Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Early Indications June 2007: Miles Davis, CEO?

As technologies, cultural attitudes, demographics, and economics change, people have both the opportunity and the need to reinvent organizational models. When industrialization drew farmers into cities and factories, the military provided a convenient reference: the army of labor was directed by captains of industry. Symphony orchestras provided another authoritarian model. As the corporation matured, it invented its own characteristics. Henry Ford fathered process-centric division of labor with his refinements to the assembly line, while Alfred Sloan pioneered many organizational and financial practices, such as divisions (another military offshoot?) and ROI, that made the corporation the model for other entities, such as as schools, foundations, and some sports teams.

Today's business environment presents new challenges to old models. A long list of factors combine to reshape work and organization:

-prosperity (Maslow's hierarchy of needs)
-the shift from manufacturing to services
-the rise of intangible forms of value such as brand and intellectual property
-global markets for risk
-urban congestion and telecommuting
-safety and security considerations
-China's resource hunger
-the unique nature of software as an invisible asset
-increased monetization of data
-the Internet and its associated technologies such as e-mail
-mobility, particularly the impact of cellular and other wireless data networks
-global enterprise software packages
-work-family issues that followed mass entry of women into universities and the workforce
-problem-solving vs. assembly-line routinization
-shorter product life- and use-cycles
-offshoring and outsourcing
-widespread cultural resistance to positional authority
-intensity of task and knowledge specialization
-mass air travel

and many more. As Erik Brynolfsson recently noted in Sloan Management Review (spring 2007 p. 55), we need to rethink the very nature of firms, beginning with Ronald Coase's famous theory: "The traditionally sharp distinction between markets and firms is giving way to a multiplicity of different kinds of organizational forms that don't necessarily have those sharp boundaries."

Given the uncertainty and rapid change implied by this list, it's no surprise that academics and other management thinkers have focused on improvisation. Rather than looking at the everyday sense of the word having to do with makeshift or ad hoc solutions, however, these theorists see considerable structure in musical and dramatic improvisation. One researcher went so far as to live with Chicago's Second City comedy troupe to investigate these structures, but our focus here will be on jazz. (A particularly valuable resource can be found in the September-October 1998 issue of Organization Science devoted to jazz and many of its organizational implications and parallels.)

According to Kathleen Eisenhardt of Stanford (in "Strategic Decisions and All That Jazz," Business Strategy Review 8 (3), 1–3), improvisation both involves intense communication between players in real time and a small number of well understood rules in which improvising is performed. The practice is not a matter of the soloist "making it up as he goes along," but something much richer and more collectively created. Paul Berliner, whose 1994 book Thinking in Jazz is a milestone, goes even farther:

[T]he popular definitions of improvisation that emphasize only its spontaneous, intuitive nature -- characterizing it as the 'making of something out of nothing' -- are astonishingly incomplete. This simplistic understanding of improvisation belies the discipline and experience on which improvisers depend, and it obscures the actual practices and processes that engage them. (p. 492, quoted in Weick, "Improvisation as a Mindset," in the Organization Science volume noted above, p. 544)

To give some indication of just how complex the practice of improvisation can be, the Canadian organizational scholar Karl Weick explains that it in fact exists on a continuum, with the progression of different techniques implying "increased demands on imagination and concentration." To summarize, the simplest form of improvisation is interpretation, moving through embellishment then variation, all the way to improvisation, which implies a time pressure and a lack of precomposition. Thinking about the organizational equivalents of these techniques is a compelling but highly imprecise exercise. (Weick pp. 544-545)

Perhaps because it evolved in parallel with the information age, jazz appears to be well suited to collaborative work by impermanent teams of skilled workers. It is also more applicable to performance than to decision-making: few great quartets or quintets have been democratic, and many leaders of bands large and small have been solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, or short, to borrow from Thomas Hobbes. Improvisation found little place in the classic big bands of Goodman or Ellington. More recently, until his death James Brown fined band members, many of whom were truly A-list musicians, in mid-performance for breaking his rules.

So improvisation in and of itself does not solve the organizational dilemma of managing real-time knowledge work. Michael Gold, who lectures on the intersection of jazz and business after having been both a bassist and a banker, posits an acronym - APRIL - to denote the five traits that carry over:

The members of a jazz ensemble possess and practice a set of shared behaviors that we call the Five Dynamics of Jazz.

* Autonomy -- self-governing, self-regulating, adaptable and independent - yet in support of (and interdependent with) the larger organism.

* Passion -- the quality of emotional vibrancy, zest, commitment, and energy to pursue excellence and the course one believes to be true.

* Risk -- the ability to take chances and explore new territory and methods in pursuit of shared goals, and the ability to support others in their explorations.

* Innovation -- the skill to invent, recombine, and create new solutions to problems using either old or new forms, methods, and/or resources.

* Listening -- the ability to truly hear and feel the the communication of passion, meaning and rhythms of others. (

Gold's Five Dynamics are useful but not sufficient, and raise operational questions presumably addressed in his lectures: how do good managers channel both passion and the need to show up on time? Innovation is of course vital, but how do the other members of his quartet know what to do when the improvised bass solo is over?

Another jazz player/business speaker (and a classmate of Gold's) has combined his education and work as a drummer with lessons from jobs in consulting and startups to present a potentially more rigorous view. Operating from his home bases in Norway and Boston, Carl Stormer has been addressing banks, consulting firms, telecom companies, and CPG firms on the topic of "Cracking the Jazzcode." The presentation itself, which I have not yet seen, is innovative in both structure and message.

Stormer begins with a brief welcome, then proceeds to play drums in a band of three or four players who have never before performed as an ensemble (every performance is different). These are high-grade professionals: Cameron Brown has played bass for Archie Shepp, Art Blakey, Joe Lovano, and Dewey Redman. Saxophonist Rob Scheps has recorded with John Scofield, Carla Bley, and Steve Swallow. Guitarists Jon Herington and Georg Wadenius have both toured with Steely Dan.

So the musicianship is top-shelf. What can managers learn? Stormer has developed a rich set of insights. First among these is the notion of instruments: improvisation is key to jazz, but does not in and of itself define the genre. What functions do each instrument perform at what time? In other words, why don't we hear trios of drummers or quartets of saxophones? What are the rules for passing a solo? What are the responsibilities of the horn player during the guitar solo? Instruments have different roles in an ensemble, roles that ensure that players don’t have to fight for the same functions. (Conversely, when functions overlap, as with a guitar and piano, players must work out who leaves room for whom.) In addition, the ownership of instruments ensures that players match their skills with their task.

While improvisation may look individual, jazz is inherently made by groups. What are the elements that define an ensemble? Why are sextets more than twice as difficult to manage and play in than trios? How do groups communicate? Why don't quartets have teambuilding exercises? Why can the Jazzcode band of the moment work effectively without rehearsal?

The Jazzcode lecture also includes important ideas about shared cultural references: if my tenor solo quotes from "Round Midnight," the drummer will do a better job faster if he can pick up on the source of the riff. If the band gets a request not everyone knows, what happens? What is the score from which a group plays? What are the differences between notes on paper and music in performance, and what do they tell us about business processes?

Many other thought-starters emerge in Stormer's conversation. What are the benefits of increasing your competence on an instrument vs. cross-training on other instruments, most notably piano? For all the emphasis on improvisation and traded soloing, why is it that arrangers play such an important role in certain ensembles? What are the payoffs of increased competence on my instrument? Do I get more solos, will better musicians want to play with me, will I make more money? To that end, how do I practice: improving on my weak points or developing deeper insights into my favorite techniques and songs?

I don't want to give away Stormer's trade secrets, but jazz -- as a music and not just as a vague concept thought to involve chaos and unscripted soloing -- is rich with business implications. In short, I believe there may well be a Jazzcode for business and that if there is, Carl Stormer is uniquely positioned to discern and explain it. Furthermore, the emerging business and technology climate will only amplify the wisdom of his approach.