Book Review: Yes to the Mess by Frank J. Barrett

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 7 Principles of Yes to Mess

The author identifies seven principles that through Jazz, allow creating a supportive framework for innovation, and dedicates one chapter to each principle:

  1. Mastering the Art of Unlearning – One of the most significant aspects of this book is the definition of what Improvisation can mean in an organizational context. Like the “Good Enough” concept we’ve seen, there’s often the misconception that Improvisation is an unplanned, mediocre performance. In reality, it should be a critical component of good Leadership, as it usually means letting go of the dream of certainty, leaping in, acting first and reflecting later on the impact of the action. 

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.
  1. Developing Affirmative Competence – focuses on the acceptance of “The Mess” which means learning while doing, rejecting habitual behavior and a predictable outcome in favor of experimentation and progress. The parallel with Jazz is with the getting in the groove concept, which is the way Improvisation works. 

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.
  1. Embracing Error as a Source of Learning – Great Jazz leaders know that errors can happen in every jam session. But failure is part of the process of experimentation. Jazz musicians assume that you can take any bad situation and make it a good situation, as they develop a real Aesthetic of Imperfection. Is this possible also in organizations? It needs to if we want to nurture creativity and innovation. It’s about creating the psychological safety that is so much required to be able to get new agile principles in place as this is the way that leads to the full engagement.
  2. Balancing Freedom and Constraints – Improvisation does not happen by chance. It needs rules and some kind of order. Here the comparison with the organisation is critical: it’s not about building full anarchy, but rather creating frameworks where people can develop their personal contributions. It’s the concept behind rapid prototyping: give direction and experiment within it. Barrett notes that under normal circumstances traditional Management pays disproportionate attention to beginnings and endings. Whereas here, the idea is to focus on giving guidelines for execution.
Fig.1: During a recording session (later released as ”58 Miles’), American jazz musicians John Coltrane (1926 – 1967), Cannonball Adderley (1928 – 1975), Miles Davis (1926 – 1991), and Bill Evans (1929 – 1980) perform in the studio, New York, New York, May 26, 1958. (Photo by Frank Driggs Collection/Getty Images)
  1. Learning by Doing and talking – Jazz musicians live for the jam session. And in this magic moment, you learn the balance between autonomy and interdependence. Here Barrett focuses on the concept of Learning, and how this happens not just as a pure “banking” process, but rather as a social activity: you learn as you do. Jam Sessions build this process, where each participant support the other in the learning, giving a voice to everyone. For this to happen, it’s essential to make connections, a theme very actual in a moment where work flexibility is becoming such a hot topic. Designing opportunities for serendipity becomes a key goal for leadership to strengthen this call for innovation and creativity further. 
  2. Followership as a Noble Calling – To really get into the groove, every Jazz musician needs to learn the art of generous listening: means being acutely aware of where the other is heading. This leads to what in Jazz is defined as Comping, the rhythm, chords and countermelodies with which the other players accompany a solo improvisation. This is one of the most inspiring messages of this book. In Jazz, leadership is liquid; during a session, every member of the group takes the lead, but never in isolation. Everybody else listens and supports, creating authentic followership. This concept seems so distant from that of Leadership that I will be dedicating some more time in a future post. But it is critical. Because Leadership is not a solo activity. It requires strong support from the members of the team. Because what needs to be created is a sense of oneness

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.
  1. Nurturing Double Vision – with this principle, Barrett brings the redefinition of Leadership to its extreme consequence: it’s not anymore a decision-making activity, but rather a design framework that emphasizes pragmatic experimentation. It is different than what we are often used to read. It’s about designing just enough structure that constrains and guides the soloists to discover new possibilities. Exactly as it happens in a great jazz ensemble, here, Diversity becomes a must to be nurtured continuously. 

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?

Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz
Genre: Leadership | Rating: 5/5
By Frank J. Barrett
Hardcover | 256 pp. | Harvard Business Review Press | 14/08/2012 | 1st Edition
ISBN: 9781422161104
Buy on Amazon

Notes: this book has truly inspired me, and I’ve developed a few posts based on this reading:

Yes to the Mess Goodreads Reviews

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Sergio Caredda

Digital Knowmad | Multipotentialite | HR Leader | Transformation Agent | Future of Work thinker | On a mission to re-embed Human into HR.

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