Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz is a powerful book that drives its lessons from the continuous parallel between Jazz music, and specifically from how Jazz Bands operate, and the world of Management and Leadership. After attending the Herbie Hancock concert in Milan, I wrote a post on the relationship between Jazz and Leadership. I did some research on the web, and that’s how I found this book. Written by Frank J. Barrett, a professor of Management at the Naval Postgraduate School, who was also a Jazz Pianist, the book made it immediately to my reading list.
I thought that reading this post deserves a bit of a soundtrack. Kind of Blue is analysed deeply in the book, so why not listening while you read this?
The book is primarily focused on jazz improvisation. But also about the leadership skills needed to understand and facilitate the innovation process. It starts by considering the fact that Jazz bands are organisations designed for innovation, and that its design elements can be applied to other organizations that seek to innovate. To a certain extent, this book has probably appeared prematurely. Still, it anticipates many of the concepts that apply to the ways of working that are more addressed today: Design Thinking, Lean and Agile.
Barrett starts with an acute analysis of the traditional managerial concepts of planning. In his words, the only plan that’s missing in most organizations, it often seems, is the one for the things as they actually happen. The idea of drawing a parallel with Jazz came from the work of Karl Weick and especially his article Improvisation as a Mindset for Organisational Analysis. Barrett defines Jazz as the relentless pursuit of learning and disciplined imagination. Two much-needed goals also for most organizations.
The author identifies seven principles that through Jazz, allow creating a supportive framework for innovation, and dedicates one chapter to each principle:
What we need to add to our list of managerial skills is improvisation—the art of adjusting, flexibly adapting, learning through trial-and-error initiatives, inventing ad hoc responses, and discovering as you go.Frank J. Barrett, Yes To Mess, page 12.
Jazz improvisers focus on discovery in times of stress. They know how to ensure that they don’t get stuck in old habits even when reliable routines might seem like the quickest way to relieve anxiety. They interpret challenging situations so that fear does not limit choices and support the birth of good ideas. While there are no guarantees of outcomes, they realize the benefit of a mind-set that maximizes opportunities, understands the importance of intelligent risk taking, and most important, learns by saying yes and leaping in.Frank J. Barrett, Yes To Mess, page 37.
this is what jazz players do when they comp: they create a space that welcomes and acknowledges another person’s current state of mind while also providing provocation that might rouse him or her to consider new possibilities.Frank J. Barrett, Yes To Mess, page 130.
As you read through this book, you soon realize that most of what Barrett writes happens already in reality. But is often relegated at the edges of our vision, almost treated as a disturbance. When we notice that a unit in our organisations is reaching good results despite not having the right structure, or process in place, or being without a leader…
Real people in real organizations are constantly jumping into action without clear plans, making up reasons as they proceed, discovering new routes once action is initiated, proposing multiple interpretations, navigating through discrepancies, combining disparate and incomplete materials, and then discovering what their original purpose was after the fact.Frank J. Barrett, Yes To Mess, page 162.
I’ve underlined almost every sentence in the last chapter, summarizing it becomes painful. One concept, however, is clear. Traditional Management, where the goal is to eliminate variation and deviation at all cost, is the biggest enemy of innovation. Serendipity doesn’t just happen. It requires preparation and a system of support. In all this, it’s essential to understand that there’s a big difference between deliberately breaking a routine and allowing routines to decay or drift because of inattention. Again: Improvisation is not anarchy.
On page 169, I found a great concept: Management needs to expand the vocabulary of yes to overcome the glamour of no. One of the biggest blocks to creativity is getting stuck wishing the situation was different. Developing this yes vocabulary means assuming that you can make the situation work somehow, that there exist an opportunistic possibility. Means getting away from the cynicism of No, which is nothing but a way to attain status.
How can we expand the vocabulary of Yes in our organizations? The book gives only some ideas, but this is a precious concept to grow and understand more in detail. Because the link with creativity and innovation is clear, this will allow creating minimal structures that maximize autonomy.
“Everyone doing everything”—that’s a good motto for jazz bands and for organizations that want to learn to improvise.Frank J. Barrett, Yes To Mess, page 183.
And you? Are you ready to improvise?
Notes: this book has truly inspired me, and I’ve developed a few posts based on this reading:
https://youtu.be/O8aDOR2Po50 In this tenth video of the series Leaders for Humanity, hosts Antoinette Weibel and… Read More
https://youtu.be/WZIv-PS7Vo8 In this eighth video of the series Leaders for Humanity, hosts Antoinette Weibel and… Read More
https://youtu.be/r5GfGeiryPc In this seventh video of the series Leaders for Humanity, hosts Antoinette Weibel and… Read More
https://youtu.be/5-qE_WhZ2OE In this sixth video of the series Leaders for Humanity, hosts Antoinette Weibel and… Read More
https://youtu.be/TywLA6p0vjg In this fifth video of the series Leaders for Humanity, hosts Antoinette Weibel and… Read More
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y6ADNHtY6jc I've recently had the pleasure of speaking about The Intentional Organisation with Carlo Marchesi,… Read More