August 30, 2012

Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz


I'm paraphrasing somewhat, but this is a fascinating interview from jazz musician and management professor Frank Barrett, on a key design thinking skill, where problem solving alone is not sufficient.

A certain creative mindset with a distinct process that a team can use to hit its groove and make new discoveries is at the core of jazz, and it's at the core to the way of thinking that we've been working hard on with design thinking in schools. Likewise, the jazz musicians' practice of dislodging their routines in order not to fall into clichés is core to the design thinking process: the process of 'playing' remains the same, but the mindset we learn helps us see the same things we've seen before in a new light, time and time again:

 "Improvisational mindset means that you have to leap in and take action, to say "yes". "Yes" is a mindset of affirmative confidence. You can't stop and problem solve. Problem solving is just not sufficient. If you're just in a problem-solving mindset your imagination is going to be shrunk. Comedy improvisors have an obligation to build on someone else's gag with "yes, and…". The same is true in jazz. You don't stop and analyse, criticise what you've heard. You jump on it and build."

As a jazz drummer through most of my youth (and still, on headphones and my Roland, in my office ;-) this podcast reminds me of all the leadership and team thinking lessons that I learned back then: comping to make the soloist sound great, that sense of "ubuntu", where I can't sound good unless my buddy sounds good, that constant listening to others in order to build on what they started...

Other leadership lessons have been summed up beautifully by musicians in these clips. My favourite, and one that I often pillage at the closing of a workshop or talk, is Itay Talgam's set of metaphors of conductors and leadership:

Stefon Harris talks about how, in jazz, there are never mistakes unless you as a band don't build on each other's playing:

And Benjamin Zander talks about how to lead people to love music (or learning, or anything...)

Thanks to my Detroit buddy Jordy for sending me the link to this podcast.

(Original photo


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ah.. love this Ewan.
improv..that aliveness and vulnerability of perpetual beta.. where problem solving isn't enough:

"that sense of "ubuntu", where I can't sound good unless my buddy sounds good, that constant listening to others in order to build on what they starte"

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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