Organizational Jazz – Extraordinary Performance through Extraordinary Leadership

Last week I finished reading the really interesting book ‘Organizational Jazz – Extraordinary Performance through Extraordinary Leadership’ (David NapoliAlma WhiteleyKathrine Johansen) which I borrowed from Steve Leybourne from Boston University. It describes in a passioned way how most managers try to hang on to the myth of a certain and predictable world, but that we have to transform our way of working to create sustainable organizations. What do we do when our environment is close to chaos? We dance.

‘Constant, rapid and unpredictable changes, both internal and external, are challenging the time-honoured business models we are taught to follow – as we strive to manage our complex, evolving organizations.Drawing on the science of complex adaptive systems, this book offers a lens through which we search for new ways of thinking about, and working with, the unpredictability of our dynamic complex world.Organizations of today need ‘Extraordinary Leaders’ who can ‘dance’ with change by embracing the principles of complexity science to create highly adaptable and innovative organizations that recognise the value of intangible assets.The success of an organization usually depends on those working closest to the value-adding end of the business. It is those employees and their immediate leaders, who seem to have the greatest impact on the success of an organization. Managers-as-leaders can ease the way for those who depend on them for support and encouragement.’

Interesting issues mentioned are:

  • Mechanistic Leadership (certain environment) vs Extraordinary Leadership (uncertain environment).
  • Value Driven Organizations (opportunity and empowerment), in stead of depending on rules that limit people. Which is really strange if you think of it…
  • The movement from Ego to Eco (picture from earlier post) to cope with complexity. There is sometimes a narcissistic tendency in our Western culture to love great leaders, and to underestimate great teams.  So try to create Teams which act as a magnet, in stead of  a classroom with a teacher with students who wait for the lunch break.
  • Embracing complexity, in stead of trying to control it with strategic planning and control. People can cope with complexity as long as they dance with it and not try to make it what they expected it to be (older post on improvisation). Readers who have children will probably recognize this.
  • Being highly adaptive and innovative to become a sustainable organization.

I found it is really worthwhile to read this book, and can advise it to anybody whose interested in dealing with complexity, innovation, value driven organizations, and improvisation. You can read the first 128 pages (which were the most interesting…) on this google books site.

David Napoli, Alma M. Whiteley and Kathrine S. Johansen
ISBN 978-0-9757710-6-8

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7 comments on “Organizational Jazz – Extraordinary Performance through Extraordinary Leadership

  1. Jazz is t is used here as a metaphor, but it is still a nice question because I expect a correlation. Bill Clinton played the sax, as did our own Hans Dijkstal (VVD), but I don’t know if there was any influence in their political careers. I’m going to ask some researchers over here.

    If I speak for myself: playing improvisation theatre has had much influence in the way I cope in my work with problems that need creativity and flexibility. Especially if I facilitate group processes. I’m more aware of the process on several levels, have less Ego that is has to go my way, and am more open for what it needed. I noticed this in several trainings I followed, like Gestalt psychology and Teamcoaching. The group of more experienced professionals were less competent in this process thinking. Friends of mine who have also an improvisation background tell me that they have the same experience. Some research has shown that improvisers have more mirror neurons, so they can better feel what the other is feeling (bit like when you’re watching tennis on the TV and start moving without any reason:)).

    Do you notice any benefits in your work that you’re a visual artist?

  2. Hi Rutger,

    Learning to draw is essentially learning by doing, which comes down to a form of play and experimentation. Drawing has taught me essential lessons about the cycle of practice, failure & complexity. All of which to a certain extent are organisational taboos. The development of my creativity as a visual artist has made me more resilient and solution oriented towards these organisational taboos. I hear the same reactions from other visual artists, who work for organisations.

    1. If there is no practice, there definitely is no perfection.
    2. if there is no failure, there is no learning.
    3. if there is no complexity, there is no simplicity.

    Does this make sense to you from your improvisation perspective?

  3. I think I recognize most of the elements you mention in improvisation. In improvisation you try to use your failures, because the most amazing things can come from this moment when things aren’t going according to plan. If you want to play according plan you better play Shakespeare, but that’s something completely different.

    Concerning complexity, in improvisation you try to find “the game”. The central element the play is all about. This element is simple, part of the process (not the outcome) and it is always there if you look very well. Just like this blog has some kind of “game” in itself when we react on each other. You need to practice a lot to see the simplicity. Just like when you learn to drive a car: in the beginning it is one big chaos, but when you get better at it, you can even have a phone call with someone additional to the driving. Maybe the game is then, just follow the car in front of you.

    Maybe a difference is that Improvisation never targets perfection, because that would mean that you have to repeat the same element over and over again. I’ve seen some groups play like that, and it is really boring to watch. A goal could be a good flow between the players.

    Another thought is that a goal is to keep an open mind – keep being surprised. When you get better in improvisation it is sometimes difficult not to follow your old paths that brought you success in the past. Sometimes my Ego gets in the way to make that happen.

    Maybe the biggest difference between painting and improvisation is that the one is individually and the other a group thing, which gives it another dynamic.

  4. Interestingly enough the visual arts are as solitary as you want them to be. I am afraid that the myth of the romantic, solitary genius is a very dominant myth especially in the visual arts. It can also be a sales strategy, because it brings simplicity, that people often like.

    Drawing and painting are prosocial acts, as I like to look at them. If you dig into life stories of artists, it’s never quite as solitary and isolated as is the general assumption.

    Since my time at school and now as a grown up, I like to draw and make prints in shared work spaces. While working, we speak, we laugh, share tips, look at each other’s work and comment on it, we occasionally swap or buy stuff. It’s hard NOT to be influenced by each others images and styles. So the group, by it’s presence and production, interacts with the end product of the other individuals in the group. At least that’s the way that it works for me.

    As for perfection, i agree that it is boring, also in drawings. Which is great, because it takes away the pressure.

    Back to improvisation, what do you think about the balance between imperfect and incompetent?

  5. I would say Imperfection and Incompetent are two really different things, so there is no balance. Like balancing apples and pears (bad example but ok:)). The level of competence describes to what extent you are able to perform a task. The level of perfection describes at what moment you’re happy with the result. I’m personally not a perfectionist what doesn’t say that I’m not competent in a certain task. But maybe you could make a nice graph with the levels of perfection and competence on the axes. Always fun to do so:)

    Imperfect Model

    (It’s the famous Imperfect model on Competence of Rutger. I’m always scared of the amount of people in the upper left box: incompetent but focussing on perfection. Too much ego there…)

    So back to improvisation… A good improviser is an expert in dealing with uncertain processes, and facilitating others. You can train yourself in improvisation to become better at it, more competent. Part of that is the knowledge that trying to be perfect kills the process. In my opinion an incompetent improviser would focus on perfection, because (s)he focusses on the wrong thing: the outcome. You get stuck and frustrated. So the outcome of an improvisation process will always be imperfect. It could be a new Best Practice that is further perfected by professionals that use it in a more stable environment (Steve Leybourne describes this in his articles). A nice example is the use of sketches by improvisational groups here in the States. They are a result of improvisational work in a training setting, in which a certain scene was found really funny and then is perfected for shows.

    Another example is my work in Boston. I’m not focussing on perfection because I only have 4 months to get things done. So I’m improvising, trying to create new best practices for my colleagues to implement in their programs. Sometimes there is however (and maybe your question is about that) some misunderstanding by certain colleagues that my imperfect results are a signal of incompetence. I had two week ago an interesting discussions about that with a colleague, which was all about the way you perceive processes. So what is professional…? I would say: do you know what you’re doing (and your pitfalls), can you explain it to others, and can you understand different views on the same process.

    Does this answer you question Jan?
    And how do you deal with imperfection in a banking environment?

    • This quoted part of your answer, answers my question best. I would even say that it’s close to perfection (-; ):
      “…the knowledge that trying to be perfect kills the process. In my opinion an incompetent improviser would focus on perfection, because
      (s)he focusses on the wrong thing: the outcome.”

      @your question: I’ll stick to a rather high level answer about imperfection and banking. The crisis has shown that banking is less than perfect. Sustainable banking carries these wanted behaviours with regard to failure:
      1. recognize failures better and quicker (timely reponsiveness).
      2. dare to fail and admit failures, if needed publicly (transparancy).
      3. make failures manageable for customers and society (responsibility)

      And obviously this attitude should start at the micro level (employees) and is also valid for the macro level (system)

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