Surprising Leadership Lessons From Jazz.

December 28, 2020

Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership lessons from Jazz. Frank J. Barrett

Fix your business like a Jazz musician improvises. 

In his book Yes To the Mess, Dr. Barrett,  a Management Professor, and accomplished jazz pianist, talks about performing and experimenting simultaneously. Miles Davis, the great trumpeter, bandleader, and composer, had a favorite saying about jazz musicians: “If you’re not making a mistake, it’s a mistake.”

“The improviser may be unable to look ahead at what he is going to play, but he can look behind at what he has just played; thus each new musical phrase can be shaped with relation to what has gone before. He creates his form retrospectively.”  In other words, if you made a bad decision, fix it creatively.

I was once taking a jazz guitar solo in a workshop of fellow jazz enthusiasts. I was feeling good about my uptempo solo to Golson’s “Whisper Not”. So, after the tune was over, my teacher, wanted to make sure I was aware of how often I slid into a note.  After reflecting on my performance I realized that I was looking back in real time and correcting (sliding into) notes, or even repeating them by creating new patterns that worked and using the mistakes to energize my creativity. I was actually using my mistakes to fuel my creativity.

Barrett continues.  Instead, jazz players learn to approach errors as if they are simply another suggestion for ways to proceed. They might repeat the mistake, amplify it, and develop it further until it becomes a new pattern. In essence, the players are constantly saying to each other, “Yes, let’s see where this leads.” Appreciating the affirmative potential in every musical utterance, right or wrong, becomes in time a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Jazz musicians assume that you can take any bad situation and make it into a good situation.

Instead of simply rewarding managers for “fixing” problems, organizations might apply their own “aesthetic of imperfection,” considering not only the end result but also the way managers persevere and use mistakes as a point of creative departure, the same way jazz musicians branch off into unexpected directions from a few bad notes. This aesthetic implies that errors would be framed not as character blemishes, but as unavoidable mishaps to be creatively reintegrated as negotiation proceeds.

Do you know how many times Thomas Edison tried and failed before the light bulb finally worked?  Hundreds.

As I look around my desk, and sticky notes abound, it surprised me that this invention was accidental. Barrett points out other examples of accidents that became unexpected opportunities. Pyrex cookware, Jello, Popsicle’s, the Walkman, Lifesavers, Coca-Cola, Silly Putty, Kleenex, Levi Jeans, Band-Aids, corn flakes, penicillin and many many more.

This music analogy relates well to your business. Think about the art of customer experience and getting it right. An interaction between your manager and a customer may last a few minutes. If your team can be trained to correct mistakes in real time,  you will create a long term customer with potentially future sales. If mistakes are allowed to continue, it can be costly to your store. Review, and fix. Fast. Learn how to learn from your mistakes, like a jazz virtuoso, and you’ll see your numbers soar.