Swanage Jazz Festival 2012. Excelsior Vintage Jazz Band. (c) Rob Schofield. (CC-A/ND) http://www.flickr.com/people/robschofield/

Jazz Combo is Stupid Metaphor for Organizations

E. Forrest Christian Change 1 Comment

A long time ago, I wrote the following commenting on something Luc Hoebeke told me at his house outside Leuven. It’s a good reminder today as I continue to see people want large endeavors to work like tight jazz combos. I have some friends and relatives who are pros — instrumentalists and vocalists in pop, jazz and even baroque chamber — and have been gotten an earful about what leading orchestras is really about, how jazz combos work, and what happens when you have a hybrid group that isn’t large or small.

Everyone seems to want us all to be a jazz combo. However, almost no one listens to jazz combos. And sometimes you want something that you cannot do with a small combo. Big bands mix both: there’s some orchestration going on, and generally we know where we are going, but there is still a big function of improvisation.

What Drucker seems to have failed to understand is that jazz combos almost always know where they are going in a performance. They aren’t “developing the score as they go along” but improvising on a pre-developed theme within a group who is quite used to performing together. If you think about it, they are actually performing within a limited discretion: you can play almost anything but you still have to play with the others. You can’t start playing “Stardust” and try to play a totally different key and meter, unless the others will follow along with you.

UPDATE 2013-Aug-19:

Some jazz combos do work a bit like business writers think they do. I recall some ecstatic looks from my friends at university — who cared a lot more than I did about what they were playing — talk about an old-school jazz combo who had been playing together for fifty years or more.

“They can just go out on a limb and the others will know where they’re going,” they said. Or maybe it was that the others would trust that he knew what he was doing and followed his lead.

In these groups, the music ebbs and flows without any tension. The lead switches from one to another and then the other. It feels like the conversation between old friends. I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s a comfort of being able to finish each others’ sentences, of a warm familiarity.

Unfortunately, this is just what many organizations rely on.

According Tony Welsh of Forrest & Company (no relation), he sees all too many companies who rely on deep personal relationships between Boomer professionals. It sounds great — “we’ve worked together so long we know whom we can upon for what, when!” — but it means that these people are truly irreplaceable.

That’s not a bad thing, usually. You’d want to have people who have depth in the company, who know where the bodies are buried.

The problem is that these people are all going to retire within 5-10 years of each other.

The new people, says Tony, aren’t going to have these types of relationships. Since nothing is rationalized (made apparent through writing) the rules aren’t knowable once the individuals leave. There’s no defined role interactions, no defined way in which authorities and accountabilities get worked out.

Put a bunch of Millenials into the mix replacing the Boomers and you have a disaster.

For most part, the Jazz Combo metaphor is simply stupid for organizations. It gets us thinking like tiny little teams that are inwardly focused rather than large bodies moving together. It’s the difference between a bird species where five or six can coordinate and those with emergent coordination of song because they have some simple, set rules for how they respond to each other.

Then there’s the issue of the conductor and the multitude of cultures….

image credit: “Jazz” © Rob Schofield

About the Author

Forrest Christian

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E. Forrest Christian is a consultant, coach, author, trainer and speaker at The Manasclerk Company who helps individuals and companies find insight and solutions to what seem like insolvable problems. Cited for his "unique ability and insight" by his clients, Forrest has worked with people from almost every background, from artists to programmers to executives to global consultants, both as individuals and as leaders of organizations at least as diverse. [contact]

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