Frank Barrett was in the house here in Vancouver a couple of weeks ago. He delighted our imaginations and disrupted our designs for leadership. Illustrating his ideas about Appreciative Inquiry with stories and demonstrations from jazz, he provoked us into our learning zones and enhanced our competence in helping people play their best, then play above that.
I was particularly provoked by our conversations about evaluations. How do jazz musicians evaluate their performances and what can organizations learn from their processes? Here are three ideas to play around with.
First, good evaluation begins with clarity of expectations. Articulating these expectations works best when there are 2-3 broad positive aspirations expressed in value-laden words. It's like a core chart or lead sheet in jazz, containing the basic chords and melody around which to build the improvisations that will work well in the emerging situations. It's designed to guide rather than constrain. It opens up the space for experiments with innovative contributions that might help achieve the aspirations. An appreciative evaluation, then, assesses what worked well and what might work even better. It identifies barriers to those improvements and provides support in removing them.
Second, the most powerful and helpful evaluations often happen through feedback offered in the moment. In jazz, it comes through facial expressions, body language, and short comments or gestures indicating a suggested change of direction. In an organization, short conversations are the normal vehicles for this kind of feedback. They work best if they are mostly positive and appreciative, indicating how someone's actions are contributing to achieving the aspirations. Negative comments are essential, but are best cast in terms of barriers or interferences to be removed with appropriate support. That support in jazz is called 'comping,' referring to 'accompanying.' When it flows well, it's grounded in soloing and supporting in collaborative service of the core chart or aspiration.
Third, good evaluation creates incremental disruption. This is one of Barrett's most intriguing insights. If we want to improve, we have to disrupt the routines and habits that keep us stuck in the way we are doing things. That disruption works best if it is gradual, incremental, and collegial. We change things one step at a time, building the momentum for a significant transformation, all done with the encouragement of others. In organizations, I've found that a simple question, like "I wonder what would happen if we did ... ?" often gets this process started. Such curiosity opens up space for imagination and innovation. It's an invitation to explore, to experiment, to innovate, all in order to achieve aspirations better.
The likely result of this kind of evaluation is to enhance the abilities of your team to perform their best, then perform even better. Each player will lifted up by the energy evident in this image of a jazz trio by Leonid Afremov in which they are deeply into the lively flow of their performance.
All of this relates directly to Frank Barrett's integrating concept of provocative competence. Let's give him the last word.
Leadership as design activity means creating space, sufficient support, and challenge so that people will be tempted to grow on their own. The goal is the opposite of conformity: a leader's job is to create the discrepancy and dissonance to trigger people to move away from habitual positions and repetitive patterns. I've come to think of this key leadership capacity as "provocative competence." (Frank J Barrett, Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz, p.139)