Kind of Blue

It is unlikely that a book on choice will offer an insight on organization. Sheena Iyengar, in her ‘The Art of Choosing‘, talks about her conversation with the jazz player Wynton Marsalis.
Wynton Marsalis : You need to have some restrictions in jazz. Anyone can improvise with no restrictions, but that’s no jazz. Jazz always has some restrictions. Otherwise it might sound like noise. The ability to improvise comes from fundamental knowledge, and this knowledge limits the choice you can make and will make. Knowledge is always important where there’s a choice. 
The resulting action is based on informed intuition, or as he calls it, superthought. In jazz, superthought goes beyond determining the “right” answer: It allows one to see new possibilities where others see only more of the same, and to construct the rare useful combination. …. Insisting on more when one already has a great deal is usually considered a sign of greed. In the case of choice, it is also a sign of the failure if the imagination, which we must avoid or overcome if we wish to solve our multiple choice problem.
It is not uncommon to find agile being misconstrued as ‘we can do whatever’; or worse, ‘follow it by the book’. A framework such as Scrum offers you the guidelines within which to play. You have all the freedom to unleash your creativity. And anyone who talks about either-or (between restrictions and creativity) is bringing in false dichotomy. It’s not about limits of freedom, it’s about rules of the game. The rules don’t take away freedom from you, or restrict your creativity. Rather, it gives us a semantics to work together; a common language of expectations and behavior.
Frank Barrett, jazz pianist, and author of ‘Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz’, talks about Miles Davis during his recording of ‘Kind of Blue’.
“… I love Miles Davis’s quote. He says, if you’re not making a mistake, it’s a mistake. And what’s behind that is, he’s saying you need to be experimenting and exploring and trying new things all the time. So if everything you play is clean and fresh and slick, that means you’ve given up experimentation. And so, for jazz improvisation to work, there’s going to be mistakes and wrong notes. You just treat those as more material to be explored and gleaned and to see where they can lead.”

Frank Barrett called it elegantly as ‘an aesthetic of forgiveness’, where wrong notes are encouraged to be forgiven if the musician’s sincere efforts are behind it. 

Later then “…one of the principles that jazz musicians live by is what I call mastering the art of unlearning because the enemy to jazz improvisation is your own routines and habits and success traps. There’s a temptation to play what you’ve done well in the past because you’re on the spot having to make something up in front of an audience. 

So jazz musicians have to sort of trick themselves into unlearning their own routines and habits so they don’t automatically fall back into cliches.

Processes, in a way, are route maps of practices. Practices follow from principles. And never should it be the other way around. Jim Highsmith says it best :

“..what happens in too many organizations is that practices become static and then quietly elevated to the level of principle—something that can’t be violated…What happens is that slowly and surely, good practices become bad principles, or pseudo-principles”. So, for heaven’s sake, don’t get into this process trap.

Jerry Garcia school of management

Fourty odd years after the summer of love, hippiedom is in for a different trip. Management science, of all, now looks to Grateful Dead for inspiration.

That’s what Joshua Green talks about in his article in The Atlantic. It seems Grateful Dead’s strategies and practices are influencing, of all people, managers and business students. He writes, “Without intending to-while intending, in fact, to do just the opposite-the band pioneered ideas and practices that were subsequently embraced by corporate America.”

Deadheads, the famous peripatetic (no, not pathetic) fans, followed, literally, the touring band. Though loose in the sense that they came from different parts of the country, there was a deep bond among them. Tribes , in fact.  Grateful Dead knew what it meant to care and connect with their vital fans. “The Dead were masters of creating and delivering superior customer value,” Barry Barnes, a business professor from Florida posits. And that was before American companies had to learn that from Japanese.

Grateful Dead also let Deadheads record songs freely in concerts. Band’s lyricist, John Perry Barlow explains to the author “..if I give my song away to 20 people, and they give it to 20 people, pretty soon everybody knows me, and my value as a creator is dramatically enhanced...”. None can argue with that now. “Strategic improvisation” is the word coined by Prof. Barry Barnes. May not be the pioneer, but sure an harbinger of open source philosophy.

Prof. Barnes then theorizes, “Giving something away and earning money on the periphery is the same idea proffered by Wired editor Chris Anderson in his recent best-selling book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price.”

Chris Anderson, in his Wired article on Free (there’s a book too), starts with Gillette as revolutionizing business models with offering throwaway models. It’s possible since it comes at throwaway price. However ‘throwaway’ disposable razors are, they are not free. And the difference between “free” and “not-free”, however little it might be, is a major difference.

Giving it all away might not always be that altruistic. Joel Spolsky, in his blog once wrote, “I noticed something interesting about open source software, which is this: most of the companies spending big money to develop open source software are doing it because it’s a good business strategy for them, not because they suddenly stopped believing in capitalism and fell in love with freedom-as-in-speech.” (There, I believe, are open source softwares with its origins in idealism which later got monetized by bigger companies. Then again, do ‘money’ and ‘altruism’ need to conflict?)

Coming to innovative pricing, perhaps Rainbows takes the cake. Todd Sattersten, in his “A Pricing Utopia” says “..You can’t please all of the people all of the time, when it comes to price, no matter what you charge, you are going to leave money on the table. Some customers will pass because the cost is too high, while others would have paid more…..”.

In October 1, 2007, Radiohead released their album on their own website as both digital download and $80 premium discbox that included two CDs, two vinyl records, photos and lyric book. In Rainbows has become more well-known for the sales method than the music itself. So Radiohead vaporized their middleman (recording company) who were eating into the profits and watering down art. Thom Yorke told TIME , “...but the time is at hand when you have to ask why anyone needs one...”. (Where is the manager of the self-managed team?)

Towards the end of the article, Joshua Green writes “That was the value proposition with the Dead.” The Dead thrived for decades, in good times and bad. In a recession, Barnes says, strategic improvisation is more important than ever. “If you’re going to survive this economic downturn, you better be able to turn on a dime,” he says. “The Dead were exemplars.” It can be only a matter of time until Management Secrets of the Grateful Dead or some similar title is flying off the shelves of airport bookstores everywhere.

Now, at least, there is a blog.

Chord’ial management

You might be quick to conclude from an image of orchestra conductor waving his baton as one who is in absolute control of his musicians. But it’s not so.

Henry Mintzberg, respected writer on management, decided to spend time with Bramwell Tovey, artistic director and conductor of Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, in order to explore how orchestra conductors came to be a popular metaphor for managers today. Instead of finding in action the words common to management books like ‘control’ or ‘directing’, he found a glimpse of what he called ‘covert leadership’ which, in fact, means:

” managing with a sense of nuances, constraints, and limitations….This is the role of the covert leader: to act quietly and unobtrusively in order to exact not obedience but inspired performance…”

(Covert Leadership: Notes on Managing Professionals by Henry Mintzberg, Harvard Business Review, Nov/Dec 98)

Whatever the media image of an orchestra conductor might be, hardly does this conductor really control. Though there might be control evident in the system or structure but all the structure and system comes from the profession itself, not from the manager. This kind of inbuilt structure makes certain rituals (like stomping their foot after a good solo rehearsal) a unconcious event for the musicians. Drawing a parallel to management of software development, that kind of tacit understanding which makes ritual (say, testing) happen is markedly absent. In music, when it comes to directing (another overused word for managers) – the experience was far from giving orders, even comments made during rehearsals have to be aimed at sections rather than at individuals.”

Lest one wrongly assumes it to be powerlessness, Mintzberg adds: Taken together, the various constraints within which the orchestra conductor works describe a very common condition among managers-not being in absolute control of others nor being completely powerless, but functioning somewhere in between.

Again before one hastens to point to ’empowerment’, he says:

Empowerment is a silly notion here. Musicians hardly need to be empowered by conductors. Inspired maybe-infused with feeling and energy-but not empowered. Leaders energize people by treating them not as detachable “human resources” (probably the most offensive term ever coined in management) but as respected members of a cohesive social system. When people are trusted, they do not have to be empowered.

He ends up with the note:

“…you may learn from this example what a good deal of today’s managing is all about. Not obedience and harmony, but nuances and constraints. So maybe it is time for conventional managers to step down from their podiums, get rid of their budgeting batons, and see the conductor for who he or she really is. Only then can anyone appreciate the myth of the manager up there as well as the reality of the conductor down here. Perhaps that is how the manager and the organization can make beautiful music together.”

Though the parallel between music and management is oft repeated, this particular paper bears to stand out from being a cliche. Still, some opines that even classical music is not a suitable metaphor for agile management which thrives on improvisation. Jazz, here, suits better.

Itay Talgam, in his brilliant TED talk, shows with video snippets the effect of ‘doing without doing’ and how

‘..suddenly out of the chaos, order. Noise becomes music’.

In this talk Talgam explains that when Karajan was asked about his mode of conducting he said “… the worst damage I can do to my orchestra is to give them a clear instruction. Because that will prevent the ensemble, the listening to each other that is needed for an orchestra”. Conductor Klieber not only creates a process, but also the conditions in the world in which this process takes place.

Benjamin Zander, leading conductor for Boston, London and Israel philharmonic orchestras; talks in his book the ‘The Art of Possibility‘ about exploring the facets of hidden possibilities. Coming back of software development, isn’t this exactly what agile methodology trying to do – to rein in inherent uncertainties with the ‘art of possibility’?

Though most of us gotta serve somebody, we can always try to take a sad song and make it better.