’ when others take the spotlight and aha! now we are getting somewhere. When my colleague Moira Halliday suggested I bring these two passions together I assumed few others would have given much thought to the juxtaposition of jazz improvisation and organisations. How wrong I was. Not only has a lot been written about it but there was even a conference devoted to Jazz and OD in 1996 with jazz musicians playing and speaking about the nature of improvisation. I really wish I had been there. One of the speakers/musicians was Ken Peplowski who I saw at the wonderful Islay Jazz Festival in Scotland.
I’m reading about jazz improvisation at the moment in order to see what insights from that discipline might apply to organisational learning. The possibilities seem very fruitful. I’m also reading what others have said about jazz and OD. A particularly stimulating paper entitled Creativity and Improvisation in Jazz and Organizations: Implications for Organizational Learning’ was written in 1998 by Frank Barrett (who is both a professional jazz musician and OD consultant) You can download it here.
The whole nature of metaphor as a way of creating meaning and understanding complexity in organisations is beautifully explored by one of our Framework Community members, Bill Sterland, in his publication ‘Metaphor and Analogy‘.
To give you an idea of what can be achieved through improvisation in jazz check out Pat Metheny’s Quartet playing ‘Song for Bilbao’ on YouTube. What would it feel like to work in a team with that amount of energy, creativity and communication?