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Jazz @ Work

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There is a wonderful parallel between the capabilities required in the world of music and those emerging in the world of work.

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At a leadership conference I watched a Jazz band describe what is required of them to perform. It is, first and foremost, a team activity, one that requires improvisation during performance, one by one but most of all together. To do this, the band members are required to listen and respond to one another. Yes, there is a tune that guides the show but every few minutes someone else moves to the front of the stage to explore what can be done with that tune, while his or her team members listen and respond to enable that music. And when that member steps back to make room for the next person, the tune changes as needed. There is no conductor, leadership moves from hand to hand or rather from Instrument to instrument. And the tune itself enables not just each of the players to “have a say” but also the team as a whole to respond to the environment and adapt itself to the mood of the players, the group and the crowd. This is so very different from a symphonic orchestra playing to sheet music lead by a conductor…

The term “agility” first appeared in the early 90’s to describe manufacturing organizations who were able to adapt themselves quickly to changing customer demands. In the early 2000’s the term expanded to include the ability to predict and respond to quick changes by being able to manage complex systems. As the rate of change increased, organizations needed the ability to stay flexible and that required agility to enter the core of organizational conversation, to affect how teams, management and individuals operated.

Today’s column will touch this still sensitive topic, our need to stay flexible, and why it is more important than ever to stay focused on agility and understand what it looks like when it doesn’t happen, for organizations, for teams and for us, individuals.

The organization

Organizations gamble a significant investment in the future. The problem is that the future world, the one that will exist at the time we should see a return on the investment, that world will be very different from the one where the decisions to invest in the first place were made. And so, sticking with investment decisions without staying agile and adapting to the changes in the environment can be very risky for the organization.

In this book Exponential Organizations, Salim Ismail introduces the concept of an “Iridium Moment” to describe a strategic mishap in the life of an organization, one that looked right originally but in retrospect was very wrong given a basic assumption that didn’t pan out. This term is based on the story of Motorola, which decided at the end of the 80’s, due to increased demand for cellphones and insufficient cell coverage, to invest in a satellite program to create cell coverage around the globe. The assumption was that it would not be possible to achieve this with cell towers on the ground due to technology and cost. That may have been true in the end of the 80’s but was no longer true a decade later, when the cost of the cell towers dramatically reduced and their coverage effectiveness increased. Motorola did not update its assumptions and continued down the same path, with assumptions that were now a decade old and not in line with reality. Hence, the term “Iridium Moment” describes the usage of linear tools to predict the future based on the past in an environment of rapid technological change.

Another similar story is the one about Nokia’s attempt to compete with Apple and Google specifically in the area of navigation. In 2007, Nokia purchased a company called Navteq for over 8B$. Navteq was in the process of covering European roads with sensors to monitor traffic, in the attempt to create a real-time navigation solution. About the same time, a startup in Israel, called Waze, was solving the same problem using a completely different approach. Instead of using physical sensors on the roads, it was collecting the information from the sensors in the phones of the drivers on those same roads. Within two years, Waze had the same number of sensors as Navteq and within four years, it had 10 times as many and the rest is history.

These are all painful examples of organizations, who were not flexible enough with their strategy, setting it based on assumptions that did not adapt to the changing environment. Organizations who looked to the future facing the past, who were so invested in their strategy, that they could not or would not see how its basic premises had changed.

By the way, the Singularity University, headed by Salim Ismail, is known for reviewing and updating their curriculum and changing about 20% of the content of their classes every three month, so that they keep up with the fast pace of change. Ironically, this very fact prevents them from being an accredited university, since these are required to submit their curriculum up front to be approved…

The team

The changing paradigm in the world of work also requires agility within teams and teamwork, their ability to improvise to keep up with the many changes. Teams need to be able to quickly organize and also know when it is time to disperse. They no longer have the time or resources to work only with structured processes. Work requires that we are able to team up with anyone, anywhere, anytime, and through various means of collaboration and communication tools. And teaming, a relatively new term, is no longer about managed and structured team work but about the ability to quickly and independently organize in teams as needed. Teaming is about the idea that one connects to a person or a team, quickly catches up and is able to hit the ground running, bringing value and moving the work and the objectives forward. And teaming is about doing all that without needing to be told what, when and how to do it. It is very different from the structured processes we use to bring up and sustain teams. Here, the learning the action happen at the same time and the engine is group learning while doing. In an HBR article The Three Pillars of a Teaming Culture, teaming happens when you identify and join people who are central to a topic, quickly come up to speed about the existing knowledge and are able to work together towards the goal.

Teaming is a more agile form of teamwork appearing in many work places, where complexity and interdependence need to be managed on the go. The time it takes from the point an issue is identified to when it is solved is greatly reduced and does not allow for a time to choose, staff and prepare a team to deal with that problem. This is where teaming comes into play, and organizational culture must create an environment where employees are expected to team up or, in other words, go work where they are most needed, where they can contribute the most.

In their book Leadership Agility, Bill Joiner and Stephen Josephs review a study on agile teams and leaders, and claim that such capabilities include the ability to choose and define what they will be working on, understand perspectives of all stakeholders and align with them, use flexible creativity to solve new problems and learn from experience.

When leaders ask open questions and listen to responses, they demonstrate to others that their perspective is important, impactful, that no matter where they are in the organizational hierarchy, they can show up and contribute to the most significant agenda. When we team with an unfamiliar team and work on a new topic, we need to let go of the need to look smart and know it all and instead observe others, the work, the common goal. And so we reach the final layer of agility: our own role, as individuals, as managers, as team members.

And what about me?

The most important thing we have to do to stay relevant in this changing world of work is to learn new things, but also to unlearn what we think we know. In today’s workplace we receive, on any given moment, a very large amount of signals, which we need to interpret. They do not come with instructions or clear explanations. We choose what to see and what to ignore and we act on those choices, whether consciously or not. We’ve seen organization, who make assumptions and sometimes doesn’t want to see that these have changed so much that the strategy is no longer the right one. Like them, we too, as individuals, bear the consequences of the assumptions we make, based on which we make decisions about our own investment in ourselves. Our education, our profession, the value we bring, all these are impacted by the changing environment. And sometimes we choose to ignore these changes, so that we don’t have to face their impact on us. Until it is too late…

It is no longer sufficient to solve problems, it is necessary also to dream, to question, to re-define the problem and thus to create a completely new space for solutions. We need to give ourselves the permission to begin with a “yes” instead of with a “why not”. A Columbia University study together with the Center for Creative Leadership calls this Learning Agility, a collection of capabilities that allow us, as individuals, to stay agile, to grow from mistakes and be able to use new strategies to deal with a broad range of challenges. And this includes the ability to let go of knowledge, of skills, of perspectives, of ideas that no longer match the changing realities. And to accept that, in some areas of our professional life, we have to start over…

And so we circle back to Jazz. Those who play Jazz know that the hardest thing of all is to forget what you’ve learned about music up until that point. The routines, the habits, the temptation to play as we’ve played in the past because its familiar, because we’re good at it, because we know the audience will love us. There is nothing scarier than to find yourself in front of an audience without music that someone else wrote for you to play. Yet that is precisely the invitation for the future of work.

Published in Globes Israel Business Arena