Great teams are like Jazz

Photo by Konstantin Aal on Unsplash

Listening to sublime jazz is like experiencing a great team at work. Each performer is individually brilliant yet it’s the collaboration and teamwork that makes it sublime. When I worked for Chris Young at McAfee, this was the key point of a speech he made. So I’m riffing on his talk (like jazz itself).

In order to draw the analogy to teamwork, a brief digression about jazz is order.

Many jazz performances follow a time-honored structure. Each song begins with a melody – or coda – and then the group moves on to the improvisation phase. One or more group members improvise a solo. Once that phase is over, the group returns to the coda and the song is brought to a close.

The improvisation is where the magic happens.

Good jazz is when each improviser expresses their individual mastery during a solo. Perhaps they are technically brilliant with their instrument and use the solo to demonstrate it. Perhaps they want to challenge the listener with the extremity of their improvisation, by departing far away from the mood and tone of the coda.

But in my opinion, great jazz – the sublime jazz – is when the soloists honor the coda and play off of each other during the solo. The soloist is in the lead, but their bandmates are improvising to some degree at the same time. You can literally hear the group respond to each other as they go.

What’s exceptional when this happens is the trust, vulnerability and courage required of each member. A soloist without others improvising is in full control of their performance. But when a soloist and their bandmates improvise at the same time, everyone is engaged in collective risk-taking.

Sublime jazz is how I think of great teams. Every person is playing to their strengths and contributing their brilliance as “soloists”. But they are doing so in the context of collaboration, mutual trust and risk-taking. Each team member is contributing to the collective whole, not for the sake of proving their own abilities but in order to improvise together towards great outcomes.

How might you play like jazz at work? First, focus on creating an environment where each team member is encouraged to be their brilliant selves. Yourself included.

Second, focus the team’s attention on collaborating around each person’s brilliance. There’s a secret to improvisational comedy, which is to use “yes, and…..” instead of “yes, but…..”. Any person can lead with an idea, and the rest of the team is encouraged to ideate, refine and riff on the idea until some conclusion is reached.

P.S. If you’re interested to hear examples of sublime jazz, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue is my canonical example. Titans like Miles, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley and Paul Chambers came together, and with very little advanced planning improvised their way to perhaps the most important jazz recording ever made. Recently, I also discovered Matthew Halsall, a current-generation example of sublime collaboration and improvisation. Check him out here.

One thought on “Great teams are like Jazz

  1. Good commentary Don.

    Raises a question…what was the Jazz that we played from your laptop while visiting.?

    Stay safe…Neil

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