Frank J. Barrett, a professor of management and global public policy at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., is also a jazz pianist who has led his own trios and quartets and traveled with the Tommy Dorsey orchestra. In his new book, Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz (Harvard Business Review Press, $27), Barrett riffs on the themes that improvisational jazz and enlightened corporate management have in common. The book is breezy and fun, and offers vivid real-life stories from Barrett’s musical career and observations about some jazz greats, all juxtaposed with anecdotes from the business world.Here are the lessons he imparts:
1. Improvise through the chaos.
Barrett tells about playing at a club in Cleveland with a jazz quartet whose members he didn’t know, including a singer he had never accompanied. In the middle of a bebop tune, it became clear the singer hardly knew the song. As the saxophone stopped playing and the other players balked, Barrett persisted, hitting a few notes and then the original melody. Soon the sax jumped back in and the singer started making up words. “Within a few seconds, we were grooving again,” he writes.
That tale leads him to the story of GE’s experience during the financial crisis, when the company’s hugely profitable financial arm, GE Capital, suddenly hit a wall. GE wound up improvising with its other businesses, from manufacturing light bulbs to jet engines. The company recovered on the strength of its ability to adjust to change.
2. Embrace errors as a source of learning.
Barrett quotes a favorite saying of jazz trumpet legend Miles Davis: “If you’re not making a mistake, it’s a mistake.” Endemic to jazz, errors push musicians to reach beyond their comfort zones. “Jazz musicians assume that you can take any bad situation and make it into a good situation,” writes Barrett. “It’s what you do with the notes that counts.”
A story about errors from the corporate world: When Alan Mullaly became chief of Ford Motor Company in 2006, the company had lost billions. Mullaly asked his vice presidents and department heads to come to progress meetings with color-coded folders, including green for good, yellow for caution and red for problem areas. At first, the managers only brought green folders until Mullaly insisted that there must be an explanation for the billions in losses. Finally a vice president, Mark Fields, spoke out about the production and distribution problems of the Ford Eagle. Mullaly applauded Fields’ decision to come forward. At the next meeting, many of the folders were yellow and red and Ford was able to start working on fixing its problems.
3. Perform and experiment at the same time.
Barrett includes a quote from trumpeter Wynton Marsalis about what it’s like when he asks his father, master pianist Ellis Marsalis, to play on a recording. “I can tell him, ‘I don’t like what you played on that,’ and he’ll just stop and say, ‘Well, damn, what do you want?’ Then I’ll say, ‘Why don’t you do this’ and he’ll try it. That’s my father, man.” Barrett calls that exchange “a microcosm of a provocative learning relationship that nurtures an aesthetic of openness and surprise.”
For a business example, Barrett highlights a quote from one of the inventors of the inkjet printer at Hewlett-Packard, John Vaught. He and another inventor, Dave Donald, “considered and built numerous combinations of inks, resistors, slides, electrodes, explosives, lasers, and piezo-electrics” before they developed the final project. It was a case of improvising and performing simultaneously, that produced a breakthrough product.
4. Rely on minimal structure and maximum autonomy.
Jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus once famously said, “You can’t improvise on nothing. You gotta improvise on something.” In other words, musicians need structure, a song or a set of notes, on which they can embellish. But Barrett says the best jazz is made up of “orderless order,” where players are in constant dialogue, while doing their own thing, and relating their creations to what other band members are doing.
In business, Barrett likes the way Toyota runs things. The company has four simple rules that provide minimal structure, including, “the pathway for every product and service must be simple and direct.” Barrett says that aside from those rules, workers have autonomy to improve their techniques and suggest improvements. He tells about a bottleneck problem arising at a Prius factory, that caused the production line to halt. As the supervisors supported them, the line workers solved the problem in seconds.
5. Jam and hang out.
Barrett tells the story of a 1936 Charlie Parker jam session when drummer Philly Jo Jones got upset with Parker and threw a cymbal at Parker’s head. Parker said that the incident prompted him to practice 15 hours a day for the next several years, learning standard tunes in all 12 keys. Then in a subsequent jam session, Parker discovered a way to build solos on chord changes and intervals he had been hearing in his head. That experience led him to write his classic song, “Ko-Ko,” a hugely influential jazz number.
Barrett’s business examples: Thomas Edison’s famous research lab in Menlo Park, N.J., where he collaborated with 10-15 engineers at a time, who jammed and came up with the electric light bulb and other inventions. He also describes Steve Jobs’s design of the Pixar office building, where a central atrium facilitated random encounters and collaboration.
6. Lead using “provocative competence.”
On March 2, 1959, Miles Davis led a recording session that would produce the most popular jazz album of all time, “Kind of Blue.” Davis had been immersing himself in innovative classical music by composers like Bartok, Stravinsky and Schoenberg, which led him to put together some unconventional arrangements, which he presented to his fellow musicians when they arrived for the session. One of the songs, “Blue in Green,” had ten bars instead of the usual eight- or twelve-bar form. Without rehearsal, the quintet just went ahead and played. Not only was the result amazing and original, but it led three of the quintet’s members to go on and create their own bands, including Bill Evans, who transformed the piano trio.
For an equivalent corporate example, Barrett describes Toyota’s decision to make the Lexus LS 400, the first Japanese luxury sedan. For Toyota, the company’s regular music was its credo of making cheap cares for everyone. Eiji Toyoda, president and chairman of Toyota at the time, pressed his employees to produce a car that measured each part against the best in the world, including the best transmission and the best audio system, and to have a high fuel-efficiency rating to boot. “Just as Miles Davis had asked his musicians to play a song no one had ever played, in a key no one had ever heard, using a mode that was yet to be invented” writes Barrett, “Eiiji Toyoda had issued a seemingly impossible challenge.” The LS 400 evolved from some 450 different prototypes, which included thousands of innovations.
At the end of the book, Barrett admits a certain idealization of the jazz improvisation method, and concedes that it has its limits in business. Not all executives are like Miles Davis or Charlie Parker, and not all businesses can tolerate and remedy errors the way Ford Motor Company did.
The most important lesson: managers, like jazz musicians, need to, in Barrett’s words, “interpret vague cues, face unstructured tasks, process incomplete knowledge and take action anyway.” As Barrett writes, “Musicians prepare themselves to be spontaneous. Managers and executives can do the same.” You might say not only can, but must.