Michael Gold is creator and principal of Jazz Impact where he combines world-class jazz with interactive and experiential learning and new ways of thinking around leadership, engagement and collaboration in business. Michael is also one of our affiliated members. As part of our ongoing conversations I had the chance to ask him a couple of questions and what I got was both – surprising and inspirational. But find our for yourself!
Dirk: Michael, in the book “Trading Fours” that you wrote together with Dario Villa you state improvisation is the action of improving upon what is. This sounds like what we call continuous improvement or kaizen in business. What would be a good metaphor or approach to breakthrough innovation, something that is radically new?
Michael: The creative process in jazz is Kaizen. Jazz is an art form based in a shared musical language. Its core evolution was based in the continual engagement of a common cannon of highly defined musical structures using a specific social process over the period of 40 years.
The idea of something being radically new is misleading. Is anything really radically new? If we take a look at the repertoire of the greatest innovators in jazz- the one’s who, in retrospect, were the leaders in evolving the language of jazz like Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Warne Marsh, John Coltrane and Miles Davis- we find that during their most influential and creative periods they were working off of a very specific and tightly constrained set of songs. It’s not that they didn’t know hundreds and hundreds of tunes but that, again in retrospect, breakthrough innovation in jazz happened through a constant iterative struggle with the structure of these songs. Any kind of breakthrough innovation is a by-product of discovering new ways to frame and think about the “what” and the “how” of challenges.
Listen to Lester Young with Count Basie on the 1936 Kansas City 6 recording of Lady Be Good (the improvisation that had a huge impact on Charlie Parker’s concept and, some say, opened the window onto modern jazz). They did many takes of that song that day. In the unreleased takes that are now available you can hear how some parts of Young’s improvisation are more clear, present, and deliberate than others- and never quite in the same place in the tune. But with the take they released there was an unconstrained flow- a deliberation from start to finish that was complete and what some might call note perfect. Young’s playing is so deeply entwined with the others who are also improvising (albeit without pushing the boundaries as much as the soloist) that it is impossible to imagine Young’s improvisation without the framing and support of the rhythm section. One might wonder if his innovative leadership on this performance was not actually empowered by the support of the rhythm section.
So I think the metaphor here has to do with the constant iteration of the attempt to “get it right”. One can hear a fluid integration of the roles of leading and support such that each role’s integrity is amplified beyond what each individual would have been capable of by themselves. Yet at the same time they form a whole that is truly greater than the sum of its parts. This is the culture of a truly cross functional team and exactly what business cultures need to negotiate change in turbulent markets and industries based in disruptive innovation.
Dirk: This sounds like everything is a derivative in some way and that it is a group of people that – if working together successfully – make innovation happen. What are the success criteria for a group to successfully iterate or to improvise? What defines a whole that is truly greater than the sum of its parts?
Michael: Let’s first consider the process of the solitary artist. For example an artist creates a painting over the course of several days. During that timeframe even though there is an absolute demarcation of the times the artist spends physically creating the painting, the creative process itself is fluid and always happening- a myriad of different levels of ideation and intentionality that informs the painter’s choices. While the painter’s action is spontaneous, some choices are better in opening the pathway and momentum forward while other choices may be benign or opposing- but even in opposition there is value in terms of informing the painter’s direction. I would call this being prepared for serendipity- a term that implies being prepared to capitalize on whatever happens in the moment. How the individual artist works offers some interesting and useful insights around how we edit our ideas; how we re-approach problems and the value of error – indeed even the meaning of error. Also some good points about how we need to hold ourselves open to the emergence of new ideas without quickly rushing to closure simply for the sake of the greater system- or, in the case of business, an outside stakeholder.
Where the metaphor of the individual artistic process falls short is that it tells us nothing of the real-time social interaction- the relationships that define an organizational culture. Fusing the parts of a whole to become an organism that has collective self- awareness requires conscious experiential practice on the part of each individual. Much of what makes jazz jazz is somatic in nature- an intelligence that is physical and intuitive while at the same time deeply rooted in cognitive response. Each individual in the ensemble is simultaneously leading change and responding to change. Each instrument does have a specific role and yet each different ensemble has its own unique collective ecology. Every new context requires that the individual reframe their understanding of their role, their voice and the velocity of their response.
While there must be absolute accountability for expertise in their roles, the real challenge of jazz is to let go of role- to become free of a role’s constraints while simultaneously delivering its function at a level so deep that it becomes indistinguishable from the other roles that it serves.
When we are able- in collaborative real time process- to “hold ourselves open” to the multiple possibilities that present in each emerging moment, then we begin to allow the natural ecology of the group to emerge. But that is only the beginning because we need to influence the direction and balance of that ecology- to recognize and value the vitality of the process without trying to control or overshadow its inherent authenticity as an amalgam of each individual voice.
In the ideal ensemble the individual is integrated without loss of autonomy and integrity into a whole that, as it becomes an amalgam of all voices, amplifies the capability of the individual beyond that which they are capable of alone.
This is the ideal situation and extremely hard to achieve let alone sustain. For example, in Charlie Parker’s flawless improvisation on All The Things You Are entitled Bird Of Paradise one can here the absolute economy of the entire ensemble as if every note had been carefully crafted to support and inform every note of the improvisation.
To truly appreciate the alignment and spontaneity of the group as a whole remember that every note is being improvised- no one is reading a score. This example still stands as a benchmark of organizational improvisation rarely achieved in any era of jazz.
But the value for organizations is in the fact that there are practices that can radically improve the functionality of a group process whether or not absolute peak performance is achieved. There are three dynamic qualities at play in the collective structured improvisation of the jazz ensemble that are deeply relevant to team process. They are the capacity to remain presence, the skill of active listening, and the quality of empathy. Developing these skills means generating a heightened awareness of these properties in one’s self and in the culture of the organization. They are practices that deepen as they are sustained.
Picture source: Wikimedia Commons