Practice, practice, practice…and then forget it all! – how jazz can inspire agile communications management

Life is not a math problem. You can’t solve for X and find one correct answer. The human experience is an incessant interaction with a rather unpredictable world. Mother nature does what she pleases while the people we meet follow their own passions and desires. Surprises are inevitable. French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre used what was for him a rather unusual example to explain this phenomenon: “In a football match, everything is complicated by the presence of the other team.”

If you look down the list of modern management models since the dawn of industrialization, you get the impression that human behavior was primarily seen as a challenge – something to control and channel in order to achieve set goals. Taylorism, Fordism, and management by objectives all center around quantification, standardization, and governance. The increased speed and complexity of business – mainly the result of globalization and digitalization – has exposed the weaknesses of these models. Although you can still rely on them to achieve your goals, the price you pay is a slower response to change and the inadequate use of new ideas and the creative potential of your people.

It’s not surprising that the seeds of a new management style were sowed in a fast-paced, ever-changing, innovate-or-die industry. “Agile management” stems from the software development industry and encompasses a wide range of methods from design thinking to scrum and kanban. The Agile Manifesto formulates the four main values of agile management: individuals and interactions over processes and tools, working software over comprehensive documentation, customer collaboration over contract negotiation, and responding to change over following a plan.

Because we are living in the age of The Metric We – as the title of sociologist Steffen Mau’s book on the “quantification of the social” suggests – the risk of narrowly focusing on people’s rational and cognitive competencies is also hanging over this new agile management approach like the Sword of Damocles. Indeed, we need to bring our whole self to work in order to cope with the complexities of today’s business world. David Dotlich, an American leadership expert, coined the triad “head, heart and guts” to explain this. Similarly, Nobel laureate David Kahneman distinguished between “slow” (reflective) and “fast” (intuitive) thinking.

Jazz music offers a near-perfect opportunity to witness the principles of the Agile Manifesto in action – in an immeasurable and incomparable environment – as accomplished jazz pianist and management scholar Frank Barrett writes in his 2012 book Yes to the Mess. If you like jazz, I recommend trying it our yourself and asking jazz musicians for insights into the secrets of their on-stage performances. What the jazz greats themselves have said about their music can be really eye-opening. Miles Davis, admired for his never-ending knack for renewal, believed that every mistake was an opportunity: “If you don’t make mistakes, you’re doing something wrong,” he once said. Charlie “Bird” Parker summed up the relationship between virtuosity and spontaneity like this: “Practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.” Peter Materna, an internationally successful German jazz saxophonist, revealed a piece of stage wisdom at a jazz workshop for communicators I recently attended: “Sometimes you have to start with a break,” he said. Now that’s agility – and it shows us just how far outside the mainstream management box your team may have to go to live it.

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