The longer I’m in leadership, the more I become aware of a simple, but harrowing fact: The best leaders in business improvise. A lot. In fact, having a detailed, multi-step, multi-phase plan can be dangerous for any organization.
I do believe that every organization needs a clear vision and mission. And that having specific, measurable key performance indicators are important. But a step-by-step plan for how to get from where you are now to where you want to end up can be the enemy of organizational innovation and change.
A Musical Analogy
To be able to compare and contrast approaches, I’d like to draw on two genres from the world of music.
Classical music is wonderful, but it’s also rigid. The destination of each classical piece is predetermined—we know exactly how it will end. We also know what will happen from start to finish because everything in between is orchestrated. The individual members of an orchestra are highly trained professionals, led by a single conductor who moves them through a written piece of music with a flick of her wrist.
How has classical music evolved or changed over the centuries? Very, very little and very, very slowly. So slowly, in fact, that the different periods in classical music are measured in centuries, not decades. The instruments used are largely unchanged from the ones used hundreds of years ago. I would venture that the genre, as a whole, is backward facing. The names of the past endure while many of us would struggle to name more than three 20th century classical composers, let alone a single 21st century one.
Classical music is beautiful and emotive. It’s incredibly effective for what it is. But is its rigid structure something we should emulate in business?
Now let’s talk about jazz. It’s fluid. Sometimes, it feels dangerous. We don’t really know where it will end up, and we aren’t sure where it will go in between. Every live performance is witness to wonderful feats of creativity as the music ebbs and flows. The initiative within the group is passed from member to member. Every member of the group is empowered to start something new, change direction or stop at any time.
Jazz lives on the edge of chaos and order, but somehow the genre does not devolve into disarray. Instead it continues to evolve. Many music historians believe that since its inception in the late 19th century, jazz has given rise to multiple new genres of music including rock-and-roll and hip hop. It’s subgenres are measured in years and decades. It is truly a forward-facing, vibrant genre of music.
So when I say that the best leaders improvise, I’m pointing to the difference between classical music and jazz. A multi-phase approach in which everything is clearly defined and carefully scoped is not a signal of imminent success. I don’t think that an organization run by a conductor who only needs a team to fulfill a carefully crafted plan is a long-term model for building a vibrant and innovative culture.
Jazz Principles for Business Innovation
In his book “Jazz Process”, jazz musician and software development manager Adrian Cho puts forth five principles jazz groups employ that translate to organizational leadership. They form a way of working and performing together that leads to creativity, innovation and, ultimately, organizational vibrance.
I’ve seen many of Cho’s principles at work in Atomic. I’d like to suggest a way forward in between the chaos and order highlighted above. As we walk through each principle, let’s remember that the focus of each one is to propel our organization ever forward toward our vision and goal while maintaining organizational life.
1. Have just enough rules.
Rules are essential to the life of any organization or group. Without rules, chaos descends–even in jazz. Typical rules from jazz groups are: “take measured risks,” “make contributions count,” and “stay healthy.”
Nevertheless, too many rules can get in the way of execution and stifle autonomy. Have just enough rules balances confusion and efficiency, allowing a group to maintain order while allowing for smart people to do their jobs well as they see fit.
At Atomic, we have surprisingly few rules. They are succinct, clear and measurable. And they’re not arbitrary; instead, they aim to maintain just enough order to keep Atomic and its members healthy and happy:
- Show up for standup every morning (because we believe working together and being available for one another leads to more efficient, quality work for our teams and clients.
- Work a sustainable pace at a full-time job (because we believe our people are our most valuable resource and that we owe it to our teammates and clients to pull our weight every week).
- Contribute to Atomic Spin every 45 days (because it is one of our best marketing tools).
- Track your time accurately and every day (because it is the lifeblood of our company).
- Take your vacation every year; rest (because this adds to our personal and organizational sustainability).
Following these rules is necessary to avoid organizational chaos. But have more rules than these, and we run the risk of strangling creativity and innovation in our company.
2. Employ top talent.
Custom software and jazz both involve a lot of improvisation. Even though a jazz piece can be composed and follow a certain pattern, there is always a fair amount of latitude for the artists involved to interpret the score as they see fit. As a result, a top jazz ensemble needs to be made up of talented musicians who are not just able to follow the music on the page, but have enough mastery of their craft to be able to diverge from what is on the page. They need to have the individuality and creativity to be able to imagine the spaces between the measures on the printed page. They also need awareness of what’s going on around them in the group. A music teacher of mine once said that “20% of making music is execution. The other 80% is listening.” The members of a jazz group must be tuned in to their team and their audience.
In the same way, custom software usually follows a certain patterns. The problems we solve with software almost always have commonalities. But the problems we solve always require different, custom solutions—even when those differences are subtle. Accordingly, to solve those problems, the members of a custom software team are going to need to possess a certain amount of mastery, individuality, and creativity, enabling them to depart from the common patterns to reach out toward a novel solution. They also need to be aware of changing conditions in their team, with their client, and in the world around them.
At Atomic, we believe that skill mastery can be taught (our Accelerator program is designed to impart mastery over a period of two years). But we don’t believe individuality, creativity, and emotional awareness can be easily imparted. Therefore, we’ve tailored our hiring process around uncovering designers and developers who are unique—who have opinions and are curious about the world around them. They are sensitive to the room.
Throughout the hiring process, we put them in situations where their creativity can shine and they can showcase their own empathy. We also carefully measure the degree of mastery of craft they currently possess so we can gauge what sort of investment we’ll need to make in them to get them where they’ll need to be to perform well as part of our team.
Many have said that our hiring process takes too long or too careful. We disagree. Our hiring process is what it is because we must employ top talent for our client teams. We’re solving very complex problems. A team of individuals who know how to string together a bunch of prepackaged solutions (black boxes) won’t be able to solve those types of problems well. Custom software requires curious, unique individuals who can creatively frame and solve problems. Settling for the former over waiting for the latter just sets us up for pain sooner or later.
3. Put the group first.
Of course, there’s a real danger in only seeking high-performers or “A-Team” players—ego. The potential for strife and a “me first” attitude is very real. Even the most talented virtuoso cannot outperform a team of individuals who have decided to suppress their own ego for the sake of the common good.
In successful jazz groups (and sports and software teams), the members of the whole are accountable to each other, not just to their leaders. At Atomic, I see this prioritization daily. Members of teams share the pain equally with their teammates because they care about them as people. They don’t want to let them down. Often, this type of effort doesn’t come up to the attention of leadership until a post-project retrospective when one team member shows appreciation for another. We don’t go the extra mile for recognition or some misplaced desire to differentiate ourselves from the rest of the group. We do it because we care about the team and don’t want to let them down.
Another way we put the team first at Atomic is by absorbing mistakes together. Things go wrong in custom software; it’s just a fact of life. We’re solving complex problems and sometimes the best laid plans run awry. When that happens, from managing partner down to the newest designer, we have each others’ backs. We don’t throw anyone under the bus. The team succeeds and takes credit together and the team fails and takes blame together.
The Lure of the Status Quo
One potential pitfall to our team-first approach is the propensity for the collective consciousness of the whole to discourage innovation. Being a cohesive whole is absolutely essential to good teamwork, but it can lead to a feeling of safety in the known and a lack of curiosity. A lack of inquisitiveness and a commitment to the status quo has led to many disasters in recent history (the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the collapse of some of the western world’s largest companies due to rampant fraud to name a few). The signs that could have stopped any of these things from happening were all there for an inquiring mind.
One of the things I appreciate about leadership at Atomic is a purposeful openness to improvisation and experimentation. We often say we’ll try anything that makes sense. If, when tested, the idea has merit, we’ll keep it. This sort of openness to new initiatives is essential to maintain the innovative spirit we are proud of at Atomic. It also keeps our talented individuals engaged and empowered.
4. Build trust and respect.
As human beings, we are all wired in one way or another to work together with other human beings. Within this work relationship, we all have varying levels of trust in those around us. In a highly performant jazz group or on a crack software team, a member has to be able to trust others to do their jobs and respect their ability to perform. The other members of the group have to live up to the trust and respect deposited in them. If not, things quickly break down. Members become nervous and suspicious of one another. The blame game can break out and quickly the group becomes fractured.
Trust through Transparency
One of our value mantras is: “Act Transparently“. We believe its makes sense for everyone—transparency allows us to make smart business decisions in our own interest and those of our clients sooner rather than later because we are aware of changing project circumstances. But I would say that the biggest benefit of our practice of acting transparently lies in the fact that it inspires trust and respect throughout the organization. Want to build trust and respect in your organization? Act Transparently.
Trust through Hard Work
Another way to build trust and respect that I see at work at Atomic often is to understand what the basic expectations of you are in a given situation and then go above and beyond that. Should this server bug be finished by the end of the sprint in a few hours? I’m going to fix this server bug and get some feature work done as well. Does my team need a prototype to be able to validate a feature with a client? Then I’m going to make sure the work I do on that prototype will also be production-ready HTML and CSS that will save my team time. In a jazz group, it’s the basic expectation of a bassist to keep harmony and rhythm for the group. If a bassist isn’t able to meet this basic expectation, the rest of the group will lose trust and respect in the bassist. However, if the bassist can keep rhythm, harmony and fill in gaps with flourishes and the occasional solo–trust and respect in that individual will increase.
Trust through Leadership
As leaders, we can build trust and respect within our organization by acknowledging efforts and results. Never tacitly take credit for something someone else did. Give credit where credit is due. If you don’t, your team’s trust and respect in you will be diminished. They will question whether putting in extra effort is really worth it. If you do acknowledge efforts and results, they will trust and respect you and each other more.
Have you ever noticed that jazz groups have an encouraging performance style? They shout out encouragements to each other throughout a concert. “You got this!” “That’s right!” “Hit it, man!” And, without fail, everyone in the group is introduced at some point in the concert. Even Miles Davis always introduced his band.
5. Commit with passion.
Jazz and custom software exist in a world rife with unknowns and constant change. In this type of atmosphere, it’s essential that members of those teams commit to the common cause with passion. At Atomic, we call this “Giving a Shit“.
A jazz musician who isn’t fully committed to a group or a piece of music falters. Their own lack of confidence in the current context is communicated to other members of the group and indelibly apparent to the audience. The same thing happens to us as software consultants. If we are committed to our project and our team, our confidence transfers to those around us—teammates and clients included. The more senior we become, the more creative confidence we have that no matter what difficulties come, we will be able to see the project through to completion.
Because of my experience and background, I end up mentoring other designers in the craft of workshop facilitation. One thing I always tell people who are hesitant about getting up in front of a group of people to lead them through a discovery workshop is that you are telling these people a story they’ve never been told before. If you have a misstep in front of them, they’ll never know unless you let them know. And you let them know by losing momentum or faltering. But if you passionately commit to everything you do, even the missteps, they can often take you to interesting places you’d never have gotten to otherwise.
As Miles Davis is purported to have said, “There are no mistakes in jazz—only opportunities.” In jazz, an artist is empowered to creatively innovate before a watching audience. The possibilities of a slightly off-key note or a late entrance are high. The same thing happens in custom software. Bugs can be introduced. Mistakes can be made. But be willing to make those mistakes and commit to the task at hand. Your passion for your craft, team, and project will carry you through those moments.
I’m fortunate to work in an organization where I can see these principles in action on a daily basis. We perform together as if in a jazz ensemble. We’ve got a general idea of where we want to go, but we have freedom to end up in unexpected places along the way. When we started our efforts to become the first 100-year-old software company, I don’t think we thought we’d incorporate design, start a two-year post-college-prep program for CS grads, or even have an office outside Grand Rapids. But the fact is that we’ve maintained openness to improvisation along the way by adhering to the 5 principles outlined here. I’m proud to say that these principles have maintained vibrancy and innovation across the organization over almost 16 years.