Adopting a jazz mindset for strategic execution and leadership

Joseph R. Czarnecki, MSP, SCPM, PMP

Vice President of Product and Sales Support, IPS Learning

Any jazz musician will say that adaptability and creativity are the cornerstones to making beautiful music, but how does that apply to strategic execution and project management in the business environment? Adopting a jazz mindset will help individuals and organizations react to—and even initiate—change more quickly. Improvisation and daring to create new things using a more malleable approach to decision making can inspire high performance, not only in music, but in business, too.

To adapt and create like a jazz musician, one has to think like a jazz musician. Frank Barrett (2011), an accomplished jazz pianist and management scholar, defines the jazz mindset as “a mindset that maximizes learning, remains responsive to short-term emergent opportunities and simultaneously strengthens longer-term dynamic capabilities of the organization.”

Business leaders with a jazz mindset can move not only themselves but also entire teams through the decision-making process with ease. Whether an organization prefers an agile approach, a waterfall approach, or something in between, each methodology comes with its own set of rules. But if rules are adopted for rules’ sake alone, decision-making runs on autopilot, with less responsiveness to current market environments. Project management leaders are best equipped when they develop a mindset approach to their work and become better positioned to react more swiftly to the ever-changing business climate, regardless of the actual methodology adopted.

Classical Versus Jazz/Discipline Versus Agility

In addition to having a fundamental foundation built on project management rules, practices, and processes, a defining skill for the project manager to master is the ability to balance discipline and agility. Let's explore this further through the classical versus jazz music metaphor, where classical is equivalent to discipline and jazz is equivalent to agility.

In classical music, the hierarchy is well defined and made up of instrumentalists, section leaders, and the conductor. Centralized decision making is designed around the conductor. This structure is highly efficient, built to avoid error, and produces order through a prescribed methodology. Individuals have a responsibility to be the best they can in their chosen profession (instrument), to respond to imposed constraints by the plan (music), and to trust that their part fits into the bigger picture. The repetitive nature, delineated roles, and specific plans that make up this structure results in a comfortable, more predictable environment.

In jazz music, there is less hierarchy overall and the group tends to be much smaller. A jazz ensemble has dispersed decision making—it is pushed down from the “leader” to the “individual.” This approach works well when flexibility, responsiveness, innovation, and faster processing of information are needed. Unlike in classical music, the jazz environment is not as structured. Yet, like classical musicians, the individual in jazz music still needs to excel within the environment. All of these skills enable the project manager to balance between disciplined and agility methodologies.

The jazz mindset cultivates personal freedom to innovate and act guided by sufficient constraints while the organization trusts that individuals will ensure their part fits into the bigger picture. What does “personal freedom with constraints” mean for an organization? It is about providing just enough structure and coordination to maximize diversity while inviting embellishment, and encouraging exploration and experimentation. Freedom is not unlimited, but the environment supports coloring outside the lines to look for new, more efficient ways to get work done.

A business example of this—personal freedom with constraints—is Facebook's Engineering Bootcamp, which is part orientation, part software training program, and part fraternity/sorority rush. When new engineers are hired, they typically don't know what specific job they will do. They are allowed to change a part of the product that then becomes visible to millions of users. This process allows them to become intimately familiar and immersed with the product, their peers, and the work environment. At the culmination of Bootcamp, new hires bid on their job assignment and product team. This program exemplifies Facebook's adherence to founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg's “Hacker Way,” an organizational culture that is supposed to be egalitarian, risk-taking, self-starting, irreverent, collaborative, and creative.

Eight Lessons That Drive a Jazz Mindset

The jazz greats can move from classical music to jazz, not only as individuals, but also as an entire orchestra. Through our strategic execution expertise, we have identified eight lessons that drive the jazz mindset and enable project managers to become actively contributing members to this dynamic environment.

#1 Embrace Failure as a Source for Learning

An experimental approach favors trial and error. It means presenting ideas, then observing how others pick up and build on them. This is leadership with a mindset of discovery, floating hypotheses about what might work and what might not, and leaving both the hypotheses and yourself open to contradictory data and recalcitrant forces. Jazz players act their way into the future. It's only by looking back at what they have created that jazz soloists realize how the notes, phrases, and chords relate in good ways as well as bad.

Learning from failure is commonplace among startups and Silicon Valley. The founder of Stanford's d.School believes that you must fail before you can succeed—indeed, failure is an essential part of the product development processes. Startups will often launch a product that isn't perfect, but is good enough to introduce to the market so they can refine and improve it based on real customer experience and feedback.

#2 Master the Art of Unlearning

Often, the first step to gaining new insights for innovation is to unlearn the old habits and lessons. According to Phillippa Lally (2009), a health psychology researcher at University College London, it takes on average 66 days to change a habit or to unlearn and relearn a skill or process, which explains our human tendency, especially in established organizations, to rely upon well-worn routines and familiar rules.

Over time, the way things are usually done becomes sacred and unquestioned. These routines are blocks to learning. Because of the temptation to repeat what they do well rather than risk failure, veteran jazz musicians make deliberate attempts to guard against reliance on prearranged music, memorized solos, or habits and patterns that have worked for them before.

One can take a cue about unlearning from Home Depot with its entry into China, and its subsequent exit from the country. Home Depot entered China in 2002 by opening a sourcing office in the country. After studying the market, it acquired the big-box stores of the fourth largest home improvement retailer in China, Home Way, in 2006. Twelve stores in six cities were rebranded and opened in August 2007.

Within a short span of time, Home Depot realized that its DIY model was not acceptable to the Chinese, who preferred home improvement–related work to be done by laborers and contractors. The Chinese lived in small houses, and could not store home improvement equipment such as ladders and so on. Also, instead of buying all the home improvement–related products at one place, they preferred to visit several specialty stores before they decided on the products they would buy. Home Depot also found that retailers operated in a different way in China, and merely provided suppliers with a platform to sell the products; suppliers had their own network, and even provided after-sales services.

Despite their best efforts, Home Depot's stores could not generate the kind of returns expected. Home Depot closed five stores between 2009 and 2011, and by 2012 decided to exit the big-box retail stores. Had Home Depot unlearned its DIY approach to retail, it might have realized more success in China.

#3 Leap in and Take Action

Managers frequently find themselves in the middle of messes not of their own making, forced to take action even though there is no guarantee of a good outcome while relying on imperfect information. Jazz players face the same issues, but what makes it possible to improvise, to adjust, and fall upon a working strategy is an affirmative move, an implicit “yes” that allows them to move forward even in the midst of uncertainty. Problem solving by itself will not generate novel solutions. What's needed is an affirmative belief that a solution exists and that something positive will emerge. Improvisation grows out of receptivity to what the situation offers, and thus, the first move is a “yes to the mess,” a state of radical receptivity that all jazz musicians require.

#4 Alternate Between Soloing and Supporting

We put so much emphasis on leadership today that we have forgotten the importance of followership, or what jazz musicians call “comping.” In organizations, followership—supporting others to think out loud and be their best—should be an art more fully articulated, acknowledged, and rewarded. When self-directed work teams are performing well, they are often characterized by distributed, multiple leadership in which people take turns heading up various projects as their expertise is needed. The same happens in jazz bands, where everyone gets a turn to solo.

#5 Balance Freedom with Constraints

We've found that it's important for project managers to foster a flexible structure/organizational design that has sufficient constraints and just enough structure and coordination to maximize diversity. Jazz bands and innovative organizations create the conditions for guided autonomy. They create choice points to avoid getting weighted down with fruitless rules while also maximizing diversity, inviting embellishment, and encouraging exploration and experimentation.

#6 Encourage Serious Play

There is a sense of surrender in play, a willingness to suspend control and give yourself over to the flow of the ongoing events. Southwest Airlines tries to encourage much the same when it declares that having fun in the workplace is a core value. In effect, the airline questions the conventional separation between work and play, and its leaders recognize that legitimate play can be a fruitful, meaningful activity, one that enhances the sheer joy of relational activity. Serious play leads to a higher comfort level for risk taking, which ultimately leads to innovation and breakthrough.

#7 Hang out in Communities of Diverse Specialists

In jazz, learning and ideas for innovation take place in jam sessions. It is here that musicians get innovative ideas and learn how and whether their playing is up to par through improvisation. For rookies and semi-outsiders, these sessions are where they learn what it takes to think and act. Project managers should take the same approach and look beyond their departments or areas of expertise. Encouraging conversations beyond departments and divisions breaks down barriers, opens up understanding, and builds cohesion.

#8 Lead with Provocative Competence

Provocative competence is a vital leadership skill that helps people break out of competency traps. A competency trap is the false belief that the same practice that led to a success in the past will necessarily lead to success in the future. Practicing provocative competence requires first that leaders discipline their imaginations to see a person or group's potential even if it is not being fulfilled in that moment. Secondly, provocative competence involves a reorientation to the situation and trusting that an individual will learn and grow from his or her mistakes. Duke Ellington and Miles Davis were masters of provocative competence and understood that it was an art form in itself. When they would throw solos to rookie musicians and place them in the spotlight, they were exercising provocative competence.

Amazon's Jeff Bezos demonstrated provocative competence in the early days of the company by taking what he knew about the brick and mortar business and applying it to the newly developed e-commerce industry. Likewise, learning transfer can take place from project to project and program to program, helps identify what methodologies will work best, and doesn't require a fully baked plan from beginning to end.

Adapt Just Like the Jazz Greats

Now that we've established what a jazz mindset is, we need to recognize the importance of knowing when to be adaptive and flexible versus when to be rigid and follow process. It's possible and most definitely acceptable to do both. Ask yourself the following to determine whether a disciplined or adaptive approach, or a balance of both, will work best:

  • Does the situation require immediate decisions?
  • How quickly do we need to move?
  • How critical is the situation?
  • Will change be a major factor during the project management process?
  • Will my team be open to changing direction or will there be resistance?
  • Is there any room for experimentation?
  • How can I say “yes to my mess” and get going?

In addition to determining the best approach, it's also important to learn from the masters. As jazz musicians look to the masters to be inspirational, so should project managers. Seek out and identify with those in your profession who innovate, push their limits, effectively challenge conformity, and achieve success. Try to copy what they do in your own way and practice.

As you can see, all people and all organizations have some, if not a great deal of, room for jazz mindsets. It's not about permission. Consider the jazz mindset a new way of thinking about getting the job done. Follow the example of the jazz greats who can move an audience with a familiar melody as well as their own interpretation of the music. You can apply the jazz mindset to any situation in varying degrees in any company or work environment. It allows you to adapt while applying good judgment. You have the freedom to apply what you know, but use it in a different capacity. By using agility, creativity, and responsiveness as your instruments, you can bring your strategy or music to life.

Bernstein, E., & Barrett, F. (2011). Strategic change and the jazz mindset: Exploring Practices that enhance dynamic capabilities for organizational improvisation. Research in Organizational Change and Development, 19, 55–90.

Lally, P., Jaarsveld, C., Potts, H., & Wardle, J. (2009). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 998–1009.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2015, IPS Learning, LLC
Originally published as a part of the 2015 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida, USA

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