Top talent and decentralized leadership

May 9, 2010 by

In their quest for greater productivity many teams look to tools and technology when the greatest resource they have, or should have, is already within the team. The United States military is the best equipped fighting force in the world with hardware that soldiers in many other countries can only dream about. One would think that if any U.S. military units would have easy access to that hardware, it would be the elite Special Operations Forces (SOF). While the SOF might find it easier to get access to advanced equipment and weaponry, they realize that their most critical success factor is not technology but people. This basic principle is encoded in four rules known as the “SOF Truths.” General David Baratto, the first chief of operations of the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) in the late 1980s, defined the first of these truths as follows: “Humans are more important than hardware.” As Linda Robinson, author of Masters of Chaos: The Secret History of the Special Forces noted, the Special Operations Forces “view the individual soldier and his brain as the key factor in the fight.” General Wayne Downing wrote in the foreword to Special Operations Forces: Roles and Mission in the Aftermath of the Cold War:

“[T]he most important component of success in all our missions is the people we commit to them. We are continually seeking new and innovative ways to select the right people, to train them thoroughly, and to develop them professionally throughout their career. We know that the best equipment in the world without the right person operating it will not accomplish the mission. On the other hand, the right person will find a way to succeed with almost any equipment available.”

While their missions might not be critical to the security of a nation, successful musical leaders also understand the importance of employing top talent. They understand that a group comprised of regularly rehearsing average musicians will never match the capabilities of a team of great musicians even if those musicians are working together for the first time. Jazz leaders know this especially because improvisation, the ability to deal with the unknown and to adapt, plays such a large part in their music. General Downing wrote, “The challenge to Special Operations Forces is to prepare for an uncertain future while operating in an ever-changing present.” Jazz leaders know that experienced and skilled jazz musicians can adapt to almost any situation and deliver a dynamic performance packed with spontaneity, creativity and energy, even if they have never before performed as a collective. Established but fundamentally weak groups performing packaged material might be able to dazzle with a handful of well-rehearsed tunes, but give them something new or unexpected and their weaknesses will be revealed.

The idea of hiring the best people is embodied in Employ Top Talent, one of the most important rules of the Jazz Process. Strong practitioners not only do great work, they allow teams and organizations to apply Lead on Demand, a principle that enables agile teams and ultimately agile organizations.

Even before the SOF Truths were defined, fighter pilot, aircraft designer and military strategist, Colonel John Boyd, proclaimed “People, ideas, hardware – in that order.” One of Boyd’s influences was his study of Blitzkrieg. There are many myths and controversies surrounding the Blitzkrieg concept and its use by German forces during World War II. Many have propagated and continue to propagate the false notion that Blitzkrieg was primarily a strategy of repeated “shock and awe” tactics that relied on overwhelming force directed through military hardware such as the armored divisions of the German Panzerwaffe. Newsreels portrayed the German army as a mechanized juggernaut, when in fact, the German army had 3,350 tanks and 650,000 horses when it attacked the Russians in 1941. The real advantage of Blitzkrieg, which is German for “lightning war,” was speed and mobility.

At the end of World War I the Treaty of Versailles imposed strict restrictions on German military forces, limiting them in both size and scope. The task of reorganizing the German military within these restrictions fell to Hans von Seeckt. A General who had served in numerous high-level positions in the German army during World War I, Seeckt realized that agility was the key to success. By giving unit commanders more autonomy, German forces were able to improve agility. Instead of waiting for explicit orders, they were made aware of the strategic intents of their superiors and expected to use their own creativity and initiative and make their own decisions to help implement the strategy. In this way German forces were able to make decisions and act more quickly than their opponents. The actions of individual units were less predictable and they were able to adapt more quickly in response to the specific threats or conditions they encountered.

Decentralized leadership is leveraged widely in jazz circles. It is quite common for jazz musicians to work variously as leaders or as sidemen and they alternate between these roles frequently and regularly. Busy musicians who are both in-demand sidemen and leaders of their own projects may find themselves fulfilling both roles in the course of a week or even a day. Jazz leadership changes not just between gigs but also during the performance of a single piece of music. While the leader of the gig might choose the tune and count it off, at various times during the performance, different musicians will take on leadership roles and others will follow as necessary. This happens most obviously when jazz musicians take turns performing as soloists and then provide accompaniment for other musician’s solos. However, the reassignment of leadership occurs even more frequently and less obviously than that. There are times when even for just an instant, a musician who is currently playing as accompanist may take on a leadership role to direct a specific change in the music. A musician may initiate a change even without knowing precisely where it will lead, trusting that the other musicians will lead on demand in order to develop the new direction. Jazz musicians simply cannot let leadership roles remain statically assigned if they wish to create interesting, innovative music.

If you want an agile and highly capable organization, begin by hiring top talent, communicating an intent and vision and trusting your people to carry out the necessary work in their own way.


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.


Agility demands a balance between planning and improvisation

Mar 14, 2010 by

In my previous post I made reference to a book called “Rework.” One of the assertions put forward by the book’s authors is “Planning is guessing.” It’s easy to see how critics could jump on this but the authors of Rework are pretty clear that they are referring to long-term planning. What’s most interesting is their claim that “Plans are inconsistent with improvisation.” They point out that you must be able to improvise to take advantage of opportunities that come along. I’ll add that you must be able improvise to handle unexpected problems. Of course we each deal with small problems every day but how do you prepare for the problems that generate extreme change?

United States Army officer Major Brian L. Steed refers to situations of extreme change as aberrations. In his book, Piercing the Fog of War, Steed studied seven famous battles in which unrecognized extreme change had a profound effect on victory or defeat. Aberrational events are not simply confined to war. Epistomologist Nassim Nicholas Taleb refers to aberrational events as Black Swans and wrote at length about the concept in The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. The term Black Swan comes from the 17th century European assumption that “all swans are white” simply because no one had ever seen a black swan. This assumption fell apart when black swans were found in Western Australia in the 18th century. Taleb classifies Black Swan events as having low predictability and high consequence. People attempt to rationalize such events retrospectively by finding ways to explain how they could have been or were predicted. This illusion of retrospective predictability is a form of cognitive bias known as the hindsight bias. We are often encouraged to expect the unexpected yet this seems somewhat nonsensical. If you could expect the unexpected then it wouldn’t be unexpected. Expecting the unexpected is really about being agile enough to respond to unexpected problems when they occur.

In the sport of rallying, the navigator or co-driver helps prepare the driver for what lies ahead by reading off “pacenotes.” This is a form of planning. Yet no pacenotes can give them foresight of aberrational events. A perfect example is the time Federico Villagra and his co-driver Jose Diaz were driving their Ford Focus RS WRC 08 in the first stage of the World Rally Championship Portugal Rally. Racing through the Patagonian hills, they rounded a turn, crested a small hill and drove straight into a herd of wild horses crossing the road!

In business, a similar event would be the sudden appearance of a new competitor with the ability to completely outclass all existing players. The entrance of Google into the Internet search engine business is such an example. Such aberrational events can shock a system and render it unable to respond. Events of a catastrophic nature can produce similar shock. Think about how the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 had a sudden, dramatic effect on economics and on people’s lives around the world. These kinds of events are simply outliers and they are very hard to predict and plan for although you can build generally robust systems and organizations that may have a better chance of weathering such storms.

The kind of planning that can be problematic is the highly detailed micro-planning that can limit agility. Ultimately success depends on a balance between planning and improvisation. In music performance you can plan ahead by composing the notes that each musician may play and then rehearsing the act of playing the parts together as an ensemble all before the big performance takes place. If you’re not going to do this then you must be able to improvise the notes to play. Improvisation is not just for jazz musicians although jazz musicians employ it to a large degree. In recent years classical pianist Gabriela Montero has been reviving the lost art of classical improvisation.

Even in jazz performances improvisation may be employed in varying degrees. In a jazz orchestra performance improvisation may only be utilized by specific musicians in certain sections of the music. In a small group performance such as that of a trio or quartet, the musicians might improvise most of the time but even then they are working within a framework of chord changes and playing or at least beginning in a predetermined key and usually with a predetermined tempo. In recent years I’ve been fortunate enough to practice free improvisation on a regular basis and even more fortunate to get paid for it. In these sessions, which admittedly only employ two or three musicians, we perform for a dance class and play with almost no planning for almost two hours with short breaks. Each piece varies in length between three to ten minutes and begins with the musicians having no idea of key, tempo, meter, groove and or melodic ideas. We determine those things during the course of the performance. Last year and this year I attempted to evolve this concept even further by having a much larger group of musicians perform with the same lack of planning. The results were wildly successful but only because each of the participants was experienced enough in the art of improvisation and understood the need to employ such important principles as putting the health of the ensemble and its performance ahead of their own individual creative explorations, quickly building and maintaining trust and respect, listening and exchanging ideas, and taking the initiative to lead at appropriate times.

The less planning you can do the more agile you can be. However less planning requires that you compensate with strong improvisation. The ability to improvise depends not only on the talents of team members but on the specifics of each situation. You might be a strong improviser but if you’re working with others who may not be able to readily respond to your unplanned actions, you risk destabilizing your team’s efforts. Improvisation may also be unwise when there is a great deal at stake or when an activity is particularly fragile or sensitive to change.


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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