Adopting a ‘Jazz Mindset’ for Strategic Execution and Leadership (Part 2)

Did you miss part 1? Check it out here!


The jazz greats can move from classical to jazz, not only as individuals, but also as an entire orchestra. Through our strategic execution expertise, we have identified eight lessons that drive the jazz mindset and enable PMs to become actively contributing members to this dynamic environment.

8 Lessons That Drive a Jazz Mindset

1. Embrace Failure as a Source OF Learning

An experimental approach favors trial and error. It means presenting ideas, then observing how others pick up and build on them. This is leadership with a mindset of discovery, floating hypotheses about what might work and what might not, and leaving both the hypotheses and yourself open to contradictory data and recalcitrant forces. Jazz players act their way into the future. 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.

Learning from failure is commonplace among startups and Silicon Valley. The founder of Stanford’s d.School, believe that you must fail before you can succeed—indeed, failure is an essential part of their product development processes. Startups will often times launch a product that isn’t perfect, but good enough to introduce to the market so they can refine and improve it based on real customer experience and feedback.

2. Master the Art of ‘Unlearning’

Often the first step to gaining new insights for innovation is to unlearn the old habits and lessons. According to Phillippa Lally (2009), a health psychology researcher at University College London, it takes 66 days, on average, to change a habit, or to unlearn and relearn a skill or process, which explains our human tendency, especially in established organizations, to rely upon well-worn routines and familiar rules.

Over time, the way things are usually done becomes sacred and unquestioned. These routines are blocks to learning. Because of the temptation to repeat what they do well rather than risk failure, veteran jazz musicians make deliberate attempts to guard against reliance on prearranged music, memorized solos, or habits and patterns that have worked for them before.

One can take a cue about unlearning from Home Depot with its entry into China, and its subsequent exit from the country. Home Depot entered China in 2002 by opening a sourcing office in the country. After studying the market, it acquired the big-box stores of the fourth largest home improvement retailer in China, Home Way, in 2006. Twelve stores in six cities were rebranded and opened in August 2007.

Within a short span of time, Home Depot realized that its DIY model was not acceptable to the Chinese, who preferred home improvement related work to be done by laborers and contractors. The Chinese lived in small houses, and could not store home improvement equipment like ladders, etc. Also, instead of buying all the home improvement related products at one place, they preferred to visit several specialty stores before they decided on the products they would buy. Home Depot also found that retailers operated in a different way in China, and merely provided suppliers with a platform to sell the products; that suppliers had their own network, and even provided after sales services.

Despite its best efforts, Home Depot’s stores could not generate the kind of returns that it expected. It closed five stores between 2009 and 2011, and by 2012 decided to exit the big-box retail stores. Had Home Depot unlearned its DIY approach to retail, they may have realized more success in China.

3. Leap In and Take Action

Managers frequently find themselves in the middle of messes not of their 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” that allows them to move forward even in the midst of uncertainty. Problem solving by itself will not generate novel solutions. What’s needed is an affirmative belief that a solution exists and that something positive will emerge. Improvisation grows out of a receptivity to what the situation offers and thus the first move is a “yes to the mess,” a state of radical receptivity that all jazz musicians require.

4. Alternate Between Soloing and Supporting

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.

5. Balance Freedom With Constraints

We’ve found that it’s important for PMs to foster a flexible structure/organizational design that has sufficient constraints and just enough structure and coordination to maximize diversity. Jazz bands and innovative organizations create the conditions for guided autonomy. They create choice points to avoid getting weighted down with fruitless rules while also maximizing diversity, inviting embellishment, and encouraging exploration and experimentation.

6. Encourage Serious Play

There is a sense of surrender in play, a willingness to suspend control and give yourself over to the flow of the ongoing events. Southwest Airlines tries to encourage much the same when it declares that having fun in the workplace is a core value. In effect, the airline questions the conventional separation between work and play and its leaders recognize that legitimate play can be a fruitful, meaningful activity, one that enhances the sheer joy of relational activity. Serious play leads to a higher comfort level for risk taking, which ultimately leads to innovation and breakthrough.

7. Hang Out in Communities of Diverse Specialists

In jazz, learning and ideas for innovation take place in jam sessions. It is here that musicians get innovative ideas and learn how and whether their playing is up to par through improvisation. For rookies and semi-outsiders, these sessions are where they learn what it takes to think and act. PMs should take the same approach and look beyond their departments or areas of expertise. Encouraging conversations beyond departments and divisions breaks down barriers, opens up understanding and builds cohesion.

8. Lead With Provocative Competence

Provocative competence is a vital leadership skill that helps people break out of competency traps. A competency trap is the false belief that the same practice that led to a success in the past will necessary lead to success in the future. Practicing provocative competence requires first that leaders discipline their imaginations to see a person or group’s potential even if it is not being fulfilled in that moment. Secondly, provocative competence involves a reorientation to the situation and trusting that an individual will learn and grow from his/her mistakes. Duke Ellington and Miles Davis were masters of provocative competence and understood that it was an art form in itself. When they would throw solos to rookie musicians and place them in the spotlight, they were exercising provocative competence.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos demonstrated provocative competence in the early days of the company by taking what he knew about the brick and mortar business and applying it to the newly developed e-commerce industry. Likewise, learning transfer can take place from project to project and program to program and helps identify what methodologies will work best and doesn’t require a fully baked plan from beginning to end.

Adapt Just Like the Jazz Greats

Now that we’ve established what a jazz mindset is, we need to recognize the importance of knowing when to be adaptive and flexible versus when to be rigid and follow process. It’s possible and most definitely acceptable to do both. Ask yourself the following to determine whether a disciplined, adaptive or a balance of both approaches will work best:

  • Does the situation require immediate decisions?
  • How quickly do we need to move?
  • How critical is the situation?
  • Will change be a major factor during the project management process?
  • Will my team be open to changing direction or will there be resistance?
  • Is there any room for experimentation?
  • How can I say “yes to my mess” and get going?

In addition to determining the best approach, it’s also important to learn from the masters. As jazz musicians look to the masters to be inspirational, so should project managers. Seek out and identify with those in your profession who innovate, push their limits, effectively challenge conformity and achieve success. Try to copy what they do in your own way and practice.

As you can see, all people and all organizations have some, if not a great deal, of room for jazz mindsets. Consider the jazz mindset as a new way of thinking about getting the job done. Follow the example of the jazz greats who can move an audience with a familiar melody as well as their own interpretation of the music. You can apply the jazz mindset to any situation in varying degrees in any company or work environment. It allows you to adapt while applying good judgement.

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Joe Czarnecki
Joseph R. Czarnecki, PMP, MSP, SCPM, is vice president of product & sales support at TwentyEighty Strategy Execution. Joe's in-depth knowledge allows him to align client needs with course offerings, guide the contextualization of courses to client's cultures and processes, and bring insights from clients to the development of new courses. Joe has more than 25 years of experience in instructional design, with a focus on portfolio and program management for financial services, aeronautics, manufacturing, energy, and technology companies.