Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz By Frank J. Barrett

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    Last Summer, Harvard Business Review Press published Frank Barrett's Yes to the Mess(1). I have been working with Frank's ideas from organizational improvisation for the past seven years in our jazzinbusiness workshops and I am lucky and happy to have him as one of the mentor's on my doctoral dissertation committee. This review provides a guidepost to the book and provides a synthesis and a challenge to Frank going forward.

    Frank's book builds on the seven principles he originally described in his 1998 paper on creativity and improvisation in jazz and organization(2), but takes them to the realities of today's world and brings them even closer to a business practitioner audience than the very accessible scholarly article did.

    In chapter one, 'All that Jazz' Frank introduces improvisation as an art for business and shows with numerous examples that in contrast to the neat and planned stories, most leadership is messy, in the moment, requires creativity, courage and on the spot decision making. Only when we look back do we see if things are actually working. In jazzinbusiness, we use Frank's principle of retrospective sensemaking to help our participants make sense of the core of improvisation and how it can be applied in the moment.

    In chapter two: 'Yes to the Mess' Frank discusses what it takes to embrace the uncertainty and the imperfection that are core to improvisation. Contrary to the aesthetics of perfection that go with planning and performing a composition, leadership is a messy business. Embracing an aesthetic of imperfection and a willingness to act into the mess are conducive to the creation of options, possibilities, and surprises that inspire innovation, novelty and change. It takes courage to leave a plan, and it is the search for the groove that connects your team closely enough to make music together that will help you keep your mess a beauty.

    In chapter three: 'Performing and Experimenting Simultaneously' Frank discusses what possibilities are present in the inevitable errors that go with improvisation. Beyond the obvious, but difficult, learning from errors, there is the surprise of the unexpected. If we embrace errors we find new possibilities for change, invention, and innovation.

    In chapter four: 'Minimal Structure, Maximal Autonomy' Frank discusses the paradox that is core to evolutionary change in jazz music. The shared knowledge of song structure, the classic standards, and playing styles, instruments, attitudes that jazz musicians can lever are not restricting improvisation, but are enabling it. By approaching structures as a springboard for unique creation in the moment, jazz musicians are able to quickly coordinate and get going with the unique and the new. It is thanks to structure that improvising is possible. This reversal of what we are used to in business reveals the opportunity to create shared minimal structures in our organization that actually inspire joy instead of despair.

    In chapter five: 'Jamming and Hanging Out' Frank talks about learning in the jazz community. Contrary to formal education, jazz has a history of informal mentorship in loosely tied networks and communities of players. By sitting in and hanging out, interests, knowledge, attitudes, and skills are exchanged and exemplified. Bands form and disband, tutors find pupils, and in a continuous process of jamming, performing and recording the jazz community evolves over time.

    In chapter six: 'Taking Turns, Soloing and Supporting' Frank introduces the idea of followership as equally important to leadership. Both in real-time performance and in learning jazz musicians know when to lead and when to follow. When the solist takes centre stage, (s)he is the leader of the moment. The others in the band use their instrument to support the current leader's solo. Once the solo concludes, the next player takes a turn and is supported by the others. This flow between leadership, supportership,and followership is what makes jazz musicians such good collaborators. They know it is the specialist on that instrument that needs to go ahead and do it at that point. And they know how to move along and get it done together.

    In chapter seven: 'Leadership as Provocative Competence' Frank talks about what type of leadership it takes to get out of the comfort zone and to venture ut there exploring and learning new things in uncertainty. It also shows how leaders can seek out people who are likely to do that, and what it takes to positively provoke them into stretching themselves for learning and competence.

    The final chapter: 'Getting to Yes to the Mess Advancing Engaged, Strategic Improvisation' provides a synthesis of the principles in the form of an improviser's toolkit. By proposing eleven concrete guidelines that make the organizational improvisation principles cross the analogical bridge between the metaphor and its applications in organizations, Frank prepares us as leaders of strategic improvisation and positive change in our businesses.

    In Yes to the Mess, Frank shows that he is a jazz musician of words as much as a jazz musician of the piano. He takes the structures embedded in the rich article he authored in 1998, and improvises a unique and new form which conserves and integrates its strengths and which differentiates it into today's context. It also does a great job at appealing to the broader audience which will be engaging with the management book. Frank found unique ways to weave the jazz principles into every chapter, revisiting themes, embellishing the core melodies introduced in the first chapter, making variations around examples from a wide range of indiustries, and synthesizing the rich content back into the theme. But now with a distinct call for action to his readers to join in and start practicing businessjazz in their organizations.

    One wish that I have for Frank is to bring the rich inner life that is foundational to the wisdom captured in his words centre stage in a sequel. One that shares some of the forces, shadows, feelings, emotions, sense and consciousness that are integral to becoming a great business jazz scholar practitioner. I know that Frank has much to share here. I am looking forward to more of the embodied performance, of the mind, and the spirit that Frank shows here, for example, in his prayer for Barnett Pearce(3), a great communication scholar(4), and Frank's friend (and also one of my mentors), who passed away in 2011. In his prayer for Barnett, Frank improvises with words Barnett had said to provide a unique glance into the soul of a great business jazz player.

    1. Barrett, F. J. (2012). Yes to the Mess: Surprising leadership lessons from jazz (Kindle version.). Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.
    2. Barrett, F. J. (1998). Creativity and improvisation in jazz and organization: Implications for organizational learning. Organization Science, 9(5), 605-622.
    3. Barrett, F. J. (2011). A prayer for Barnett Pearce. See:
    4. Pearce, W. B. (2007). Making social worlds: A communication perspective. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. Kindle Edition Un libro splendidamente scritto, e che nasce da un lungo parallelo tra Jazz, Management e Leadership. Scritto anticipando molti dei concetti resi oggi celebri dalle modalità di lavoro Agile, il testo si focalizza molto sul concetto di improvvisazione, e sulla preparazione necessaria a improvvisare. I veri leader che fanno la differenza non sono i direttori d'orchestra classica, ma i jazzisti che riescono a trovare il groove insieme, elaborando una jam session dopo l'altra.
    Libro pieno di riferimenti al Jazz, con anche analisi illustrative di alcuni pezzi molto interessanti. Sono anche presenti molti esempi aziendali. Kindle Edition I will muse on 'Yes to the Mess' for quite some time. The theme of improvisational leadership in context of a team orientation as demonstrated by timeless jazz innovators is riveting. The frequent anecdotes of Ellington, Davis, and others coaxing their peers and protégés to stretch under live conditions are memorable examples of leadership brilliance.

    Barrett introduces a number of new phrases and gives old ones new life. New phrases like 'provocative competence' open uncharted avenues for exploring ones' s leadership traditions while serving the bringing out the best of others. My mind whirred with ideas on how to find a groove (flow) while comping (accompanying) others to develop my followership.

    I'll never listen to Kind of Blue the same, as I will knowingly smile when I hear that 'misplaced' cymbal. Kindle Edition So I read this book chapter by chapter through an honors course I took this semester on a whim, and each week we would all share our experiences with the book and how it related to our lives. I think that in a way, we were really exemplifying a lot of what the book talks about, we were all college freshmen, most of us with little experience with jazz or musical performance in general, from a wide variety of different majors and environments. All we had in common was the fact that we were in the honors college and that we all signed up for this leadership class. I'm not sure if we all had the same experience, but personally I feel that this book can be a beneficial read to anyone, not just someone in business or who likes jazz. The concepts in this book can open your eyes to a better way of addressing conflicts, relationships, and how to let go of your fears and jump into things. I think these are concepts that we could all use a little more adeptly in our lives, and I hope that I will be better at seeing how to use them going forward. Kindle Edition This is a pleasant, encouraging, and very well-written book. One can look forward to picking it up, and even with tired eyes and mind, one can still get something positive out of each sitting.

    The use of the words leadership and organizations in the book's blurb were general enough that I had hoped that various kinds of organizations would be covered. Organizations in this book turned out to mean companies, which disappointed me as I am not involved with or interested in companies. NGOs, neighborhood organizations, even other musical organizations such as orchestras or classical chamber groups, might have figured in the myriad examples of success resulting from improvisational change, and this would have broadened the book's appeal.

    Barrett succeeds at getting his thesis across, but for a professional musician, the anecdotes that make up much of the book may begin to feel repetitive (Chapter 7 is, happily, somewhat more detailed); the analogies offered between aspects of jazz playing and leadership are specific and nuanced, but somehow I had hoped for even more. For this reason, I would recommend the book more for those with less musical background. That said, it's a solid yet easy read, and I am glad to have come across it. In fact, something about the reiterations of the importance of self-awareness and active listening led me to converse better and take the turns of a discussion less personally: In paying close attention to your own experience, you notice the constraint of your own bias as well as the nuances and gradations of others' responses. Kindle Edition

    What Duke Ellington and Miles Davis teach us about leadership

    How do you cope when faced with complexity and constant change at work? Here’s what the world’s best leaders and teams do: they improvise. They invent novel responses and take calculated risks without a scripted plan or a safety net that guarantees specific outcomes. They negotiate with each other as they proceed, and they don’t dwell on mistakes or stifle each other’s ideas. In short, they say “yes to the mess” that is today’s hurried, harried, yet enormously innovative and fertile world of work.

    This is exactly what great jazz musicians do. In this revelatory book, accomplished jazz pianist and management scholar Frank Barrett shows how this improvisational “jazz mind-set” and the skills that go along with it are essential for effective leadership today. With fascinating stories of the insights and innovations of jazz greats such as Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins, as well as probing accounts of the wisdom gleaned from his own experience as a jazz musician, Barrett introduces a new model for leading and collaborating in organizations.

    He describes how, like skilled jazz players, leaders need to master the art of unlearning, perform and experiment simultaneously, and take turns soloing and supporting each other. And with examples that range from manufacturing to the military to high-tech, he illustrates how organizations must take an inventive approach to crisis management, economic volatility, and all the rapidly evolving realities of our globally connected world.

    Leaders today need to be expert improvisers. Yes to the Mess vividly shows how the principles of jazz thinking and jazz performance can help anyone who leads teams or works with them to develop these critical skills, wherever they sit in the organization.

    Engaging and insightful, Yes to the Mess is a seminar on collaboration and complexity, against the soulful backdrop of jazz.
    Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz


    Hmmm. Interesting. But to be honest, also a bit far-fetched. Some elements will be interesting to implement into daily business life though. And I learned of some nice new Jazz artists! Kindle Edition Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz is a powerful book that drives its lessons from the continuous parallel between Jazz music, and specifically from how Jazz Bands operate, and the world of Management and Leadership. After attending the Herbie Hancock concert in Milan, I wrote a post on the relationship between Jazz and Leadership. I did some research on the web, and that’s how I found this book. Written by Frank J. Barrett, a professor of Management at the Naval Postgraduate School, who was also a Jazz Pianist, the book made it immediately to my reading list.

    The book is primarily focused on jazz improvisation. But also about the leadership skills needed to understand and facilitate the innovation process. It starts by considering the fact that Jazz bands are organisations designed for innovation, and that its design elements can be applied to other organizations that seek to innovate. To a certain extent, this book has probably appeared prematurely. Still, it anticipates many of the concepts that apply to the ways of working that are more addressed today: Design Thinking, Lean and Agile.

    Barrett starts with an acute analysis of the traditional managerial concepts of planning. In his words, the only plan that’s missing in most organizations, it often seems, is the one for the things as they actually happen. The idea of drawing a parallel with Jazz came from the work of Karl Weick and especially his article Improvisation as a Mindset for Organisational Analysis. Barrett defines Jazz as the relentless pursuit of learning and disciplined imagination. Two much-needed goals also for most organizations.

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    Kindle Edition So this is my assessment of this book Yes to the Mess by Frank Barrett according to my 6 criteria:
    1. Related to practice - 5 stars
    2. It prevails important - 4 stars
    3. I agree with the read - 5 stars
    4. not difficult to read (as for non English native) - 4 stars
    5. too long and boring story or every sentence is interesting - 4 stars
    6. Learning opportunity - 5 stars

    Total 4.5 stars. Kindle Edition
    The adage music can soothe the savage beast is one we've all
    universally accepted. The idea that Jazz can contribute, influence, and
    change the field of organizational leadership is a new concept that we
    need to universally accept. Frank Barrett's Yes to the Mess offers a
    compelling metaphor of Jazz as a means of working not to get it better,
    but to get it different. The theories and practices of Jazz as a musical
    framework and discipline are clearly incorporated into Barrett's
    analysis and recommendations for changing current leadership practices
    in a way that is meaningful, transparent and educational.

    Currently our leadership practices, at best, hinder if not prevent the
    expression and testing of new ideas in the workplace. The book's seven
    principles offer us a way to improvise and innovate through curiosity,
    creativity, playfulness, and messiness. Yes to the Mess is asking us
    to reframe leadership by expanding our ideas and beliefs as to what
    leadership is and does in the organization. Our current neat definitions
    and practices of the past do not meet the leadership challenges present
    in today's global marketplace, where information received at 9:00am can
    be out of date by Noon. The message Frank Barrett is explicitly stating
    echoes a similar message that the classic children's book authors gave
    to their audience. Maurice Sendak, Kenneth Grahame, and Lewis Carroll
    all offered imaginative worlds to explore and discover, including
    romping with the Wild Things, messing about in boats, and experiencing
    the world as a distorted mirror image of reality. Being uncomfortable
    with the status quo and looking at the world through a sometimes
    unorthodox lens can open the door to a great journey of exploration and
    discovery. We have much to regain by reaffirming the importance of
    structured messiness in our organizations involving innovation,
    invention, insight, and collaborative improvisation that leads to
    hitting the right note, as occurs with jazz musicians. And, as Frank
    Barrett recommends, do listen to the ensemble improvising on the
    beautiful melody of So What from Miles Davis' classic recording, Kind
    of Blue, that was transforming, even for a rock & roll girl.
    Kindle Edition Another great business book. I am somewhat biased being a fan of jazz. I actually thought this was going to be another dumb, poorly written business book with a premise based on selling books instead of anything useful. I was surprised to discover thoughtful and applicable concepts and ideas. He articulately describes the kind of organization I would love to be a part of! Kindle Edition