Agile organizations should act like jazz combos

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Since its start, jazz has been characterized by improvisation. Jazz musicians learned to rely on the essential elements of a song only. They constantly play variations on the main theme, listening to ideas from other players and reacting to them, in order to create exciting and moving music. In a VUCA world, Agile teams and organizations should be like jazz combos: reacting to, and anticipating rapidly evolving competitive scenarios, in order to create a competitive advantage.

Listening & Conversations

It wasn’t always like that. When Fredrick Taylor wrote his essay on scientific management, organizations were strictly based on low-skill workers, and mass production (“any color, so long as it is black”) . They were supposed to act as mechanisms. In this worldview, employees are cogs in a machine, and they follow detailed processes and procedures, with a clear description of what, when, and how to execute every single task. Charlie Chaplin told the contradictions of the Machine Age with a bitter-sweet flavor in his masterpiece Modern Times.

Similarly in classical music, as defined by Beethoven, Bach, or even Strawinsky, musicians follow detailed sheet music with what, when, and how to execute every single note clearly written down on paper. Musicians are of course very highly trained workers, and there is an area for interpretation in dynamics, tempo, phrasing, but the composition is supposed to be played as it was written hundreds of years before, following the author’s suggestions (unless, of course, you are Lang Lang, but that’s another story). The Director drives the execution of a symphony like a CEO drives the execution of the business strategy.

But in jazz music, we have a different scene. Improvisation gives much more space and power to the musicians. Collaboration and interaction are key, and much less value is placed on the composer. Music is often written with just a few elements: basic harmony, melody, and words. Notes are also swang with a ternary feeling, not played at the written value, thus creating the typical forward-driven “swing” mood. But the key for jazz improvisation is listening to the other musicians, in order to respond to them and create a new song as a result of this interpretation. It’s a sort of conversation on the same topic, happening differently every time a song is played.

Thus jazz musicians, as opposed to the classical ones, do not (typically) rely on detailed written instructions on how to play. They listen to other players to generate new ideas and react to others. As a matter of fact , a common but undesired behavior is when a musician only concentrates on her own part, without really listening to others. The result is music without feelings, boring and unpleasant to the audience. How often have you experienced that?

Agile organizations, like jazz music, are also based on listening and conversations. Organizational conversations are internal and external feedback loops built with the market, the stakeholders, or the other team members in meetings and in practices. Double feedback loops are particularly relevant for learning organizations. In the first loop, a measure is checked against a benchmark -i.e did we deliver the sprint goal?- while in the second loop the mental model itself is checked and challenged, i.e. is this goal still relevant? But unfortunately, organizations that work in silos, with narrow responsibilities and value streams based on frequent hand-overs, are unable to fully take advantage of feedbacks and learning loops. Thus, they are inapt to quickly cope with the fast-changing direction VUCA world, thus becoming increasingly unable to retain or gain a competitive advantage. Dr. Ron Westrum described the problem in his three-culture paper “A typology of organizational cultures“.

Ron Westrum described three organizational cultures: Pathological, Bureaucratic, and Generative. His paper shows how the three cultures shape organizational performance in specific contexts.

He explains how to determine what type of culture your organization lives by. Take a look at how it reacts to problems and anomalies. Is the messenger blamed or isolated? Is the problem solved with a quick patch to its symptoms? Or is the anomaly treated as an improvement opportunity and searched in order to understand and solve its root causes?

The first reactions described are typical of pathological cultures, while the last one shows a generative, agile-mindset, underlying culture.

If culture drives performance, there is good news: culture can be changed. Leadership shapes culture by example, showing how they intend to react to novelties, failures, and anomalies. Thus, agile and learning-focused organizations strive to facilitate innovation and continuous learning, making transparency, inquiry and active listening common practices on many dimensions. These are simple but not easy practices and their absence is definitively undermining agility, learning, and the ability to challenge our own mental models. The final result, in this case, can be rigidity, the inability to cope with external and internal change and even a stall in growth and revenue, as reported in stall points.

From Software to Hardware and beyond

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To boldly go where no man has gone before .
– Capt. Kirk, Star Trek –

Mainstream Jazz was born on the American songbook, strictly tied to the Broadway musical scene of the time. From the original standard repertoire, it contaminated all the genres and styles, from classical music to pop and hip-hop. Likewise, the agile way of working was born from software development methodologies and frameworks and it is nowadays getting out of the IT/Software domain, blending with lean and startup approaches to contaminate any sector of the Organizational world: marketing, operation, R&D. Companies building heavy objects like Tesla and Saab are now icons of agility. Software engineering practices are translated into the hardware world creating new agile streams of work. Simulators are replacing unit testing in the physical world, and A/B testing practices create a fast, agile feedback loop for marketing systems. In doing that, cliches (aka practices) are often applied but the real difference comes from the mindset of the player: experiment, adapt, innovate in order to create value in a fast-changing world. Physical or Digital makes no difference, we have to run to keep up.

Change your mindset, reframe the world

So, there are definitively many common traits between agile organizations and jazz bands. The main one though, is the emergence of a new culture. Jazz age started when a new culture emerged from the bottom, reshaping forever popular western music. Equally, a new culture, supported by transparency and an open, collaborative mindset is now emerging to deal with the difficulties of a VUCA world. Old Techniques can be applied and personalized, and new practices can be created, but the new mindset will make the difference in reframing the way teams and organizations face up their challenges. To boldly go where no man has gone before. And hopefully, with a touch of swing 🙂