In Chapter 4 Barrett continues by saying that improvisation needs some order and rules in order to thrive. This allows for complexity in jazz and in an organizational system because it provides the freedom to create novelty, but also vigilance to attend to the other members of the organization. In organizations this can work in areas such as rapid prototyping where different people come up with ideas and then test them out quickly seeing if they work or not. If they do not work then they rapidly readjust to another way of doing things but it gives them the structure to try.
Meg Wheatley and Ralph Stacey (organizational development experts) write "that systems are most creative when they operate with a combination of order and chaos." They say that when systems live on the edge of chaos they are able to abandon undesirable ways of doing things and embrace more suitable patterns. Barrett says that by allowing improvisation in the organization it creates the condition for "guided autonomy" or finding the limiting structures that allow for coordination around core activities. This maximizes opportunities for diversity and the opportunity to experiment.
He gives the example of rebuilding after 9/11 where Mike Burton, the executive deputy commissioner of the New York City Department of Design and Construction, ended up taking over the reconstruction efforts. He happened to be downtown at the time of the attacks. He immediately began to call four companies who he knew were qualified and could support the reconstruction. He set twice daily meetings to coordinate activities. He divided the work into four areas so that each company could handle one section. Each of these decisions created the "guided autonomy" to allow for the rebuilding to occur with some improvisation from the beginning.
Where can you implement some "guided autonomy" in your organization? What limited structures can you put into place in order to allow for novelty to be created?
"If you are not making a mistake, it's a mistake." Miles Davis. According to the author in Chapter 3 of "Yes to the Mess" organizations, just like in jazz, need to create an "aesthetic of imperfection" by encouraging brave experimentation. He says what if we measure performance not only on normal standards of success, but also on risk taking and purposeful engagement in an activity? Then organizations could leverage mistakes as a point of creative departure, allowing people to see details they might have otherwise missed. He argues that companies such as Google, Apple, and Microsoft had many failures along the way to building up their most innovative products (iPhone, Microsoft Access, and Google Video). Barrett continues to say that the failures were what allowed the ideas to incubate and the organizations valued innovation and creativity enough to allow those types of failures to occur learning from them.
So for leaders it is critical to ensure that people learn from their mistakes instead of hiding them or glossing over them. Leaders need to create environments where employees can feel safe enough to talk about their mistakes. Often this occurs by leveling status differences and allowing conversations about mistakes to happen at all levels of the organization. For example to get jazz right Barrett says, "musicians must surrender their conscious striving. They do this by deliberately facing unfamiliar challenges, by developing provocative learning relationships, and by creating incremental disruptions hat demand experimentation and risk." Through this risk taking we can lean into full engagement and truly live a meaningful life. This is the same in business and in organizations.
Where are you willing to take risks? Are you creating an organization which is open to making and discussing mistakes? What can you learn from them?
In Chapter 2 of "Yes to the Mess" there is a quote from Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon.com, "If you only extend into places where your skill sets serve you, your skills become outmoded." The author Frank Barrett says that organizational leaders need to be constantly challenging routines, taking risks and renewing old skills. He says that there needs to be some improvisation where an organization, working together, can succeed because they have faith that whatever is happening has the potential to lead in innovative directions.
He says that organizations, and leaders, can do this by being open to what can be created when "messiness" arises (e.g. - things that were not planned). He says that organizational cultures would be great where leaders and their organizations can all work together, responding to each other's needs organically, engaging in the moment, improvising as needed and leaning into the mess. He says the best leaders are not those who are predominantly analytical, but know when it is best to be fully engaged in problems/issues and in enhancing creativity and innovation. He says the first step to do this is through "an affirmative move." He gives the example of Michelangelo being able to see the sculpture David in the marble when the previous sculptor had discarded that same piece of marble 40 years prior.
Barrett says that people find it hard to say yes to the unknown ""because humans are profoundly loss averse; most people prefer avoiding a loss to acquiring a gain, especially in stressful times." He says that the best jazz players focus on discovery in times of stress, lean in, focus on the opportunities, and take risks. In high performance groups, such as in sports, Barrett uses the example of tapping into the power of expectation loops by focusing on success. He says there is a big difference "between eliminating obstacles and conjuring an image of success." He says that "research suggests that positive self-monitoring is more likely to lead to effective performance than avoidance goals."
Finally he says that improvisational leaders lean into the mess, ask questions, foster dialogue around possibilities, and create openings. They focus on what they can achieve and not the stable certainty. Are you able to lean into the mess or are you focusing on staying safe? Are you focused on avoidance goals or effective performance? Are you able to say yes to messiness?
"Yes to the Mess" by Frank Barrett is a book that discusses leadership from the perspective of jazz improvisation. In Chapter one Barrett begins by saying that in this new complex world there needs to be built a mindset of our best laid plans are likely and figuratively going to be get turned upside down. He says that there is so much turbulence in this current environment that improvisation of action, decisions, leveraging a diverse set of opinions and dedicated to innovation and creativity is necessary to surviving and prospering in such an environment. He says this is similar to jazz in that, as he urges jazz players to do, he urges leaders to embrace complexity, take informed risks, and say "yes to the mess."
Barrett continues by saying that for jazz musicians as well as for leaders they need to live in the same paradox of needing to transcend too much reliance on learned habits as it limits risks needed for creative growth, and letting go of too much control which restricts the interplay of ideas and they need to surrender to the flow. He gives the example of Steve Jobs speaking of the development of the iPad and saying that while it was risky in the moment there was a huge potential upside.
He says we need to not get tied to our strategic plans. While they are good guides leaders need to be able to follow them, while paying attention to what emerges, taking action as a result and then making sense of it all later. He says that, "Sometimes leadership means letting go of the dream of certainty, leaping in, acting first, and reflecting later on the impact of the action."
Barrett continues in chapter one by saying that one way to begin to say yes, is to abandon old routines. We have to often let go of the familiar and routine in order to welcome in new possibilities and opportunities. It is only in this way that leaders can see the potential coming from new and unexpected areas.
Barrett's end the chapter with the premise for the book being that "without being guided by an outside entity or prescripted plan, a system can self-organize and produce even more efficient and effective outcomes."
Welcome to 2015! As you begin this year it is a great time to reflect a bit on how things went in the past year. How was your 2014? Here are a few questions to reflect on for the year that just passed:
-What have you been most proud of in 2014?
-What were the biggest gifts?
-What are the biggest lessons?
-What are you letting go of?
-What are you embracing?
Happy New Year to you!
Monica Thakrar has over 18 years experience in business focused mainly on strategy, change management, leadership development, training and coaching resulting in successful implementations of large scale transformation programs.