“What is Groove, Yaron Gershovsky?” Lessons in Organizational Development from Jazz

This post is an adapted an extended version of the paper “Twelve-Tone Music Reloaded”: 12 Lessons in Rotating Leadership and Organizational Development from Jazz by Daniel C. Schmid and Peter A. Gloor, MIT, and founder of galaxyadvisors.com.

Recently, Jazz improvisation has become a part of the “Holy grail” in Organizational Development, above all under so-called VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) conditions. Effective leadership of the future will be based on relationship building, understanding complex group work, and diverse workforces. For future leaders, it will be key to gain a deeper understanding of the constantly evolving complexities of interpersonal, group and even intergroup relationships.

This article illustrates the core principle of COINs (Collaborative Innovation Network) of rotating leadership by the example of Jazz musicians, who take turns grooving together. These musicians are exemplars of team members seamlessly transferring the leadership role from one to the other, leading to a “flow” experience of superb quality for their audience. As we show, so-called “honest signals” from Jazz can play a key role for organizational development to create an “organizational groove”.

While COINs form when people from many different backgrounds, countries, and cultures get together to innovate towards a shared goal, Jazz musicians are special members of COINs, as they already share the same context to a large extent, and thus do not have to spend long hours to build a shared language and understanding. Also, COINs frequently collaborate over long distance using the Internet to form virtual teams, while Jazz bands normally share the same stage. Therefore, Jazz bands are “elite” COINs, sharing a privileged environment that “ordinary” COINs do not have. They thus are idealized role models and exemplars illustrating the key tenets that COINs using virtual collaboration techniques should look for to gain inspiration and deep insights.

“Your turn, Yaron!”

When I asked Yaron Gershovsky, musical conductor of the legendary American Vocal Quartet The Manhattan Transfer, during their latest European Tour in fall 2018, “how can you describe groove and are there “honest signals” of the audience that can be predicted?”, the internationally renowned pianist described it as follows:

Yaron Gershovsky, The Manhattan Transfer, JazzNoJazz Festival Zurich, 31 October 2018.

“Playing for an audience of 10 people or a thousand people has very many similarities. I view an audience as one being, may it be large or small. They all feel and respond as one to what they hear. They all can sense the player’s feelings. They sense the inspiration and they also sense the nervousness and insecurity if it exists. When soloing, you always look for this instance when you know that you “got” them. You grabbed their attention and they all are with you for the ride. It’s a great feeling! Like a “Runner’s High” … you could call it the “Player’s High”… This last European tour took me from Slovakia to Finland, from Sweden to Switzerland … the audience’s behavior was similar. It sensed my feelings and responded to them. Great experience!” (Yaron Gershovsky)

Imagine how ordinary listeners—and not only “Jazz aficionados”—can recog­nize Jazz standards by just focusing on different parameters: well-known melody-based tunes like “Girl from Ipanema” by Antonio Carlos Jobim differ a lot from standards with complex harmonic structures such as John Coltrane’s “Countdown” or Dave Brubeck’s “Take 5”, which achieved iconographic status with its 5/4 beat. The main issue is that the formal development of Jazz never can by predicted, as Thelonious Monk wisely mentioned a long time ago: “I don’t know where it’s going. Maybe it’s going to hell. You can’t make anything go anywhere. It just happens.” (Chinen 2018).

Transferring Ed Schein’s Iceberg Model

What about the idea of transferring this Jazz metaphor into an agile organizational design structure: Can this make sense at all, if Jazz itself is not predictable? In order to delve deeper into a corporate’s DNA, we propose to adapt Edgar H. Schein’s “Culture Model” to Jazz by aligning the three main musical components “melody”, “harmony”, and “beat” to his concept of surface and deep structure. Assuming that a Jazz tune always consists of these three fundamental layers, we suggest an agile organizational design that corresponds with the basic structures of a Jazz standard:

Fig. 1: Edgar H. Schein’s Iceberg Model transferred to Jazz

The screening of an organization can be tackled in an “outside-in” mode, such as moving from “surface” to “deep structure” in Ed Schein’s approach. He differentiates between “artifacts and symbols” (= “melody”: what can be heard at the drop of a hat), “espoused values” (= “harmony”: which requires careful listening to structures), and “assumptions” (= “beat”: the basic clock pulse of an organization). In the ideal world of jazz, these three factors come together and create this “flow” with the audience that Yaron Gershovsky has described above. What about the economic reality of organizations and their stakeholders?

Designing the “Organizational Groove”

We therefore propose that understanding the “DNA code” of an organization requires to identify all existing honest signals within a company. By using the “happimeter sensing system” which allows users to predict their mood through body signals with smartwatches (Gloor 2018) we aim to initiate a debate about combining “digital” and “analogue” signals to fully detect a corporation’s DNA. Aligning the three Jazz layers “melody” (= communication content), “harmony” (= structure and processes), and “beat” (lifecycle of a company) can be key to analyzing the different patterns within various organizations. In order to create a “corporate groove”, our goal is to take the next steps towards a theory of “organizational flow” to measure intrinsic organizational “groove”. This rollout may be supported by the happyimeter technology that can be deployed in an entire global corporation:

Fig. 2: Organizational Groove Design with Happimeter technology

Our goal is to take the next steps towards a theory of “organizational flow” in order to measure intrinsic organizational “groove” with sociometric badges (Gloor et al. 2013) and other devices that measure human emotions such as the new happimeter technology (Gloor et al. 2018). Thus, we get the perfect quantitative conditions to start measuring the growth of a company. In other words: “Organizational flow” is where the groove of an organization starts becoming effective!


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