"Why virtual teams should behave like a jazz band"

September 17, 2020 ☼ Leadership

I love listening to jazz. And I know that jazz is probably the most divisive form of music, so you might not agree with me. But for the sake of this article stay with me for a few minutes. In my eyes, jazz is not just a style of music. Jazz is a genre that can shape our character by giving us courage, prepare us to improvise, innovate, give others an equal voice, and listen. Jazz is creative. Jazz generates a sense of structure, freedom, and collaborative possibility via a shared purpose, trust and innovation.

And all those things are important not just in a jazz band but also in our modern day teams and work settings. That’s why I really love this metaphor and would love to explore this here with you. I want to especially focus on how the structure of jazz ensembles can teach us some valuable lesson around leadership and team collaboration.

All too often, leaders separate themselves from the people they lead. The leader of a jazz band is on the other hand a musician — they are part of the band. And I can guarantee you, no matter what a leader’s accomplishments are, they must still be human. Love and forgiveness are every bit as crucial to leadership as are competence and integrity.

What is so special about Jazz bands?

Peter Drucker wrote in one of his books about leadership and management, that the job of a manager could be compared to a conductor of a symphony orchestra. While it might have been right at his time, I don’t think it is a great analogy for today’s work world, especially in the global setting that a lot of us work in.

A better analogy that has been explored, but seems to still be quite unknown, is the comparison of a team to a jazz band. Unlike classical orchestras, bands, or other musical configurations, jazz ensembles rely on shared leadership, collaboration, improvisation and humility.

You could say that the classical approach is equivalent to discipline and the jazz approach is equivalent to agility. And agility is definitely something your team and you should have in today’s ever-changing world.

Classical Approach

If we start to look deeper into those two different approaches we’ll learn that in classical music, the hierarchy is well defined and made up of solo instrumentalists, section leaders, and the conductor. Decision-making is most often only centered around the conductor. This structure is, when it works, highly efficient, built to avoid error, and produces order through a pre-defined methodology. Individuals have a responsibility to be the best they can in their chosen profession (which is the instrument), to respond to the constraints by the plan (music sheet) and to trust that their part fits into the bigger picture. The repetitive nature, pre-specified roles, and detailed plans that make up this group result in a comfortable more predictable environment.

The whole classical approach in itself isn’t bad, but it clearly resembles a more hierarchical and disciplined team structure. In a very extreme situation, if for example, the conductor isn’t available, the whole group might not be able to continue or make a decision.

Jazz Approach

In jazz music, on the other hand, there is less of a hierarchy and the group tends to be much smaller. A jazz ensemble has a shared decision-making approach — it is pushed down from the leader” to the individual.” This approach works well when flexibility, responsiveness, innovation, and faster processing of information are needed. Unlike in classical music, the jazz environment is not as structured. Although, like classical musicians, the individual in a jazz band still needs to excel within that environment and be the best musician they can be. The jazz mindset cultivates personal freedom to innovate and act guided by sufficient constraints while the band trusts that individuals will ensure their part fits into the bigger picture.

What does personal freedom with constraints” mean for a band? It is about providing just enough structure and coordination to maximize diversity while inviting embellishment and encouraging exploration and experimentation. Freedom is not unlimited, but the environment supports coloring outside the lines to look for new, more efficient ways to play music.

All of this already highlights and shows you that a jazz band must operate in a more structured way. You could say that they follow the principle of loosely coupled and tightly aligned, to balance order and chaos. Which is also how a lot of modern teams and companies operate nowadays.

What can we learn from Jazz?

So, what can we actually take away from how jazz bands function? What are some of the lessons that we could learn from Miles Davis & Co.?

All for one, and one for all”

The idea of collaboration in a jazz team is described well by the famous phrase from The Three Musketeer’s: all for one, and one for all. Each person not only strives to be his or her best but also works and plays with heightened intention for the sake of the purpose of the whole, whether a team or organization.

The entire group is looking out for the individuals in the group, cares for their individual growth and welfare. This happens in action on stage by great jazz groups, as they support individual excellence and an embrace of challenge-for-growth, with respect for the roles each, plays to make the sum greater than its parts. Indeed, an ensemble mindset works more like a multiplier effect where the collective culture field extends beyond individuals into an exponential dynamic of co-creative mastery.

Everyone gets to solo”

Shared leadership allows for individual differences in style, approach and background to simply be facts rather than immovable obstacles. Shared leadership also includes shared responsibility and shared accountability for common goals and objectives of a team, of an ensemble.

We put so much emphasis on leadership today that we have forgotten the importance of followership, or what jazz musicians call comping.” In organizations, followership -supporting others to think out loud and be their best — should be an art more fully articulated, acknowledged and rewarded. When self-directed work teams are performing well, they are often characterized by distributed, multiple leadership in which people take turns heading up various projects as their expertise is needed. The same happens in jazz bands, where everyone gets a turn to solo.

Listen — then listen more”

It sounds simple — because it actually is. As we’ve already learned above how great performances require collaboration and great leaders know that collaboration requires an extremely well-developed capacity to really listen and hear what others are saying. In a jazz quintet, that means listening to four other people who are communicating with you all at the same time. It’s for this reason alone that I would consider jazz musicians to be more evolved than the rest of us. Our work at meetings is a lot easier. Normally, we need to listen to only one person at a time. Listening, particularly active listening, is simultaneously a skill, an art form and, most importantly, a discipline. Something that you can learn, and should learn as a leader and/or manager of people.

Improvise all the time”

Jazz musicians are in a partnership based on a common language. That language is called improvisation. It is a dialogue with each band member receiving, accepting, and giving verbal and non-verbal cues, signals and gestures that provide understanding. Each band member plays something and the other decides how to answer, building on an idea.

Improvisation is not so much a creation of something out of nothing as much as it is the creation of something out of everything—everything one has been taught, everything one has experienced, everything one knows.”

Bob Kulhan

Improvisation is about discovery — a process of spontaneously creating, with absolute focused attention, in the present moment. As the quote by Bob Kulhan shows, improvisation is not winging it — rather, it’s taking an idea, extending and developing it to tell your own story, in real-time.

In today’s business world, working with an improvisational mindset can teach us how to generate ideas more confidently and courageously, leading to more possible solutions. Effective also for problem-solving, improvisation creates the space for open dialogue and engagement. Using improvisation as a tool in this way can help us gain a sense of collaborative flexibility and learn to be more trustworthy.

Why is the jazz mindset so important in a virtual setting?

In today’s world of work, especially after the global pandemic, collaborating with people across the globe in a virtual setting is becoming hugely important. And all of the things that we can learn from Jazz are key to creating the best team and setup for yourself.

If you work in a distributed team, no matter how many timezones of difference, you will likely have found it hard to really embrace it. Working with different times and schedules is a big struggle for remote workers. Synchronous meetings become asynchronous, potentially you don’t even see your team a lot.

That’s where great communication skills and a shared way of leading helps you to align and make it easier on yourself and the team to work across multiple timezones. Even improvisation can be a really strong skill to learn. Imagine if someone from your team is currently asleep, but you really need to finish a project — what do you do? You can’t wake them up, but you can have a bias towards action and improvise a solution. As you also share accountability and responsibility with the others, it becomes your choice and helps you to move things forward for the whole team.

Communication and collaboration skills become a crucial asset for you and your virtual team. Without those two, remote work or even teamwork wouldn’t be possible. Jazz ensembles really show this in the best way. Every musician on their own is an expert and really good at what they do, but alone they would always just be solo artists. When they come together to collaborate, something really special can come out of it. The same goes for your team. If you don’t talk, listen and help each other you are just a bunch of freelancer spread across the world. But if you get together to communicate, listen and give feedback, you can level each other up and achieve your goals.

Easy steps for you to get started

Practice Listening … is one of the most beneficial tasks that you can do. I don’t even want to write much more on this because it is that plain simple. If you want to get started, I wrote a guide on Active Listening and how you can get started to become a better listener.

Build a vision … and rally behind a shared purpose for your team or company. This one will help you in many ways. When I took over the Mobile Team at Buffer, I made it my personal goal to find us a vision or purpose statement. It helped us a lot in finding our way inside the product organization, but also in making a lot of individual decisions.

Have a bias towards action … to move forward even in the midst of uncertainty. As managers, we frequently find ourselves in the middle of messes, not of our own making, forced to take action even though there is no guarantee of a good outcome while relying on imperfect information. Jazz players face the same issues, but what makes it possible to improvise, to adjust, and fall upon a working strategy is an affirmative move, an implicit yes” or bias towards action.

Embrace Failures … as they are part of the whole process. Trial and error mean presenting ideas, then observing how others pick up and build on them. This is leadership with a mindset of discovery, creating hypotheses, and finding out what might work and what might not. Leaving both the hypotheses and yourself open to contradictory data and unmanageable forces. It’s only by looking back at what they have created that jazz soloists realize how the notes, phrases, and chords relate in good ways as well as bad.

I was excited about jazz and how it is just such a good analogy for how I lead my team, already before writing this. But publishing this article just showed me again,

Before I’ll leave you, I wanted to share some of my favorite current jazz artists. Who knows maybe it inspires you, or even gets you to like jazz if you were in the opposite camp before 😅