The subject of collaboration has been on my mind a lot this past week. I have been lucky enough to have been part of teams that have clicked on certain projects only to flounder on others for no apparent reason. Despite all the great Web 2.0 tools available to us, successful collaboration still seems to be an elusive thing. As I noodled on this on the way home one day, with Wes Montgomery, playing his heart out on my headphones, I starting thinking that jazz may very well be the ultimate example of successful collaboration. A lot has been written about the conversation that takes place between jazz musicians. It has been used as a metaphor for Organizational Improvisation, it has even been the subject of a blog post to describe the similarities between jazz and Social Media. The tune I was listening to was from an album called “Smokin’ At The Half Note” which has been called “…the absolute greatest jazz guitar album ever made” by Pat Metheny. It was recorded during a series of live performances with the Wynton Kelly Trio and when I listen to it I hear a band that’s totally tuned in to each other. It is probably one of my favourite albums but it is only one example of what jazz musicians do every day the world over.

So what are they doing that makes it work for them so consistently and how can we incorporate their formula into making collaboration work in business? I started thinking about what they do so well and this is what I came up with.

1. They all speak the same language

  • They have taken the time to learn the vocabulary. Knowing the language allows them to contribute and collaborate as equals.

2. They listen, truly listen

  • Without prejudice. Their response is based on what they hear, not what they’ve been planning for the past 12 bars while they wait for their turn to solo.

3. They are all totally committed to creating something special

  • Until Wes calls for “Four on Six” in G minor, they are just a good band playing scales. Even great musicians need direction and when they get it they give each other the space and respect necessary to create art.

4. The sum of the whole is greater than the parts

  • I happen to think that Wes Montgomery is the greatest guitar player that ever lived, but if the Wynton Kelly Trio didn’t swing as hard as they do on this record, it wouldn’t be half as special.

5. They know when to stop

  • Wes plays a nine chorus solo on Impressions that I think works because he stops at nine. He knows his audience and he knows when an idea has run its course.

6. They are willing to be amazed

  • They don’t let their egos prevent them from hearing great musical ideas from the rest of the band.

I’m sure there’s a lot more but that’s all I could think of. Nothing earth shattering, nothing new, nothing lots of people haven’t been saying for years, yet successful collaboration in business remains a hit-or-miss proposition. So why do we sometimes, despite all our best efforts, end up with “Kenny G Live” but every now and then we get “Smokin’ At The Half Note”?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and some of your secrets to successful collaboration.

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13 Comments

  1. Kevin,
    Interesting analogy. Why do some collaborations give you Wes at his best, while others just fall apart? I think it’s simple. Take your six points, and just think of the opposites. They’re not all speaking the same language, they’re not listening, not really committed (hey it’s just a job), don’t care about the sum but do care about themselves, don’t know when to stop (or sometimes even how to start) and don’t even set amazement as a goal…..

    Other things you might add….. the group is too big to be really focused, the project isn’t well funded so some team members can’t afford to participate fully, and finally, other priorities compete for attention and time.

    Cheers

    Andy

  2. Thanks for the comments Andy. All very good points. I’ll add it to my list.

  3. I liked your analogy, Kevin; while I am no expert on music, I do love jazz, but isn’t another part of successful collaboration really knowing your playing partners well? Don’t the kinds of soul-stirring improvisations jazz is known for come when each player is intimately familiar the other group members’ strengths and weaknesses?

    If this is true, it suggests that truly effective business collaboration has to evolve over time, and isn’t something that can be forced by any kind of arbitrary arrangement of partners.

  4. Kevin,

    I love the analogy! It highlights some of the underlying patterns that are essential for collaboration. To use another analogy, although we can’t make the horse drink, by understanding these dynamics, we can definitely improve our ability to lead it to the water. Ironically, this requires direct participation, the journey to the stream requiring as much collaboration as the end goal itself.

    The patterns, and anti-patterns, as Andy Strote points out, are key learnings towards more predictable collaboration. One of my favourite sites that has “collaboratively” captured these concepts, is wikipatterns.com. By looking beyond the wiki adoption emphasis, I’ve found many helpful clues as to what encourages and what impedes collaboration.

  5. ummm, I am wondering why IBM named its ‘collaborative software development platform’ jazz…. :D

  6. Christophe,

    Thanks for the comment. I think a good platform is an essential ingredient in enabling collaboration but I still think that not all jazz is created equal. I know that people have been exploring the relationship between jazz and work for a long time and, given that this is IBM, I’m sure that the decision to call this new platform jazz was not taken lightly. I would love to see some of the thinking that went into it….I’m sure there are some real nuggets in there.

  7. I love analogies, and this is a great one. I’m not a huge jazz fan, but did come up with some thoughts a few years back regarding the one essential element of a jazz band, the drummer. Maybe this is analagous to a good project manager, but my metaphor (within a metaphor now!) was that the drummer was a lighthouse that kept the ship off the rocks. What I meant was that he kept the focus on the end result, even when the other musicians were riffing and noodling and showing off like mad. He didn’t draw undue attention to himself, just kept the beat.

    More here, without the work tie-in: http://www.consolationchamps.com/2001/12/08/branford-marsalis-quartet/

  8. Kevin, Great point, also, Jazz musicians were/are great for riffing on another’s theme. Lot’s of great music created as a response to other great music. — ahg3

  9. Anonymous

    Kevin,

    As I read your post, I was listening to an incredible song called ‘Accidentally Pissed’ by Australian jazz outfit, the Sam Keevers Nonet! Fantastic stuff (both the song and the post!).

    I’m a huge believer in using jazz as a metaphor for the development of PR and marketing communications campaigns. In other words, the bass and drums represent the strategic ‘anchor – without them, the jazz combo would be reduced potentially to directionless nonsense, while a campaign that is not underpinned by a sound strategy would also be pretty messy and directionless.

    The trumpet, sax, piano etc weave in and out and create the magic that is associated with hot jazz. These instruments, in marketing terms, represent the ‘magic’ of creative ideas that have the potential to turn ordinary campaigns into successful ones.

  10. And it’s about the simple too. As the great Bird said: “It’s playing clean and looking for the pretty notes.” It’s about knowing where your voice is and concentrating on that, bouncing off others rather than always taking the lead… a bit like we commenters are doing here. You soloed, we all picked up the tune.

  11. It’s funny you should bring this up. Not a lot of people know where “Jive” got it’s name. It’s from Jazz.
    :)

  12. Rob Moore

    +1 … Wes is the greatest ever! I like the analogy. When Wes called out “Four on Six” in Gm the band knows its a blues in Gm with some uptown substitutions on the Four chord and they play the changes. So the framework is established, everyone knows the “head” and each contributes their special approach within the framework of the tune. In the context of business and program/project collaboration, this once again highlights the need for planning, training, and self awareness. Regardless of your organizational improvisation skills, fundamental preparation in knowing potential frameworks, knowing your tools (your “axe”), and a common understanding of desired outcomes is still key to successful collaboration.

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