“Yes To The Mess” Inspires Leadership Amid Business Chaos

Yes To The MessThe book Yes To The Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz by Frank J. Barrett is one of those business books that can help you cope with, well, mess.

You know that mess.  A mess of marketing and financial mischief in an organization that gives business owners heartburn and headaches.  All business experiences the struggle of establishing an organized system to serve customers and clients efficiently, especially when growth is occurring.

In his book, Barrett offers how business should embrace uncertainty to make creative leadership and value decisions. An accomplished jazz pianist who has led his own trios and quartets and traveled extensively with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, Barrett is Professor of Management and Global Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

I learned about the book through reviewing some of the Harvard Business Press releases, was curious on what Barrett wrote, and requested a copy.

Jazz is well known for its improvisation, and Barrett wastes no time in connecting jazz asthetic to making the most of organizational uncertainty.  Being improvisional means more than dealing an off-the-cuff answer to an immediate question. It means to be constantly learning and developing methodologies that help businesses adopt in an evolving world.

“This new era demands focusing on teams rather than individuals, encouraging ongoing learning and innovation rather than compliance to preordained plans.”

Ongoing learning also means facing “Goofs on YouTube” and copycat competitors as a part of accepting some mess to get the essence of business success. Cue the Twitter backlashes of McDonalds #McStories and the #NBCFail Olympic coverage along with the recent Apple-Samsung legal struggle, and you can easily imagine what Barrett means.

Barrett suggests that a business’ reactions are not just to address the mess, but to collaborate and to apply innovation for lasting results:

“How do organizations thrive in a drastically changing world predicated on uncertainty? By building a capacity to experiment, learn, and innovate—in short, by engaging in strategic, engaged improvisation. The model of jazz musicians improvising collectively offers a clear and powerful example of how people and teams can coordinate, be productive, and create amazing innovations without so many of the control levers that managers relied on in the industrial age.”

But can a small business apply this experimentation?  Business development can be at a premium for small business resources.  More clear examples may help those readers who seek raw, “here’s-whacha-gotta-do” suggestions.  But Barrett’s summaries behind his thesis blend well to inform which capabilities a small organization can imagine being best developed. One example is in his comment on technology and how teams can interact:

“Today’s computer technology can enhance that process even more. Instant and constant public access to changes and other contributions allows everyone involved to stay attuned to the possible direction, like changing the root movement of the chord. People add variants—like the drummer adding accents—that might inspire creative departures.”

This is what made me enjoy how the book framed what Barrett calls “learning and disciplined innovation.”  The descriptions not only eases the reader into imagining Barrett’s points, but also the places in which implementation seem plausible. Examples include making a concerted effort to unlearn old habits quickly, and develop the right activity that builds an organization:

“By saying yes to the mess and valuing the art of improvisation, leaders can create the conditions for guided autonomy: identifying the limited structures and constraints that facilitate coordination around core activities.”

Jazz has always been an art form that blends structure with learning as you go.  So it is no wonder that Yes to the Mess has a playful tone – dare I say there’s a ton of fun in this business book?

Yes To The Mess’s accessibility in applying jazz-influenced creativity as business food for thought is no doubt an off shoot from its author’s subject matter.  Direct ideas may come from other books on more specific topics such as finance and marketing.

But hey leave those details to the squares!  If you are problem solving for your organization or team and have an imaginative personality, you’ll feel like a cool cat from reading this book.

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Pierre DeBois - Associate Book Editor


Pierre DeBois Pierre Debois is Associate Book Editor for Small Business Trends. He is the Founder of Zimana, a consultancy providing strategic analysis to small and medium sized businesses that rely on web analytics data. A Gary, Indiana native, Pierre is currently based in Brooklyn. He blogs about marketing, finance, social media, and analytics at Zimana blog.

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