While there are many things one can do in order to achieve success, it is often a small set of core values that can make all the difference by providing guidance, consistency and a foundation upon which other principles and beliefs can be adopted.
What comes to mind when you think about diversity? Most people think about the programs that governments and organizations employ to ensure representation of minority groups. This specific diversity is just one element of the broader diversity that is essential for building and maintaining robust, high-performance systems. Healthy teams achieve balance through many facets of diversity. Some musicians tend to play on the front of the beat, while others are known for playing on the back of the beat, and others squarely on the beat. If everyone plays at the leading edge of the beat, the ensemble will tend to rush. If everyone plays behind the beat, the performance will surely drag. A healthy range of these tendencies ensures a steady pulse, while giving the ensemble the flexibility to crank up the intensity or dig into the groove as needed. Similarly, in any group activity, certain people will be gung-ho, with a tendency to move quickly. Others will be cautious, often waiting for others to move first. If too many people in a team are predisposed to rushing in, the team may take unnecessary risks. If a majority of the team tends to hang back, the group may not be competitive. A well-balanced team should have a mix of both styles. When it comes to getting things done, some people are good at starting tasks and others are good at completing them. Without strong starters, a team may be slow to build momentum. Without strong finishers, the team may never cross the finish line. A mix of both skills helps to ensure a high degree of collective productivity. Some of the biggest mistakes in history have been made because teams lacked diversity in their thinking. Examples include the failure of the U.S. military and government to anticipate the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the decision of John F. Kennedy and his advisors to authorize the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, the failure of NASA administrators to prevent the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster in 1986, the collapse of Enron in 2001, and the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Even when they don’t fail spectacularly, teams can fail to meet their full potential when they deny themselves of diversity. Unfortunately, organizations often tend towards uniformity because their people build “mirrortocracies” by hiring or promoting others who think and act like themselves, instead of appointing those who might possess sorely needed contrasting skills or perspectives.
While people are all different, many ties bind us together. More specifically, although we all work and play in a wide variety of domains, certain principles are universally applicable. We all deal collectively with many of the same fundamental problems; only our contexts differ. Jazz musicians must constantly collaborate, innovate, and manage change, and they have to do so in real time. The same is true of a basketball team, a squad of soldiers, and a team in business. Although it’s natural to look toward fellow disciples when seeking solutions to the problems we encounter in our work, some of the best inspiration can come from people working in completely different disciplines. The Jazz Process book draws on examples of excellence from such diverse domains as software development, music, business, military operations, and sports while applying laws from the disciplines of sociology, psychology, physics, biology, and systems theory. Important principles of success are applied each day in a multitude of domains and disciplines in commerce and recreation, and even in nature. We can discover a lot about collaboration from the behavior of a pack of wolves, a pride of lions, or a colony of beavers just as we can from other people. Even if we don’t identify something new, observing successful or failed collaboration provides me with an opportunity to validate our beliefs or question them. Either way, it’s a chance to learn.
Execution is possibly the most important thing simply because so many people fail to get things done. We should be more concerned by the glut of leadership, strategy and management education, and the dearth of focus on execution. It’s not simply that there are so many more words and minutes given to the former, and it has nothing to do with management versus those who work in the trenches. One person’s strategy is another person’s execution. Middle management executes the strategy set by upper management. Even the most senior people in an organization execute on behalf of a board, and they in turn are answerable to shareholders. The problem is that many leaders do not give enough respect or consideration to the realities of executing strategies defined in isolation. The result is usually failure that leads to finger-pointing all around. The strategies that are most likely to succeed are those created collaboratively with input from all stakeholders. Execution is another one of those universally applicable principles that must permeate an organization at all levels so that it moves in concert like a symphony orchestra. Successful artistic leaders who help deliver great performances with minimal planning and rehearsal understand and/or give due consideration to execution. In jazz, ensembles often execute with no plan or rehearsal whatsoever.