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What can Duke Ellington and Miles Davis teach us about leadership?

How do you cope when faced with complexity and constant change at work? Here's what the world's best leaders and teams do: they improvise. They invent novel responses and take calculated risks without a scripted plan or a safety net that guarantees specific outcomes. They negotiate with each other as they proceed, and they don't dwell on mistakes or stifle each other's ideas. In short, they say "yes to the mess" that is today's hurried, harried, yet enormously innovative and fertile world of work.

This is exactly what great jazz musicians do. My passion is showing how this improvisational "jazz mind-set" and the skills that go along with it are essential for effective leadership today. We can learn from the masters, like jazz greats Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and Sonny Rollins and consider a new model for leading and collaborating in organizations.

Skilled jazz players and business leaders both need to master the art of unlearning, perform and experiment simultaneously, and take turns soloing and supporting each other. Organizations from manufacturing to the military to high-tech all must take an inventive approach to crisis management, economic volatility and all the rapidly evolving realities of our globally connected world.

Leaders today need to be expert improvisers. "Yes to the Mess" is a methodology that shows how the principles of jazz thinking and performance can help anyone who leaders teams or works with them to develop these critical skills, wherever they sit in an organization.


Yes to the Mess 
Seven principles leading to a culture of improvisation & innovation:


1) All That Jazz – Mastering the Art of Unlearning:

  • Guard against the seductive power of routines that block learning

  • Push to explore the edge of comfort zones

  • Leaders can deliberately disrupt routines as a way of unlearning

  • Be more active alert, open to new possibilities

2) Yes to the Mess – Developing Affirmative Competence:

  • When leaders find themselves in the middle of messes – not always of their own making, improvisation can lead to solutions

  • An implicit “Yes” allows them to move forward in the midst of uncertainty.

  • Problem solving often is not enough

  • Affirmative belief that something good will emerge


3) Performing and Experimenting Simultaneously. Embracing Errors as a Source of Learning:

  • Creating a culture of learning within an organization

  • Anticipating when trying something new

  • Results will be unexpected, including errors

  • Enlightened trial and error leads to new insights

  • Enhance failure as occasions for learning


4) Minimal Structure – Maximal Autonomy. Balancing freedom and constraints

  • Flexible structure – an organizational design that has both sufficient constraints and just enough structure and coordination to maximize diversity

  • Hedge against “too much consensus” gives people the freedom to experiment and respond to hunches

  • Tolerate and encourage dissent and debate


5) Jamming and Hanging Out” Learning by Doing and Talking:

  • Jazz musicians use jam sessions to experiment, get innovative ideas and see if they’re playing is up to par.

  • Organizations can do the same using “opportunistic conversations”

  • People sharing their work and ask questions


6) Taking turns Soloing and Supporting:

  • Promoting “leadership” and “followership”

  • Jazz players learn to “comp” while others are soloing

  • Organizations can support each other to think out loud

  • Taking turns as leaders just as jazz players do.

7) Followership is a noble calling. Let it flourish.

  • Leadership as Provocative Competence. Nurturing Double Vision:

  • Leaders introduce disruption that demands people to leave their comfort zones and attempt new and unfamiliar actions

  • Provoking “learning vulnerability” – moments of disquiet and excitement forcing people to explore the unfamiliar



Eleven practices that can help your organization emulate what happens when jazz bands improvise:


  1. Approach leadership tasks as experiments– favoring testing and learning as you go

  2. Boost information processing in the midst of action – allowing members to engage in trial-and-error thinking.

  3. Prepare for serendipity by deliberately breaking a routine– practice listening, receptivity, acceptance, presence, openness and affirmation

  4. Expand the vocabulary of yes to overcome the glamour of no – assume a positive pathway will be found

  5. Take advantage of clunkers– mistakes can sometimes provide data and insight unavailable by any other means

  6. Ensure that everyone has a chance to solo from time to time– giving members a chance to express their full voice.

  7. Celebrate comping to create a culture of noble followership– support mentoring, advocating, encouraging and listening.

  8. Create minimal structures that maximize autonomy –finding the delicate balance between constraint and variation from routines

  9. Encourage serious play.Too much control inhibits flow

  10. Jam. Creativity is sparked by spontaneity and random discussions

  11. Cultivate provocative competence -creating expansive promises as occasions for stretching out into unfamiliar territory.


These principles can help an organization think freshly, generate novel solutions and create something new and interesting, perhaps even transformative.

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