Sheila E – Musical Director, Sex Cymbal

 

The Leader of the Band - It was pure pleasure and a private joy to talk with Ms Escovedo

The Leader of the Band – It was pure pleasure and a private joy to talk with Ms Escovedo

I interviewed Sheila E just recently on her world tour. Sheila Escovedo is a world-class drummer, percussionist whose credits read like chapters in a music history book: Pete Escovedo, Marvin Gaye, Prince, Beyoncé, Herbie Hancock, Diana Ross, Lionel Richie, Ringo Star, Stevie Wonder, Gloria Estefan and George Duke.

Having been Prince’s musical director, I was interested in Sheila’s ability to lead teams of musical giants amongst the many things we talked about. Have a look at the interview below. Although we had been given a total of 10 minutes to set up and conduct the interview, Sheila was extremely generous with her time given her schedule giving us a full half hour of her time – something she really did not have to do, given her schedule. I am so grateful to her for taking time out to give us insights into her work as a leader among giants. An even greater private joy was when I discovered that Sheila recognised my book “Sex, Leadership and Rock’n’Roll“. I gave a copy to Prince in 2007.

A Love Bizarre – Our film interview with Sheila E from ME1TV

Leadership lessons from Sheila Escovedo

Time and Timing : The musicians at the back of the stage are vital to the success of the musicians at the front of the stage. A great rhythm section makes the difference to peak performance. Time and Timing are essential and this is as true in business and life as it is in music.

Fans and Followers : The importance of playing to the people at the back of the hall as well as those at the front. This point is directly transferable to all walks of life in terms of reaching the customers who are fans and those who are maybe less fanatical.

True professionalism : True professionals in music are great at what they do, but they are also punctual and organised. Sheila learned this point from her father Pete. You may be the greatest technician in the world as a business leader, but if you are late for a meeting, your technical skills count for nothing. If one person is 10 minutes late at a meeting with six others present, a whole hour has been wasted.

As a Musical Director, Sheila emphasises the importance of treating everyone in the band with respect if you are to get the best out of the whole team. This of course includes the support team in a musical performance. I watched in awe as Sheila patiently put the band through it’s paces, talking to sound engineers to make sure the whole team were involved in the success of the enterprise. This rare glimpse into the secret life of a leader was a true masterclass on meticulous preparation in itself.

Down in the hood – with some of Sheila’s admirers at The Brooklyn Bowl – picture credit Marcus Docherty  – Click on the picture to go to Sheila E’s website

Creativity and incubation : Sheila talked of the value of incubation in turning embryonic ideas into polished jewels. It’s a principle identified by Wallas in 1926, which I’m currently writing about in my Bloomsbury book, but forgotten by all but true creativity professionals.

Learning from family members : Sheila pointed out how she had learned intuitively from her father, just by listening intently and then mirroring the patterns, he played without ever having a formal music lesson. It’s a point I resonated strongly with and here’s the post on what I learned from my father : Dear Dad.

Song for my father – Sheila performing with Pete Escovedo and my old Dad as a young man around 1920 – click on the bicycle to read the article on my father 

Learning from giants : Paraphrasing Sheila when she was talking about learning from musical innovator and mentor George Duke:

“We just closed our eyes and listened – we didn’t even know where the ‘one’ was”

Sheila E’s new book is called The Beat of my own Drum. Check out her recent album Icon and her new club, The E Spot.

Sheila’s work in schools, bringing the joy of music to underprivileged children and her community project Elevate Oakland.

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Our new book on Leadership, Innovation and Creativity is scheduled for 2016 release with Bloomsbury.

In the meantime, do order your copy of the NEW edition of “The Music of Business” – Parallel lessons on Business and Music.

From Soft Machine to Nigel Kennedy – An interview with John Etheridge

John Etheridge with Stefane Grapelli

John Etheridge with Stefane Grappelli

I met the great John Etheridge recently, a virtuoso guitarist whose career includes performances with Stephane Grappelli, psychedelic rockers Soft Machine, Nigel Kennedy, John Williams, Hawkwind, Andy Summers and many more. Firstly a sample of his work with Stephane Grappelli and then what I learned from him:

On variation and originality

John pointed out that a great deal of the original playing styles that have emerged from the greats emanated from people who were not trained. In other words, the idiosyncrasies that made them great were due to not being taught to play properly in the first place!! Many young musicians have access to tremendous resources today, but it tends to turn out “template players”. There’s nothing wrong with this, but the aural equivalent of “painting by numbers” may not turn out people like Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix. For me there is a massive parallel in the world of business where standardisation of work practices reduces the possibility of creativity and innovation.

On improvisation and innovation

Contrary to popular belief, John Etheridge comes from the school of thinking that says that improvisation and innovation come from immersion in practice, or what is sometimes called the 10 000 hours effect. My original background was in Scientific Research and Development where we understood the importance of laying down significant hours of experimentation (practice) in order to gain new insights and be the best in our field. It is a habit that seems to be in decline in all but the very best companies. Here’s out interview with joined made in conjunction with ME1 TV:

On naivety versus training

Naivety and training are not opposites for Etheridge. Whilst he is a master of music, he allows time and space to behave as if he has never played an instrument before. Playfulness, both the mental and practical variety are extremely important for creativity and innovation in business. In John’s case, as well as playing his virtuoso jazz in his own performance, he joined Space Rockers Hawkwind for their show on the same night, saying that he just loves the raw energy and chaos of their music. Hardly a challenge for him musically, but giving him space to experiment within the confines of raw musical structures.

Al Fresco Jazz - on the pavement at Chalk Farm - how lucky are the residents - Black and White Photography by Christina Jansen Photography

Al Fresco Jazz – on the pavement at Chalk Farm – how lucky are the residents – Black and White Photography by Christina Jansen Photography

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Peter Cook leads Human Dynamics, offering better Organisation Development, Training and Coaching. He offers keynotes and longer masterclasses that blend World Class Leadership Thinking with parallel lessons from music via The Academy of Rock. Connect with us on our Linkedin Company Page and join our group The Music of Business where we discuss parallel lessons from Business and Music.

Killing me softly – An interview with Roberta Flack

Killing me softly with her words - Miss Roberta Flack

Killing me softly with her words – Miss Roberta Flack – Photo by Adam Coxon, The Lowdown Magazine

It was an unexpected delight to be invited to interview Roberta Flack recently, still performing at 75 years of age with a beautiful singing voice, wit charm and experience well beyond X-Factor and American Idol wannabes.  Let’s begin with a brief reminder of that beautiful singing, writing, playing and performing talent:

 

Here’s some insights from our dialogue which went on well past the TV interview:

Roberta on Teaching and Learning

Flack started her career teaching music at schools and privately in Washington D.C.  Reflecting on this she said she had some wonderful opportunities compared with the other students.  Teachers would leave the room and say “Carry on Roberta”.  Asked about what qualities they thought she possessed to get this request, Roberta said in a typically self-effacing manner that she had a fairly big mouth!  This ignores all her other qualities: an articulate style; a passion for her subject (in her case all forms of music) and an ability to reach other people’s heads, hearts and souls.  These are all transferable qualities for great leaders in any field. Asked what she had learned through her life she learned to appreciate everything that came her way, even those songs that she knew she could not or would not sing.  At one point she accompanied aspiring opera singers on piano in Georgetown and she got to meet and meet John F Kennedy, who attended the club.  In the course of working there, Flack had to learn to play songs that she had never played.  Reflecting on this she said:

“As a musician, when you get an opportunity to learn something that you don’t know, and to really learn and play it and execute it well, is such a thrill”

There is a direct parallel here for leaders in any field.  As Tom Peters says, execution is everything.  That relies on deep learning, the so-called 10 000 hours effect as quoted by Malcolm Gladwell. Musicians are used to the idea of deep practice as are great leaders.  Check out the full interview here:

 

Transferable Lesson : To become a great learner, learn to teach and teach people to learn

Roberta on Creativity and Reinterpretation

Flack took on the awesome task of reinterpreting a selection of songs by The Beatles in 2012 – Let It Be Roberta, having lived nearby to and also become good friends with John Lennon many years before. Reinterpreting a canon of work of such magnificence presents the artist with an enormous challenge as to how faithful you remain to the original or whether to do something quite different with the songs, which are almost untouchable. Flack wisely chose to do something different with the material to stunning effect. Reflecting on this, Roberta said that, it helped to be a classically trained musician. She was taught by Hazel Harrison, a music teacher from Howard University who excelled in Bach and music of the Baroque period. Roberta said:

“If you can hold on to your love for playing the piano and play Bach this way, rather than playing it like Chopin or Mozart, you will have accomplished something”

So, Flack learned to sight read all the pieces that the opera singers wanted her to play and make the music come to life rather than just to read the notes on the paper.  She was also stretched all the time by people who asked her to modify the pieces at will.  This level of adaptive behaviour provided her will the skill to get inside the heart of the musician and interpret the piece for the singers she had before her.  Undoubtedly this learning was formative in terms of her ability to reinterpret The Beatles material whilst staying true to the heart of the music.

Transferable Lesson : Act from your heart to find your soul

Roberta on new Business models

We held a fascinating after interview chat about Prince and his recent decision to work again with Warner Brothers after 20 years of producing his music independently. Roberta acknowledged the difficulty of gaining funding for your work in the modern age. Off camera we had a long chat about money and artistry. In her own case she set up The Real Artist Symposium, a gathering creative artists who own their own work and have worked with her to help give them a platform for their work.  This is just one of a number of new funding models that have emerged. We recently commented on Bernie Torme’s Crowdfunding Experiment as another exemplar of innovation.  These models are also apparent in other fields, such as publishing, where downloading has democratised the creative process but also made it much harder for artists to earn a living from their art. Business people would do well to learn that if what you are doing isn’t working, do something different.

Transferable Lesson : If your business model is broken, find a new one rather than banging your head against the same wall

And finally, a beautiful rendition of “Killing Me Softly”:

 

The first time ever I met Roberta Flack

The first time ever I met Roberta Flack

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About the Writer:  Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock – Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics – Business and organisation development, training and coaching.  Contact via peter@humdyn.co.uk or +44 (0) 7725 927585.

Meet the CIO – Chief Improvising Officer – Dr Russ Derickson

Chief Improvisation Officer Derickson

Chief Improvisation Officer Derickson

Introducing Dr Russell G. Derickson, Polymath, Inventor, Jazz Musician, Academic.  I met Russ a year or so back now and am privileged to conduct an interview with him.

Tell me about your background

In my life and career, I have sought both breadth and depth as a guiding theme. All my life I have railed against a single domain of pursuit, something that has met with great resistance over time from individuals and organizations that prevail in a specialist-driven world. But that world is changing. I am trained and experienced in science, engineering, social science, music, and the literary arts, and pursue what I call a Generalist-Specialist path. You may have heard of T-shaped and Pi-shaped (like the Greek symbol Π) individuals, who have deep enough breadth to be able to interact effectively with a range of subject matter experts, but also have one area, if not two areas, of subject matter expertise themselves. I aspire to be that sort of person and I keep working on it. The journey is a continuous one. The T bar represents that breath, while the stem represents depth. Similarly for the Pi-shaped individual.  An apt description is “jack of many trades, master of one (or more),” which is a contravening departure from the well-known phrase “jack of all trades, master of none” that disparages broad knowledge and skills. I do not choose to be a narrow specialist, but by no means do I feel that specialist roles are not critical in society.

Specific jobs I have had include serving as a senior researcher in two national labs in the field of renewable energy; professorships in a technical university in the discipline of atmospheric science and in a business school teaching sustainable products and services; senior and chief engineer in three engineering consulting firms in the fields of hydrology, building energy, and software design; business analyst and information services specialist in a telecom company; and professional drummer and percussionist in concert bands and orchestras, jazz combos, and rock groups. I have also had many years as an independent consultant in a wide range of pursuits.  Software I have developed has won national awards and currently serves 95% of the home energy rating market nationally. Other projects and publications of mine have enjoyed international attention, and I recently shared a best journal paper award in the discipline of wind engineering. With four excellent collaborators, I led the paper titled “Coyotes, Jazz, and Creative Teams,” which delved into the essence of creativity and innovation and was presented at the EMSCR 2010 in Vienna.

Improvisation – why is this such an important skill in business?

Improvisation is vital for creativity and innovation in business pursuits, but also for circumstances when known procedures break down or become ineffective in the face of quickly changing events or environments, or sudden novel assaults. But it is important to understand what improvisation is and how to develop facility in using it. Simply stated, improvisation is the act of deviating from a prescribed script or standard process at a given moment. But one does not just “make it up” on the spot. As jazz legend Charles Mingus famously said: “You can’t improvise on nothing, man, you gotta improvise on something.” Check this:

Indeed, the basis for improvisation and skill in executing it are achieved only after long stretches of immersion in a field, in which one acquires core knowledge and experience and lots of exposure to low probability events (which by nature happen infrequently). And there are basic frameworks and protocols to follow, at least to a point, beyond which “the rules” can be bent, or broken, with enough experience and acquired wisdom in hand. Furthermore, improvisation is mainly based on prior experience with its use and usually consists of reassembling items in various combinations from a known “bag of tricks.” For example, a close scrutiny of Robin Williams’ performances reveals that he often, if not primarily, puts together combinations of things he has done many times before. Seldom does anything totally new emerge, but there are notable exceptions and they are truly astounding. All of these principles apply equally to business.

While on the faculty of a technical university teaching atmospheric science, I was called on by a faculty colleague in the English department to substitute teach in his class while he was gone on a trip. The theme I brought to his class was about improvisation with the title “What to do when you are thrown a curve.” For example, you are about to present a business case to a group of investors, only to discover that a key person in the investor group is missing, or your time slot has been reduced from an hour to 45 minutes because of a sudden schedule conflict. You are testifying to a city council and a new question has just been brought to its attention by some advisory source and you are asked to address it. There are many more such examples. It turns out that a certain level of anticipating such “curves” can be done and prepared for through scenario planning techniques among other methods. But at times you just have to wing it based on years of experience, or in some cases, set your boundaries and request more time or a rescheduling in order to prepare.

You talk about teams and dyads – can you explain more?

In many enterprises in life, activities are done in a team context. But teams must be assembled and managed well to be effective. A group of individuals operating separately on a task can outperform a poor team, but a good team can outperform the individuals. To achieve effective teams it is critical to provide training in a team-based manner, not just separately train the individuals serving on a team. Furthermore, training is best done in a real-time setting, not “unnaturalistically” or theoretically with a set of academic-like sequences in a classroom. There seem to be three critical components to proper team training:

  1. Designing the team for learning through embodying the right mix of expertise and skills in the collective members for the goal at hand
  2. Establishing an effective challenge to be met by the members as a whole, but delineating the critical role of each individual
  3. Assuring psychological safety for each team member by creating an environment in which individuals will not feel dumb or incompetent with their current ideas or their introduction of new ones.

Let’s look at team size, structure, and communication. Small teams usually work best and there is an anthropological basis for this. Hunter gatherers worked in teams of 5 or 6 maximum. The possible number of communication channels expand greatly with team size. For example, a team of two has one two- way channel, also known as dyadic communication. With three members in a team, there are 3 such possible dyadic channels. With four team members, there are 6 channels, and with five members the number of possible two-way, or dyadic, channels increases to 10. The beat goes on with larger team size, such that an eight member team has 28 possible two-way channels. It gets quite complex with both the sheer number of dyadic possibilities and the attendant process losses for each dyad. Once assembled, a critical component to team operational success resides in effective intra-team communication. From classical quartets, jazz combos, and rock groups, we learn two primary categories of communication that apply to many other enterprises outside the realm of music: verbal and non-verbal. Both the verbal and non-verbal manifest in three ways: as instruction, cooperation, and collaboration. This yields a total of six communication modes. Thoughts on these various modes are the subject of a follow-on discussion.

But there is more to the story on team size and operation. Small teams may work best operationally, but may not possess all the knowledge or skill for a given task. Larger teams have the possibility of having more composite knowledge. However, the smaller, more operationally efficient team can establish a process to gather information from outside the team and bring it back into the task. That may mean a simple transporting of outside knowledge, or temporarily including an outside member for a period of time. This and related processes work best if team members have transdisciplinary skills and knowledge. Transdisciplinary means more than cross-disciplinary, in that one interacts not just at the boundary between disciplines in a team of mixed expertise, but has enough knowledge, like the T-shaped person, to make a deeper foray into several other disciplines. It is worth each team member gaining such a skill for best team operation.

Not often expressed is another facet of a team. Let me express three categories: low-variance, medium variance, and high-variance teams. This idea comes from my paper “Coyotes, Jazz, and Creative Teams.” Variance is the deviation, or change, from a standard mode of operation or process. An example of a low-variance team is a surgical team, an airline crew, or a manufacturing team. Such a team is not prospecting for novelty or surprise, but is rather operating with a tight set of procedures to ensure success and safety. A low-variance team also trains for emergency contingencies to minimize, if not preclude, the need for improvisation or research. Emergencies must be handled quickly in time and such emergencies as a fire do not “age” well as time moves on. On the other hand, a high-variance team such as a design or research team or jazz combo is prospecting for novelty and surprise and thus operates less rigidly with a fair amount of improvisation. A medium-variance team lies in between. An example would be an orchestra that plays the written score, but adds variance through creative interpretation. Needless to say, each type of team requires different training, management, and operation.

Now, I have mentioned dyads. And there are also triads. Both are vital concepts and realities, but let’s stick with dyads for now. Like a lot of words, dyad has a few meanings, once of which was used above: the two-way communication between two people. There is also another meaning: a special relationship of long standing between two individuals. There are personal and professional examples of this type of dyad and sometimes a given dyad entails both personal and professional aspects. The dyad we now discuss requires trust, close communication, and equal status to work best. A well-functioning dyad is one of the most powerful forms of teams that exist. Famous examples include Lennon and McCartney; Lerner and Loewe; Gilbert and Sullivan; Cheech and Chong; Holmes and Watson; Roosevelt and Taft; Watson and Crick; Jobs and Wozniak. The list goes on.  We’ll stop at Cheech and Chong:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CWxgfTMLtc0

Note that while certainly complementary, the individuals of the dyad can have similar skills or quite different ones. That is worth noting. Another key point is that a dyad can lead to a powerful synergy unachievable by the two individuals separately. Or not. Dyads also tend to become unstable and acrimonious over time by virtue of the closeness and persistence of interaction required over long periods of time. Teams of three, the triad, can also produce their own pathologies, more so sometimes that can a dyad. Interestingly, teams of five often report the greatest satisfaction in their operation. But, long live the dyad.

I will briefly mention another type of team: the team of one. Please think on that idea for a while and stay tuned for an exposition in the near future.

Say something about the seminar series you are planning for the USA?

The dyad of Cook and Derickson has schemes to invade the USA with workshop seminars that aim to circumnavigate and then make a direct charge at the processes of innovation and creativity, borrowing from the ethnographies (fancy word for the study of the culture of an enterprise that entails human interaction) of Rock and Jazz. At the heart will be real-time, team-based learning exercises that engage with creativity and innovation, improvisation, and the “taming and harvesting” of randomness. A key aspect will be learning how to uncover knowledge we don’t even know we don’t know (unknown unknowns). Rather than presenting rigid, sequential rules, the seminars will elucidate and incorporate practical sets of guiding principles in the team-based exercises. Importantly, the seminars will entail heterogeneous groups of people from various disciplines rather than from a single discipline.

Pi- shaped - Dr Derickson and Master Cook

Pi- shaped – Dr Derickson and Master Cook

Have you got some takeaway bullet points for readers?

  • There are few, if any, silver bullets.
  • Improvisation is fun.
  • Teams can be fun.
  • You gotta work at it.
  • Start now.

NEXT WEEK OUR BLOG GOES OUT ON APRIL FOOL’S DAY 

BE PREPARED FOR SOME FUN

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About the Blog Author:  Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock – Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics – Business and organisation development, training and coaching. Contact via peter@humdyn.co.uk or +44 (0) 7725 927585.  Check our new book “Leading Innovation, Creativity and Enterprise“, which contains significant content on creativity and improvisation:

Book Cover HI RES

Jamming in New York City

Here’s a link to a Radio interview we did with Dr Jackie Modeste and Dr Wesley J Watkins on Trading Fours on the theme of improvisation and innovation.  Just click the picture to listen in.

Click to listen to the radio show

Click to listen to the radio show

Here’s what Dr Modeste had to say about the interview highlights via Twitter:

  • Musicians understand the value of continuous practice to master their art.  In business we are often satisfied with one day’s CPD (Continuous Professional Development) per year.
  • Disruptive innovation can come from the marketplace in a wired world, with customers setting challenges for businesses that get stuck in a rut.
  • Failure to spot disruptive innovation can be life limiting for businesses.  Witness the examples of Sony and Kodak in the interview.
  • Musicians are often great storytellers.  In business we need to get better at getting everyone to put themselves into the company’s story, rather than trying to impose our own fairy tale on staff.

Thanks to Jackie and Wes for an engaging dialogue, which was unplanned and therefore more surprising and enjoyable for that.

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About the Blogger:  Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock – Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics – Business and organisation development, training and coaching.  Contact via peter@humdyn.co.uk or +44 (0) 7725 927585.  Check out our online Leadership programme for FREE via The Music of Business Online.

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Nigel Kennedy

Champagne Supernova - with Nigel Kennedy

Champagne Supernova – with Nigel Kennedy

I went to see Nigel Kennedy the other week at a concert celebrating the work of composers that filled his early years, from Bach to Fats Domino.  Featuring a simple four piece of virtuoso musicians from Poland I had the great pleasure of meeting Nigel after the show where I presented him with a copy of “Sex, Leadership and Rock’n’Roll” and was offered  drinks with him.  He was astonished that I’d noticed a cheeky and subtle reference to the blues harmonica within the 90 minute performance (probably just a couple of seconds of playing – two notes slurred together and made to sound exactly like a blues harp player within one of his classical pieces) As a result, he immediately recognised that I was a musician from my observation.

So, what did I learn from Nigel Kennedy?

Nigel the man

Authentic to the core : Kennedy faced threats at the age of 16 from his classical tutors when he was offered the chance to play with Stéphane Grappelli at New York’s Carnegie Hall.  He refused to heed the threats and crossed the line between the classics and jazz. He has also played material by Jimi Hendrix and The Doors giving the establishment a run for their money.  A thoroughly warm and authentic individual that refuses to be classified by others.  The mark of a true leader – what Rosabeth Moss-Kanter termed a ‘boundary crosser’.

Nigel and the band

Kennedy works with a trio of musicians who he met in jazz jam sessions in his home town of Krakow.  Just watching the band work through his set was a exemplar of what I call “planned spontaneity”.

Simplicity : The drummer used one snare drum for much of the performance, using every part of the instrument and his hands to gain an enormous range of sounds from one drum.  The work of a true master.

Interplay : Although it was obvious that the show had been extensively rehearsed, the true joy of the performance was when Nigel signalled the guitar player to extend his solos, when there were ‘interruptions’ of the performance by Nigel interrupting the drummer and bass player.  Difficult to describe in print so you must catch him and the band on tour.

Timing : The band have exquisite timing, and this allows them to perform various musical acrobatics.  The result of a combination of individual genius and the 10 000 hours effect.  Just take a look at this for an example:

Teamwork : Given the size of the egos, the miracle of this ensemble is that all manage to leave their egos in the dressing room, playing off one another in a true example of what can happen of how healthy competition leads to peak performance.

Nigel_Kennedy_and_the_SSO_Nigel_plays_Jimi_Hendrix_event

Never mind the boll…ks – Nigel Kennedy – a true boundary crosser

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About the Blogger:  Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock – Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics – Business and organisation development, training and coaching.  Contact via peter@humdyn.co.uk or +44 (0) 7725 927585.  Check out our online Business and Music programme for FREE via The Music of Business Online.

The Jazz of Business – Penelope Tobin

Introducing Penelope Tobin of Barrier Breakers.  Penelope is a jazz pianist, vocalist and composer with a pedigree working with Class A musicians, such as Nico, Nick Lowe, The Eurythmics and The Slits.  She has just launched her second book “The Jazz of Business – Leadership in a new groove”.  Here’s what Lady Penelope had to say about it.

Lady Penelope breaks barriers

What is the jazz of business?

We’re going through turbulent times, and we need a new kind of leadership and followership, if we’re going to navigate it successfully.  We need leaders who can set up structures to hold uncertainty, who can adapt to change in real time, who co-create their vision, who learn continuously, who understand innovation.  This isn’t the old style autocratic leader.  If the old paradigm looked like the orchestral conductor, working to a fixed plan from a detached, elevated position of control, the new one can be seen as the leader of a jazz group, or jazz leadership. This way of leading is derived from jazz, at the heart of which is the ability to work successfully with improvisation, or things not seen ahead of time.

Editor’s note – see also the post by Scott McGill on preconception in improvisation.

Where is this stuff being done well and who by?

In a recent poll of 1500 CEOs “creativity” topped the list of the most essential leadership competencies.  But still there’s plenty of evidence that business leaders are responding to the turbulence by reverting to command and control, so it’s far easier to find the places where this stuff isn’t being done well.  However, there are forward thinking companies, such as Zappos, IBM, and Innocent—and Google, whose New York offices I visited recently, and what a great environment and you can see why it’s the number one place graduates want to work.

Let’s see a bit of jazz in action:

I’ve said in my own work that jazz as a business model is mainly for those enterprises that want to innovate continuously and it can therefore be wasteful for companies that are operating in a more steady state way.  Richard Branson also says that many business cannot do complex things, which brings me back to 4/4 and rock music of course ! 🙂  What do you say to this?

Using jazz as a business model is more about how organisations can respond effectively to change, about having the best organisational structures for today’s environment. Business needs structure, but the structures must be at the service of what’s going on within the business, rather than being the master and they must be adaptable enough to respond to change.  The jazz-leader establishes clearly defined boundaries, roles and responsibilities, plus the overall vision, which everyone then works within as individuals, speaking with their own voice. This fully engages everyone, as not only are they being heard and shaping the outcome, but they have to listen keenly to others in order to respond – that’s improvisation. They’re not following a pre-written score, or playing pre-rehearsed licks. It’s uncomfortable, certainly…as is the seismic change we’re going through. But it’s also exhilarating, and it’s possible when the structures are supportive.

Editor’s note : As someone that plays jazzy improvisations sometimes and rock music at other times,  I guess we must agree to disagree on this – I find most businesses want to keep it simple, particularly in markets that are fast, unsophisticated etc.  It’s only the most innovative that want to pursue improvisation as a core skill.   We should set up a joint conference with 500 people and debate the issue out with your piano and my guitar 🙂

You discuss 5 barriers in the book. What are they and why are they important?

My work at Barrier Breakers is all about soft skills development, and soft skills are innate human competencies.  We all have soft skills like creativity, communication, leadership, self-motivation, and teamworking to some degree already.  Unlike hard skills, which have to be learnt, or input, the soft skills have to be accessed.  If we’re not using them it’s because there are barriers in the way.  Sometimes the barriers are ones we’ve set up ourselves; sometimes they’re ones we encounter.  So to develop soft skills you need to identify where the barriers are, and then remove them.  The five Barrier Profiles are the “lenses” we use at Barrier Breakers to do this, which is the mechanism that underpins all our training and consultancy work with individuals and organisations.

Have you taken this out to companies? What happened?

Barrier Breakers been used widely within organisations, initially in the 3rd sector, winning the national Performance Hub prize for this work in 2007, and recently we’ve been rolling it out to public and private sector organisations.

What’s your platform for this?

At the turn of the century I was a jazz composer, pianist and vocalist, living and working between London and New York, leading a sextet in each city, composing for these groups and for a 17-piece jazz orchestra, recording regularly, performing in clubs most nights – from Birdland to Ronnie Scotts – often teaching and running workshops by day, as well as touring in Europe and Japan. I’d been a professional musician since leaving school, working with a wide array of pop and rock bands as a keyboard player (from Nico to Nick Lowe, Eurythmics to The Slits), composing for commercials, and touring…but this was always fuelled by a love of jazz, so my transatlantic life was the realisation of a dream.

And your work in charity?

Barrier Breakers began life as a charity, working with disadvantaged young people and those within the criminal justice system – either at risk of offending or needing support in re-settlement. Soft skills are powerful enablers for anyone, but particularly for those who’ve been battered by life and are looking for new ways of living. We’ve had some incredible results over the years. We’ve now got the main “for-more-than-profit” arm, and the intention is that the training and consultancy will eventually fund all our charitable work, allowing us to be independent of external funding, and therefore to be sustainable.

For more on jazz and business, see Scott Mc Gill and The Flow.  Finally a bit of Jeff Beck and Tal Wikenfield – red hot improvisation around a score.  Reminds me I must catch the man at a jam soon – allegedly he goes out to play near where I live from time to time.  How cool is that?

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About the Blogger:  Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock – Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics – Business and organisation development, training and coaching.  Contact via peter@humdyn.co.uk  His latest book “The Music of Business” is available direct or in the usual places by clicking the relevant link in the slideshare presentation below:

From Cages to Playgrounds – Scott McGill on excellence in music and life

I was privileged to interview Scott Mc Gill, a progressive rock and jazz fusion guitarist recently.  Scott has played with Percy Jones of Brand X and worked with Michael Manring, a well-respected fretless bass player.  He divides his time between teaching, composing, performing and researching music, which would be something of an idyllic lifestyle for me.  Before we get started, let’s see the man in action:

Tell me about your influences in terms of innovative music and improvisation?

I spent 10 years working with Dennis Sandole who was John Coltrane’s teacher.   It does not get much better than that.  I’ve played with some of the best people on the planet in Casinos on the East Coast and Broadway etc.  I also find that one of the best ways to extend yourself is to teach and research music.  For example, I was interested in your explorations of the concept of flow in your writing.  I’ve spent 20 years teaching, writing, playing freelance and improvising.  That amounts to more than 10 000 hours of immersion in music.

So you are the ultimate adaptive musician?  Front of stage, in the studio, teaching others?  I meet people who are good at one of these but rarely all three.  I’d guess that this requires some loss of ego and the ability to focus intensely on what you are doing at any one time?

Yes. It’s enthusiasm and focus really. I like learning and engaging deeply in many areas of music enables me to learn a great deal. The discipline of progressing in all of these areas is something I am interested in as it makes me feel as though I am working towards something meaningful. I also find that progression in one area usually facilitates progression in the others.

Take me back to the beginning to help me look for clues as to how you learned to improvise.  How did you begin?

I started learning both reading and playing music.  They were always married.  I did not start out as many people do, by either learning formally and then starting to improvise 7 years later or vice versa.  I began by picking up a few chords but very soon after took lessons from someone who did both reading and improvising.  The ear is the instrument.  Even if you are reading, you should always be able to hear it and vice versa.   I learned music in a combined way from its inception.

Is this like starting out speaking two languages?  If you start that way, it is much easier than learning them separately and sequentially?

I guess it could be.

Does formal learning have to drive out the possibility of improvising?

Not at all for me.  The more I learn about theory, the better I get at improvising.  I don’t partition it.  For me, rules are a release and not a barrier.  That said, for some musicians, it is apparent that learning musical theory does hinder them from improvising and vice versa.  I guess it’s a question of mindset and it also depends on the training.  Some of the best improvisers were formally trained, e.g. John Coltrane and Liszt.

Does that relate to the idea of mastery – once you reach a certain level, the technique vs. attitude debate does not matter and you transcend that?

Fundamentally yes.

Improvising a dialogue with Scott McGill

When you are in the moment of creativity, what happens?

I find that I lose all sense of time (not timing! :-).  I recall a very special moment working with some friends.  We played for 90 minutes but it seemed like minutes.  It was fantastic.  I felt a real sense of euphoria.  When I am creating I also become hyperfocused, like you can hear everything that is coming next and you have the ability to successfully predict what the other people in the band are about to do.  I think that my senses are very acute in those moments.

Can you teach people that?

Not really.  It has to be learned.

What then is teachable?

The vernacular – the notes, the chords.  How sounds relate to one another.  How things sound against one another.  There’s a lot of syntax and the ability to hear something new.  My teaching is individualised and improvised and a lot rests on the student – which makes teaching music one of the hardest things to industrialise.

What about when people get stuck in improvisation?  Are there things you do to help unblock them?

Listening to the same thing with fresh ears is one approach.  Getting them to listen to new things another.  Sometimes changing the instrument or even the approach to the instrument is effective.  For example by looking at the guitar up and down the neck instead of along the neck may make someone approach the instrument more like a piano or saxophone.

Talking to Bernie Torme and Bill Nelson, I’ve been told that switching instruments is a great idea for creativity e.g. in Bernie’s case to the Sitar.  Bill Nelson says that different instruments force a different attitude from the player.  Do you subscribe to these views?

Absolutely.  The nuances of an instrument matter a great deal.  I’d add the ideas of learning about concepts and then trying that out on an instrument.  So theory for me is a practical tool.

What about the idea that the untrained ear is everything with respect to musical creativity?

An intuitive approach does not exclude formalism and I’ve known and worked with great players in both categories.   The argument “don’t read music or your creativity will be shut off” does not stand up to scrutiny.  I can give you examples on each side of that argument in every case.  I always wanted to read music so that I could grab some sheet music and use the notes in a different way.  It was all about grabbing licks for me.

So, you see a music score as a playground rather than a cage?

Precisely.  I listen to a score and think ‘What could I do with that?”  For example, I’m doing a couple of pieces that have borrowed ideas from Ravel at the moment.

Editor’s note:  For me this is the ‘curiosity’ principle of creative people – see the diagram below.  It also illustrates the skill of what Tom Peters called ‘Creative Swiping’.

Scott Mc Gill with his fretless Vigier guitar

I often discuss the parallel that great musicians and great leaders are what the text books say are emotionally intelligent.  i.e.  That they are masters of their own competence whilst they pay attention to what is going on outside them?

I would tend to agree and that’s why I spend a lot of time getting musicians to listen.   It’s especially important to be able to hear ahead of time what you are doing in an anticipatory way if you are going to master improvisation.

In business, we’d call that a complex adaptive system where there is a great deal of variation going on in an interactive way

It’s exactly the same thing on the bandstand.  I feel you can learn a lot about complexity and improvisation in other fields from music.

What about ‘rules for improvisation’?  I made a programme for The BBC’s In Business series with a comedy improvisation expert who suggested that he uses 3 simple rules for improvisation in comedy.  Do you rely on shared codes when working with others?

Really good improvisation sounds like it isn’t.   It’s a lot like writing where you are developing a character, but you are doing it on the fly, in real time.  I don’t tend to use signals although there are a few of them such as banging your head to signal the need for the band to come back to the motif and using fingers to signal key changes and so on.

You have talked a lot about anticipatory skills and that relates to the idea of leaning into the future in business.  Can you say more on this?

I’m reading a lot about anticipation at the moment – especially the work of K. Anders Erickson.  Erickson discusses how the fastest and most accurate typists are the ones who can quickly anticipate the next move.  His theory of Deliberate Practice has influenced me greatly and I have been lucky enough to have corresponded with him recently.  He’s very brilliant and what he says about focused deliberate practice appeals to me.

Where does innovation come from in music, given that we’re all working with the same 12 intervals? – maybe more in your case as I know you specialize in playing fretless guitars?

I don’t know really. From what I know there are many millions of combinations of the twelve pitches not to mention the inclusion of rhythm, form, timbre, tempo/time, etc. There are always microtones for those who want a different sound other than the twelve standard pitches as well. I do play a Vigier fretless guitar and enjoy it thoroughly. I like the different vibrato and glissando possibilities and the fact that you can shape a note a bit more after striking it that you can with a fretted guitar. It is difficult to play in tune though.

Where can people find out more about you and get hold of your music?

Find me at MYSPACE and Soundcloud for audio examples of my work with my bands Jones McGill DeCarlo and Freakzoid.   For more biographical information go to FLAVOURS ME and Scott McGill. I am reachable on Facebook, Twitter, and have a blog as well.  Here’s another piece:

As the Editor, for me the transferable lessons about excellence are:

  • Use structures AND creativity to achieve mastery in any field.
  • Use anticipatory approaches to stay ahead.  This may involve deep listening to your own performance and that of those around you, whether we are talking about music, business or other fields of endeavour.
  • Adopt an emotionally intelligent approach to working with others, sensing and responding to minimal signals to help change course along the way.

Innovation Excellence and all that jazz

This week, I’m offering you a business parable about jazz and innovation excellence.  As a generalisation, it probably works, although jazz is an enormous genre, so feel free to agree / disagree / extend the story as you wish.  It was written about 13 years ago for my 1st book Best Practice Creativity, and has resurfaced recently, since a University academic published an article on jazz and business in The Guardian.  If you enjoy this post you may also enjoy related posts on Innovation and The Flow and Jazz.

Let’s warm up with a bit of Herbie Hancock:

The Jazz Band – a metaphor for more innovative organisations

The Jazz band is a loose association of individuals that need no sheet music, since they share a common love for the music, achieved by careful selection of musicians, based on ability and empathy within and on the edge of the band’s style. There is scope for musicians to ‘blow their own trumpets’, whilst recognising the need for the ‘solos’ to be consistent with the overall musical direction.

The informal band leader helps band members reach new heights of musicianship and encourages the swapping of instruments to broaden skills. The band is paid on the quality of the group performance although random bonuses are allocated by group consent for outstanding individual performance from a ‘slush fund.’

The band’s repertoire is wide and both well rehearsed and unstructured, for the performance has both elements of formal musical structure and improvised chaos. Some performances are unremarkable, yet there are indefinable moments when the band seems to know exactly what to do to take the music in a new direction that has never been rehearsed formally in a state of ‘flow’.

Although the band get great enjoyment out of playing the music when practising or performing, off stage the members often disagree vigorously about many issues concerned with the music. In some cases, individual members are not great personal friends, yet this is subsumed to the greater ‘task’ of the music itself. For example, the guitarist tends to be simultaneously gregarious yet aloof, whilst the bass player will often be the one to arrange social events. The drummer is always late for rehearsals as he has to get a lift from the piano player since he is never organized enough to buy a car.

Competitiveness manifests itself in a positive way, in so far as individual soloists attempt to outdo each other with the aim of moving the general level of performance upwards. Although each person could probably play a very impressive piece on their own, the results that the band achieve somehow add up to more than the individual players could achieve on their own. The band also has to compete with other bands for gigs and one of the members carries out the job of getting the band gigs through advocating the band to club owners and using any tricks to make them more visible than other jazz bands.

The jazz band occasionally get asked to play requests. These are done in a dutiful way but often fail to reach the heights of performance achieved when they are in free flow. They claim to be unaware of anything around them including the audience when they are in this state, and they could be said to be creating music in a highly selfish way at these times.

The jazz band parable highlights the need for businesses and organisations to:

  • Balance structure and chaos according to the needs of the various stakeholders.
  • Learn continuously and adapt to change through the use of signposts which are understood by all.
  • Let creativity happen rather than trying to force it.  Technique and training helps, but no amount of engineering will necessarily produce the intended result.
  • Make personality differences irrelevant by a consuming mania with a shared purpose.

Speaking of improvisation and innovation, I have just been appointed Rock’n’Roll Innovation Editor for New York based Global Innovation Website Innovation Excellence.  Run by Julie Anixter,  who has written with Seth Godin and worked with Tom Peters.   I have been asked to write a number of prestigious articles and interviews – for example, the CEO of Atlantic Records, Sir Paul Mc Cartney, CEO’s who play music and more.   Innovation Excellence is the world’s most popular innovation blog with over 10 000 reads per day.  I am therefore offering guest interviews and articles to:

  • Innovation authors
  • Innovative musicians
  • Innovative businesses
  • Innovation leaders
  • Innovation academics

If you wish to publish an article or interview, let me know via this blog or mail me at peter@humdyn.co.uk

Do check out the website All About Jazz for much more on Jazz.  To finish, the master of improvisation and innovation, Wes Montgomery: