Jazz musicians listen with open ears, accept with open minds and respect with open hearts

Apr 27, 2010 by

Denial: Why Business Leaders Fail to Look Facts in the Face—and What to Do About It is a recently released book that’s worth a look. Penned by Harvard Business School professor, Richard Tedlow, this excellent book covers a critically important topic that has led to the failure and downfall of many projects, missions and campaigns throughout history. Some of the most well-known leaders in history have made stupid decisions in the face of evidence and advice that should have led them to choose another path. In collaborative situations there exists the opportunity to avoid such pitfalls by diversifying a team’s collective experience, knowledge and opinions but there are also instances in which groups can collectively make the wrong decision.

In the Jazz Process, the cycle of execution is modeled on John Boyd‘s OODA loop. In my book I dedicated an entire chapter to this cycle and pretty everything else in the Jazz Process relates to this method of execution. Why is this cycle and the concept of execution so important? The ability to effectively execute is an all-too-rare skill. While many people can talk, plan, strategize and theorize, there simply aren’t enough people who know how to get things done and deliver quality, innovative solutions on time. Additionally, a thorough understanding of execution allows leaders to create strategies that are more likely to succeed.

Before performing any action, individuals in a team activity must observe the situation, analyze the data and make an informed decision. There are shortcuts to this sequence of steps but it’s the most common path and the one that is most likely to lead to success for any specific action. There’s nothing simple about these tasks. Two people can be in the same situation and observe different things. Even if they observe the same things they can interpret their observations differently. One reason for this is the behavioral traits that affect observation and orientation and ultimately decision-making. One of the most dangerous tendencies that we all have is the proclivity to see what we want to see. When we face a situation with preconceptions we may tend towards information that confirms our preconceptions. The psychological term for this is confirmation bias. We may also avoid or discount information that contradicts our preconceptions which is disconfirmation bias. In the context of an execution loop and the tasks of observing and orienting, these and other cognitive biases can be manifested in a number of ways:

  • We observe and then orient and then failing to find what we seek, loop back and re-observe in the hope of finding evidence that supports our hypotheses. In the worst case, we may even invent things that are simply not present in our situation. Alternatively, we observe and orient and then finding something we would really rather not see, we pretend to ourselves that we never saw it in the first place. This is known as selection bias.
  • We observe and then orient with a skew. In other words, we interpret information to suit our needs. This is known as assimilation bias.
  • We observe and then orient and decide to skip a decision and act by feeding forward based on a recollection of a previous identical or similar situation. Unfortunately the recall is flawed. We either invent the previous situation or skew its characteristics or its outcome. Selective memory is a form of this kind of bias.

These kinds of cognitive biases can often result from cognitive dissonance which is the uncomfortable tension that results from simultaneously considering two conflicting thoughts. Cognitive dissonance increases with the importance of a decision and the difficulty of undoing it. In an attempt to resolve the tension our judgment can become skewed. It’s interesting to note the recent work of Roger Martin, Dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. In his book, The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking, Martin defined integrative thinking after interviewing more than 50 highly successful leaders (Martin 2009, 6):

“They [the leaders Martin has studied] have the predisposition and the capacity to hold two diametrically opposing ideas in their heads. And then, without panicking or simply settling for one alternative or the other, they’re able to produce a synthesis that is superior to either opposing idea.”

Martin describes people who are not only comfortable with the simultaneous consideration of opposing ideas but actually use it to their advantage.

There are many other cognitive biases that can affect our ability to execute. Information bias is when we spend unnecessary time in observation and orientation even though acquiring and analyzing more information will have no effect on our decision. This can happen if we are fearful of making a decision or we’re trying to avoid a specific outcome. The opposite of this is premature termination of search for evidence which is the tendency to accept the first alternative that looks like it might work. Not Invented Here or NIH is the tendency to ignore an existing solution that is seen as inferior or unreliable simply because it was developed by another party.

Biases are not just limited to individual behavior. Group polarization is the tendency for people to make decisions that are more extreme when they are in a group. One form of this is the so-called risky shift or cautious shift, which is the tendency to choose a course of action with either greater or lesser risk when making joint decisions or when making decisions alone after a group discussion. This can be a good thing in some situations but it can also lead to the groupthink. In military circles the term incestuous amplification is used to describe the individual behavior that may contribute to group polarization. In such situations each person’s execution loop becomes increasingly more dysfunctional as their orientation overrides their observation. This leads to decisions and actions that are further misinterpreted. Thus there is an amplification of behavior that becomes increasingly disconnected from reality. Research has shown that group polarization is more likely to occur in online discussions when participants are in distributed locations and can’t see one another or when they are anonymous and cannot identify one another. That’s of concern given the increased use of online collaboration.

As individual human beings, our thinking is invariably skewed by good and bad experiences, likes, dislikes, fears, aversions, preferences, beliefs and so forth. There is no escaping this. What’s important is that we each understand our own thought processes, including when, how and to what extent our individual behavioral traits affect our observations, interpretations and decision-making. If we understand our biases we are in a better position to appropriately compensate for them. Understanding the cognitive aspects of decision-making allows us to adjust our actions to compensate for the biases of others.

Herbie Hancock has been quoted as saying “The spirit of jazz is the spirit of openness.” When jazz musicians perform they listen with open ears, accept with open minds and respect with open hearts. In highly improvised jazz performances, anything can happen. If they want to create a unique and creative offering, the musicians must be willing to accept and react to the ideas offered up by others and incorporate them into the collective output. Their reactions to these ideas must be made in real time without the luxury of stopping the performance to ponder at length. They must do this even if the ideas offered up by others are completely diverse from their own. In fact the most innovative jazz musicians are not content to always play with the same musicians. They will constantly search for new collaborators, inviting them to perform as guest artists with their existing ensembles or engaging with them in new ensembles. They will specifically collaborate with musicians who have instruments, playing styles and musical approaches that differ from their own. They will even collaborate with artists in other disciplines such as dance and the visual arts. Diversity and openness are two of the most important concepts in high performance teams. The best jazz musicians and performances can serve as great examples in this regard.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the author’s employers and/or clients or any of their respective clients. Your use of this content is governed by this site’s Terms of Use.

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Learning from the jazz masters and the importance of situational awareness

Apr 24, 2010 by

The Jazz Process book is currently in final proofreading and on schedule for release at the end of May. In fact I’m going through the final PDFs this weekend. I’m excited to see early interest in the book and I’m looking forward to when people can get it in their hands. IT professional Bob Lambert has blogged about his interest in the book and this dual-topic post is a response to his post. Before I get to Lambert’s interesting points I do have to correct him for writing that I play jazz at the highest level. That’s definitely not the case. I am, however, over the moon that John Goldsby, who definitely does fall into the category of playing at the highest level, has taken an interest in the Jazz Process. John wrote a truly wonderful foreword for the book and I hope in time that other jazz musicians will also check it out.

Lambert writes about the important of knowing history. I love his words “Those who don’t know history don’t know how to repeat it.” I did write about this topic in my book in the chapter entitled “Exchange Ideas.” My main point is that innovation rarely happens in isolation. The myth of the lone inventor has been well-debunked by innovation authorities such as Scott Berkun (Scott is also an endorser of my book – in fact his blurb is going on the cover). Most innovation happens through an exchange of ideas but that doesn’t necessarily have to be an exchange with someone who is alive and present. Before even stepping into a group performance situation, every good jazz musician has listened to and absorbed what the jazz greats have had to say. This begins with studying the masters of a musician’s specific instrument. Trumpet players, for example, listen to what Buddy Bolden, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown, Harry James, Miles Davis and so many others said through their instruments. They are also taught that they shouldn’t just confine themselves to those masters but should listen to the greats on any instrument. Listen to Miles Davis for his economy of notes, Johnny Hodges for his luscious tone and control of pitch, Thelonious Monk for his dissonance and angular melodic lines, John Coltrane for his complexity and intensity, and so forth. Jazz musicians learn about the evolution of playing styles as well as the evolution of the music. Modern jazz musicians learn about the further evolution of the music by studying today’s great musicians. All of this study consists of activities such as listening to live performances and recordings, transcribing solos, reading and playing transcriptions. You can’t be original without knowing what has already been said. This is particularly true in the business world where, innovators use patents to protect their novel inventions from being freely exploited by others. Novelty of a patent is determined by searching for prior art, the body of knowledge relevant to the patent’s claims of originality including other patents and publicly accessible descriptions or demonstrations of other inventions. If a patent is granted and it turns out that prior art was overlooked the patent may be invalidated or reduced in scope. In some countries, inventors even have a duty to disclose pertinent prior art with the relevant patent office. I should also add, especially since I have already mentioned John Goldsby in this post, that John is a strong proponent of knowing the tradition. His book, The Jazz Bass Book, is a comprehensive study of notable jazz bassists throughout history and it’s the bassist’s bible in this respect. I truly believe that one of the reasons John is such a great player is because he has such a great knowledge of the tradition to call upon and to build on.

Lambert’s other important point is that jazz musicians must not only listen to each other but to what’s happening in the space around them. In my book I wrote quite a lot about the concept of awareness especially in the chapter entitled “Listen for Change.” Awareness is broken down into individual awareness, team awareness and situational or contextual awareness. It is the latter that Lambert refers to. Individual awareness is listening to one’s self. Team awareness is listening to collaborators (those we work with). Situational awareness is listening to consumers (those we work for) and competitors (those we work against). Unless there are hecklers in the room, most jazz musicians are fortunate enough not to have to deal with competitors during a jazz performance. However their consumers are the entire audience. Jazz musicians are really lucky because they have the ability to alter what they play as they perform. Such an opportunity is not afforded to classical musicians or others that perform from a pre-composed script of music. When jazz musicians are sensitive to the room, it affects what they play. In a gig I played earlier this evening, the room was very dry so I found myself playing more notes in solos since the longer notes didn’t have much sustain in the room. Since we were playing in a restaurant and we were in close proximity to diners, we also had to be sensitive to their experience. In business, any company that does not pay attention to the business environment including what its competitors are doing and what its consumers think of its products or services, is doomed.

Back to the proofreading…

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the author’s employers and/or clients or any of their respective clients. Your use of this content is governed by this site’s Terms of Use.

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