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

Apr 27, 2010

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.


  1. Great article!
    I hope you don’t mind if I add one thought: To me the openness of jazz musicians creates a high level of tolerance of mistakes to the point that, assuming everyone is paying attention to and cultivating the overall sound, there aren’t any. The way I like to think of it is that there are no wrong notes, it is always the next note that matters.
    Taking it back to a business team context, if everyone on a team has the well being of the team as the primary goal, then all unexpected individual actions are at worst recoverable or at best revolutionary. I guess it sounds spacy but it truly is liberating when you experience it, whether at work or on a gig.
    The prerequisite is people who really are open in ears, minds and hearts, as the article details so well.
    One more thing: I heard that when Charlie Parker made a mistake in a solo he tried to repeat it over and over to learn it and make it a part of his toolbox. Not sure if that’s true.

  2. Please do add thoughts, Bob. Thanks for contributing. Interestingly, the subject of mistakes comes up a lot in my book. I believe that of the following points I make about mistakes, these two address what you highlighted:

    The ability to absorb mistakes is one of the most important capabilities of an effective team. A team-centric mindset gives more consideration to team results than to individual ones. The team succeeds and takes the credit together and the team fails and takes the blame together.

    Good innovators use the unexpected as points of departure for creativity. Miles Davis said “There are no mistakes in jazz – only opportunities.” If you listen to the classic Kind of Blue album, which resulted from recording two very spontaneous sessions with little preparation, you can hear things that some people might label as mistakes. However the musicians simply incorporated them into the performance and/or used them as points from which to further diverge and create uniqueness in their performance. In the studio, the musicians had the opportunity to perform another take but they usually did not. Except for Flamenco Sketches, the first complete performance of each piece on the album was the one that was released.

    In the context of innovation, you have to be willing to make mistakes. As an example, Google’s culture of innovation accepts mistakes as a normal part of the research and development process. According to Eric Schmidt, Google’s Chairman and CEO: “The way you say this is: ‘Please fail very quickly – so that you can try again’.” Larry Page, President, Products and co-founder said to one employee, upon hearing from her that she had cost the company several million dollars, “I’m so glad you made this mistake. Because I want to run a company where we are moving too quickly and doing too much, not being too cautious and doing too little. If we don’t have any of these mistakes, we’re just not taking enough risk.”

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