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globe-and-mail

From The Globe and Mail, article by Wallace Immen

Brian Hayman learned some important lessons about corporate teamwork when he played jazz piano in his formative years in some of the seedier clubs in Montreal.

He recalls one night when a pianist in a combo continued to play while other players were trying to do their solos. “The band finally dragged him into the parking lot and beat the stuffing out of him, to give him a refresher course in listening,” Mr. Hayman says.

That’s not a recommended way to deal with someone who tries to rustle the agenda in a business meeting, advises Mr. Hayman, who is now using jazz performances to teach how business teams can learn to innovate.

In a seminar he calls Getting in the Groove, Mr. Hayman invites audiences to observe a jazz combo at work as an example of how to move confidently in uncharted directions by relying on an ethical compass and a set of accepted rules that lead to successful improvisation.

He believes Enron Corp. and some of the creatively mismanaged dot-bombs of the 1990s might still be in business if their key players had tuned in to the riffs of Dizzy Gillespie or John Coltrane.

At first glance, the jazz performance that leads off the seminar is hardly the kind of behaviour you’d expect from a dynamic organization. A keyboard player and guitarist are trading ideas, but they’re not even looking at each other. The drummer seems focused on the ceiling and the bass player’s eyes are so tightly closed, he could be sleeping. But it’s soon clear the members of the quartet are depending on subtle clues to help move what becomes a form of discussion forward with each player offering arguments that other players can build on or refute.

It seems as though this team of musicians has practised these songs many times, but in fact they met just before the performance and agreed what tunes they were going to play and what key they were going to use, Mr. Hayman explained. Everything else evolves, often in ways no one could predict.

The players don’t have to look at each other for cues. “What it comes down to is listening,” he says. “That’s how you learn and how you make good music together.”

Successful businesses have sometimes been compared to well-conducted symphony orchestras, but Mr. Hayman thinks jazz is a much better metaphor for creative organizations.

He once worked for a steel company. “There, discussions tended to run along the lines of how do we make nails today. I don’t know; why don’t we make them the same way we did yesterday.” That symphonic approach, where the parts are all written and everyone is expected to play the same theme in the same way at the same time, may work well on the factory floor or in a mortgage loan office, but it is death to creativity, he says.

In jazz, people are expected to constantly innovate, and new players can join the group and immediately fit in as long as they understand the underlying rules.

“Peter Drucker, with whom I seldom argue, has it dead wrong, however, when he suggests that 21st century organizational leaders will have to learn to behave like the maestros of symphony orchestras,” Mr. Hayman writes in Getting in the Groove: Jazz and the Innovating Enterprise. “In these ‘organizations’ everyone’s part is written — Beethoven, Mozart, Stravinsky have seen to that! 21st century organizations will be operating in environments of such uncertainty and complexity that leaders will have to settle for establishing ‘rules-of-play’ and making certain that they hire good improvisers.”

After each set, the audience is asked by moderator John Burton, a lawyer and theologian who teaches ethics at York University’s Schulich School of Business, to break into groups to discuss their impressions. At first, the comments are single words, like trust, confidence, dependence, but soon the discussion is about how business meetings are a process of negotiation and creating as you go.

“I think jazz can teach more than the social sciences about how life works in the real world. The great thing is it is not theoretical, you get results immediately,” Mr. Hayman says. One of the important insights turns out to be about when to break in and when to keep quiet. In jazz, solos are not supposed to last forever and players learn the importance of knowing when a chorus is winding down, which is the opportunity for someone else to break in. Then it’s important to move in fast to launch a new solo.

Mr. Hayman likes to tell the perhaps apocryphal tale about jazz saxophonist John Coltrane during one of his famous sessions with trumpeter Miles Davis. Mr. Coltrane was notorious for putting out endless torrents of notes that left no room for anyone else to break in. Mr. Coltrane is supposed to have shrugged when other players complained and said he didn’t know how to stop. Mr. Davis fired back: “It’s easy. Just take the horn out of your mouth.”

Other insights from the performance is that while it is all-important to understand your own instrument and to play it well, it is just as important to respect the capabilities of the other group members. In all too many organizations what happens is that you get a lot of individuals working individually who don’t consider the competence people from other departments can offer, Mr. Burton suggests.

Of course, any organization can also waste a lot of time if the members don’t come prepared. In Duke Ellington’s words: “Anyone who plays anything worth hearing knows what he’s going to play, no matter whether he prepares a day ahead or a beat ahead.”

The ultimately satisfying jazz performance or good business meeting will have an outcome that no one could have predicted at the beginning, Mr. Hayman says. “Your expectations change when playing off someone else’s idea and you should always come out with something you didn’t expect.”

Lessons a jazz performance can teach about business meetings:

Start with an agreement on the agenda. Jazz musicians “limit” themselves by agreeing on some fundamentals —what key to play in; what chord progression to follow; what tempo to use. Bring a high level of emotional and intellectual energy.

Keep an open mind, a desire to learn and get better at what you do. Allow everyone to participate. The essence of jazz is collective improvisation — the spontaneous, dynamic, and creative interplay of the performing artists.

Be flexible. In jazz, as in a good business collaboration, what is created among the performers will be

greater than any individual could have created on his or her own.

Be a good listener. The rule in jazz is: “No listening; no connecting. No connecting; no synergy. No synergy; no creativity. No creativity; no jazz.”

Be versatile and willing to respond to what is going on around you. While jazz features instrumental solos, at their best, solos are not monologues but creations open to the influences of the accompanying musicians.

Be willing to take risks. You can’t have improvisation without the freedom to express yourself. But there can be no freedom without structure. Playing anything that comes into one’s head results in chaos. Limits serve as enablers of, rather than constraints upon improvisation. Structure liberates by providing a framework for self-organization.

© The Globe and Mail. Republished with permission. All Rights Reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or republished or redistributed without the prior written consent of the copyright holder.


 

cma

From CMA Magazine, article by Stephen Humphrey

Sunday morning: a four-piece jazz combo — guitar, drums, piano and stand-up bass — are playing bossa nova in the sanctuary of the Aurora United Church north of Toronto. After a short set featuring a generous variety of jazz stylings, the piano player and bandleader, Brian Hayman, a tall man with a close-cropped beard in a leather blazer, asks the congregation to comment on the performance. “Okay, so what did you see happening up here?”

The comments pitched back to the stage are surprisingly thoughtful, touching on the issues of communication, leadership, and group dynamic. One man is impressed by the wordless communication of the four players, and how they veer off the main theme during their improvised solos, but always zero in again on the signature riff.

“That’s non-negotiable,” says Hayman. “You always have to go back to the tune. That’s the governing structure.”

Hayman’s replies, peppered with one-line zingers and musical anecdotes, also punch familiar workshop concepts, guiding the room back to the focus of the day, which is how they can operate better as a community.

Hayman is a former VP of human resources, now an independent consultant, and this jazzified Sunday service is actually the leadoff to an afternoon conference about church governance and community outreach. The combo goes by the name of Getting in the Groove (GitG), and they are the conference facilitators.

This isn’t the first church seminar that GitG has done, but the bulk of their work happens incorporate settings, in seminars focused on leadership and teamwork. In the year since their first gig in January 2003, they’ve worked with bankers, engineers, law firms, marketing groups, and an affordable housing initiative, but people keep finding new uses for the group and their chops. They are part of a trend that marries improvisational techniques with team building to create better, more effective organizations.

A couple of years ago, Hayman chose to combine his two decades of human resource knowledge with his passion for jazz. The breakthrough came when he decided that the strategies and values of a jazz combo could serve as a metaphor for working in a group.

Corporate analogies are often couched in metaphors of a sports team, or, to be musical, a symphony orchestra. In the orchestral model, the individual stays within what is written or prescribed, and leaves decisions to the one with the stick. The team has to pull together, but no one improvises. The landscape has changed over the years, and organizations are finding that old models don’t fit so easily. Companies are becoming more interdisciplinary and must adapt quickly to changing circumstances, and rigidly hierarchical models don’t work. Futurist Alvin Toffler referred to the new paradigm as “adhocracy.”

Jazz, to be successful, requires the partnership of a variety of specialists — leadership is fluid and shifts many times in a single piece. “At some level it is entertainment,” says Hayman. “Not frivolous entertainment, but something that allows people to let their guard down, let in new ideas.”

At the Aurora workshop, it was clear that the audience liked being asked for their musical opinions. They seemed to enjoy drawing their own intuitive links.

“When you confront people with the creative act, it’s different than talking about it,” says Hayman.

One aspect of jazz thinking GitG emphasizes is that uncertainty represents opportunity. For instance, someone at the Aurora session asks Chris, the bassist, how far ahead he thinks. Chris only met the band 45 minutes before he started playing with them, which still impresses the attendees.

“Not as far ahead as it appears,” he notes. As he plays, he explains, he gets new ideas, and then what he hears from the other players alter his decisions. This neatly sums up the process of group improvisation.

GitG are not the only promoters of improvisation as a valuable soft skill in the workplace, of course. While GitG was still a mere idea, Second City was hosting corporate workshops using improv sketch comedy to foster the ability to improvise and respond to dynamic work environments.

Personnel consultant Barry Holt (of Barry Holt & Associates) attended two series of Second City workshops. “It was no thinking, just automatic reaction, knowing it might be your turn,” he recalls. “You just have to go, be creative. You get to know who you’re interacting with pretty quick.”

As fascinating and potentially fun as this type of workshop is, its main purpose is still to make employee teams more effective. “The key to top team building is to get people to know each other, get them to understand each other, make it a real team,” says Holt. “If you understand the common goal, and you know what your role is, it can help you. You’ve got to outline your goals to start.”

Both Second City and Getting in the Groove place a lot of emphasis on active listening. “You wouldn’t think it’s a compliment if someone said you had big ears, but in jazz that’s a very big compliment,” says Hayman. A player is listening for cues from the other players, but is also keeping their ears trained on the melody, the rhythm, the through-line that’s somewhere in the wildest improvisation.

“I’ve learned through jazz the importance of waiting, the importance of listening,” says Hayman. “I think what music did was give me an appreciation that people speak in alien tongues, and that the alien tongue is not always a threat for me.”

Hayman recalls from his company days how the isolation of specialists carries on outside of the office, when departments arrive in the lunchroom together, and inevitably leave together. “I saw all of these sectarian lunches. Techs would be with techs, accounting would be with accounting. You didn’t see many ecumenical lunches. People hide behind jargon, and don’t take the time to listen to other people.”

Wesley Cragg, director of the Gardiner Ethics Program at York University’s Shulich School of Business in Toronto, hopes to use GitG as a medium to introduce ethics to new business students. Cragg is always looking for more ways to build ethics into students’ agenda, students who are very quickly caught up in the utilitarian, competitive aspects of a business education.

He hopes GitG can “open the door to conversation about the role of ethics in management.” Like any improvising organization, GitG is trying to grow and take chances as well.

In one of his many jazz anecdotes, Hayman refers to a group he saw on their first night of a week-long stint at a local bar. “‘Come back and see us,’ the band leader said, “‘because we get better.’ The thing is, they would be better, after playing together more. The more risks you take, the better you get.”