April 2008 | Volume 1, Issue #10

In This Issue
Leadership Grooves
Leadership Riffs
Upcoming Event
The Cellar Jazz Club
Quick Links

In their latest White Paper, the American Management Association tackles the thorny problem of How to Create a High Performance Organization (New York: AMA, 2007)


They isolate 5 practices that must be aligned:


         Strategy - must be consistent, clear, and well thought out

         Customers - must go above and beyond in serving them

         Leadership - must be focused on performance, beliefs, and talent

         Processes & Structure - must be centred around metrics, customers, and training

         Values & Beliefs - must be upbeat, ethical, and ready for challenges


Think of these practices in relationship to a jazz performance:

  • Strategy as Melody - clear to all those who are playing, consistent with good musical theory, and well crafted to command the respect of all those performing
  • Customers as Audience - they become part of the performance as the music inspires them with relevance and resonance
  • Leadership as Leadership - prior to the performance, the leader sets everything in readiness, but during the performance the lead changes from person to person according to talent and role
  • Processes & Structure as Harmony & Rhythm - there is room for and encouragement of improvisation around the strategy/melody, but all within a steady beat that keeps the performance moving in the desired direction at the best pace
  • Values & Beliefs as Passions & Attitudes - passion for the music and mutual respect for fellow performers and the audience are the foundations for any great performance

These practices must interact and flow smoothly together in both organizational life and jazz.  They form a system that is in constant flux, what jazz guitarist Jim Hall called "a mobile," with each element influencing the others. 


That means that the performers have to pay careful and thoughtful attention to the whole dynamic of the interactions, adapting, adjusting, and constantly improving as the performance unfolds.


What thinking in jazz adds to the wisdom of this white paper is the value of knowing how to improvise with your voice in considerate conversations in a workplace or business environment that is constantly changing and throwing new opportunities and challenges at the performers.  The improvisation keeps the internal dynamics aligned to best suit the external dynamics.


How well does your organization measure up in aligning these 5 crucial practices into great performance and improvising around them?  Can you imagine being inspired to improve by thinking in jazz?  Give it some serious consideration.

Warm regards,  
Brian Fraser                      


Leadership Grooves
Getting in a 'groove' for jazz musicians means playing exceptionally well, appreciating and enjoying the feel and flow of the music, and pleasing immensely all those involved in the performance - self, fellow musicians, and audience.  You find your 'groove' by paying careful attention to the source of sound, significance, and satisfaction deep in your soul.  Each month we will feature stories of people finding their leadership 'groove'.

Miles Davis, whose idea of playing above your current levels of performance in leadership inspires much of what Jazzthink does, had a profound effect on many of the world's most accomplished jazz musicians.  His groups were a testing and training ground for some of the best jazz leaders in the business.


Here's a suggestive sampling of what they learned from the way Miles related to them:


"He never told us specifically what to play.  He'd just say, 'Don't follow anybody; play with him, but don't follow him.  Divide and conquer - you know what I'm saying?  Come up with your own idea.'" (bassist Michael Henderson)


"He was always testing people to see what they were capable of."  (percussionist Sammy Figueroa)


"I got the sense that he wanted everything real, not forced, and that he didn't want to be surrounded by blind acolytes who would do or say anything to please him."  (bass guitarist Benny Rietveld)


"Miles Davis used to say:' I am not what I do, I do what I am.'" (saxophonist Wayne Shorter)


"Miles was our biggest fan."  (bassist Michael Henderson)


So, what are the leadership lessons here? 

  • Be yourself and let people be themselves in return.  That dynamic of mutual respect and appreciation will draw out everyone's best, then take you all beyond that.
  • Don't cultivate blind followers, but creative colleagues.
  • Be your people's greatest fan.

What do you think the people within your sphere of influence will say about your impact on their ability to develop and express their passions and talents?  How can you improve that legacy?

Leadership Riffs 
A 'riff' in jazz is a melodic phrase that is constantly repeated and played over changing harmonies and rhythms.  It's a core theme around which improvisation happens.  As leaders, our 'riffs' are communicated in conversation, the most common form of improvisation or jazz on this planet.  Each month we will highlight a key idea essential to great leadership around which you can improvise in your conversations.
Karl Weick 2Karl Weick was once described in Fast Company as "the smartest business thinker you've never heard of."  I'd like to try and correct a bit of the "never heard of" part.  The riff this month is improvisation and Weick is our source of wisdom. 


Weick teaches at the University of Michigan and was one of the first thinkers I ran across when I started to explore the theme of improvisation in organizations.  In his seminal 1998 article on "Improvisation as a Mindset for Organizational Analysis," he explores the dynamics of jazz as applied to the way organizations actually work and concludes that improvisation is a key factor in the day-to-day success of any organization.


The best definition of improvisation that Weick found came from Paul F. Berliner's classic, Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation (1994).  Here it is:


Improvisation involves reworking precomposed material and designs in relation to unanticipated ideas conceived, shaped, and transformed under the special conditions of performance, thereby adding unique features to every creation. (p.241)


Now, think about leading in your own organization with that framework in mind.  What are the ideas and processes with which you are currently working?  Those are the precomposed material and designs.  And what happens in the midst of leading according to those ideas and processes?  Do you ever encounter unanticipated circumstances and challenges?  I suspect so.  When you run into those surprises and changes, you improvise with what you've got - relationships, skill, talent, and intelligence - to make the best of the situation.  You rework what you know to perform better under the circumstances.  You play your best, then you play above that because your circumstances and colleagues draw out depths of capacity and performance in leadership that you probably didn't realize you had.


And there's at least one more really important insight that Weick discovered in his reading of Berliner.  It involves the discipline and experience that must underlie great improvisation in any facet of leadership:


The popular definitions of improvisation that emphasize only its spontaneous, intuitive nature -- characterizing it as the 'making of something out of nothing' -- are astonishingly incomplete. This simplistic understanding of improvisation belies the discipline and experience on which improvisers depend, and it obscures the actual practices and processes that engage them. (p.492)


Becoming acutely aware of the experience you bring to your leadership, being disciplined in using that experience, being open to the innovative impact of the experience of others, and keeping in focus the opportunities provided by unanticipated ideas and circumstances - these are the essential features of productive improvisation in your leadership.  Pay careful attention to those things and you will create something new out what you already have.


And remember:  Your instrument is your voice and you can create this quality of performance by improvising with it in considerate (kindly and thoughtful) conversations.

An Upcoming Event Worth Attending

The Prism Awards


Once again this year, I have the honour of being a judge for the International Coach Federation Vancouver chapter's Prism Awards. 


The Prism Awards celebrate businesses and organizations that have achieved tangible bottom-line benefits and other organizational impacts through coaching as a leadership strategy. The Vancouver Chapter presents the Prism Awards to organizations that have attained this achievement, and also acknowledges the coaches who have partnered with the organizations.


The awards will be presented at the Prism Awards Breakfast on Wednesday, May 7, 2008 at the Terminal City Club in Vancouver from 7:00AM - 9:00AM.  It's all part of Coaching Awareness Week May 5-9, 2008.


To join us that morning, click here.


Enjoy Great Jazz in Vancouver 

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