In the 1920’s we saw the birth of the “big band“, an ensemble of up to 25 musicians that played a style of jazz that was more akin to orchestral music in its style with very little improvisation and primarily based on rote reading of sheet music – following the plan in a specific and organized manner. This style of music gained rapid popularity and indeed through the 1920’s those “teams” enjoyed much of the popular music attention.

As the 1920’s came to an end, however, there was a bubbling movement happening in the “big band” scene which gave more freedom to the members of the band to improvise and “play” with the music. Many of the traditional big band leaders of the time didn’t understand this new freedom and it was largely ignored in the music community as a passing fad – after all these new “big bands” didn’t follow the accepted and normal plan for creating and performing popular music at the time.

Like many market disruptions that have happened since, however, the new movement of “dance jazz” with all of its freedom and empowerment of its musicians quickly gained popularity that eclipsed the established big bands of the era, and most of the band leaders who enjoyed tremendous success through the 1920’s either retired or faded into obscurity.

If we look at the music of the new “dance jazz” big bands, there are some very distinct things we can identify the led to the magic and success of famous band leaders like Duke Ellington and Mel Torme. The obvious difference is the focus that was put on soloing and improvisation in the music. Instead of following by rote a manuscript or plan for the music, the individual musicians were encouraged to add their own flavour and style to the music within the musical framework (key, time signature, and feel) of the piece.

In addition to being encouraged to just solo or improvise, the artists in these new big bands were actually encouraged to solo and improvise together – over each other and with each other – each building on the ideas and concepts introduced by the last in the ultimate collaborative and rapid iterative cycle environment. One bar at a time these talented musicians built the music together, loosely led by a band leader that allowed them free expression within the framework of the music.

Many of the challenges we face today as leaders closely mirrors this emergence of the “dance jazz” movement in the early 1930’s, and I dare say our success as leaders is dependent on our ability to build teams who can collaborate, improvise, and share their talents and knowledge freely.

Our historic management styles of command and control and tight alignment to processes and prescribed plans was very effective in dealing with the problems of the time they were developed. Large unskilled workforces and rapidly growing demand required the development of the assembly line and scientific management styles to increase efficiency in the delivery of physical goods. Six Sigma, TQM, CMMI and the like were needed to prescribe specific processes into these environments to ensure quality standards and predictability of output (although sometimes at the cost of a bit of efficiency).

Today we are moving out of a world where our primary outputs that drive economic value are physical goods or manufactured goods. That’s not to say that agriculture and manufacturing are dead industries, but rather the value in those industries (and most others) is being driven by technological innovation – ideas and knowledge are driving the new efficiencies, not management styles.

In the knowledge industries that are driving that value we are finding that the old organizations that follow old management practices of command and control and strict process driven work are unable to compete on efficiency of output with those organizations that are taking more of a “dance jazz” approach to leadership.

Organizations like Google, Amazon.com, and Apple on the large side, and a mass of start-ups and less established players like Square, Pinterest, and Instagram are empowering their workforce to improvise, collaborate, and build on each others ideas within the general framework of the company’s value proposition as opposed to disctating strategy and path from the top of the house.

If you’re in the lucky position to be the leader of a knowledge based company you have the opportunity to implement this open strategy at the organizational level, but for the rest of us it is important to recognize that even at the team level we can utilize these same structures and ideas to build extraordinarily high performing teams.

As a leader you have the opportunity to create an environment where improvisation and collaboration is nurtured and encouraged in order to empower your team to greatness, but there are a few key things you need to do to be successful:

  • Park Your Ego
    As long as you think of yourself as the smartest or most capable member of your team you will stifle the freedom of your team members to share their own ideas. The reality is that your job is to be the best band leader – the one who keeps time, calls the key changes, and encourages and pushes your team to create from within. I will wager with any leader that their team is collectively smarter, more capable, and will create more value than the leader on their own. All of us are consistently better than one of us.
  • Stand By Your Team
    Improvisation is inherently a risky endeavor. To be truly successful at this art musicians have to feel free to experiment and try new ideas, even if sometimes they hit a wrong note. In our organizations and teams we all answer to somebody (boss, board of directors, market analysts etc), but as the band leader it is our job to ensure that our band members feel free to express themselves and “try stuff” within the framework we set. If a team member hits a wrong note or experiments and fails we need to stand between them and those that we answer to. It only takes one “sacrificial lamb” to destroy a team’s trust.
  • Direct With Clarity
    If your team doesn’t understand the framework of the music or you aren’t clear when signaling a key or time change it is impossible for the band to play in harmony. Your job as a leader isn’t to play the music yourself, but rather to provide the framework and direction to your team to ensure that the resulting music achieves your stated goals. Within that framework is incredible freedom to express individuality and creativity, but if the band isn’t all playing in the same key that failure falls to the band leader.
  • Don’t Hog The Glory
    When all the notes are played and the audience rises in a standing ovation for the band, step aside and allow your team to be recognized for their success. When things go wrong it is your job to take accountability. When things go right it is your job to focus that attention and glory on your team. If you have a star player (a la Louis Armstrong) make sure that they are recognized for their talent and contribution – after all you weren’t the one with a trumpet in your hand.

To be successful in the new knowledge driven economy we need to think more like the “dance jazz” band leaders of the 1930’s and less like the original big band leaders that started the movement in the 1920’s, or we just might find ourselves disrupted in the same way that Paul Whiteman and Bob Haring were in the golden years of swing.

About Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.

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