Monday, November 20, 2006

Life in the New Jazz Age: But some people prefer to be in an Orchestra

[This post started as a comment, then grew into an essay. The good news is that I managed to contain it before it grew to a thesis. The bad news is that the essay might not be very coherent. Comments and critiques are welcome, whatever your musical tastes!]

I don't play Jazz nor am I trained in classical music. But I know just enough about the musical styles to understand what Vanessa wrote, in what I thought was an excellent post, titled "The conceptual/ jazz age".

We should all play jazz
Jazz is not chaos; it's not "free-for-all". My understanding of Jazz is that it has a framework (i.e. rules) but within that framework it allows a significant degree of improvisations.

I read Vanessa's post as a commentary on workplace culture and mindsets in the context of a globalised world -- on the need for a balance to be struck between Structure and Flexibilty; Centralised Control Vs Decentralised Creativity.

Excerpts from her post:
When I learnt classical piano, everything was fixed and pre-determined with little room for variation, if any at all. When I learnt my exam pieces, there were specific notes or bars where I had to play louder, softer, staccato and legato... Translated to the old-world working style, as long as you got your job done, you could clock in your hours, collect your pay and go home.

When you play a jazz piece, you aren’t expected to stick to the main tune, note for note. You play the main melody and chorus (variations are fine but the tune should be recognisable to the audience). Then you improvise. Ideally, you should work out with band members who gets to improvise and at which stage. Finally, someone gives a signal - drummers are usually good at doing this - then we know we’re going back to the main theme and completing the song.

So in a jazz band, there is flexibility without absolute chaos. We’re given a basic framework (the “company mission statement”) and are familiar with our main roles (the “organisational chart”). Everything else requires creativity, which is something you cannot memorise.

Jazz musicians are better prepared for the unexpected. A change in key, tempo or rhythm doesn’t upset the pro. He adapts to it and comes up with something new and mind-blowing. That is the whole point of improvising in music. Today’s workers cannot expect to have an iron rice bowl (ie, permanent employment). Times and tunes are changing fast. We have to sing for our supper.

Perhaps we should all be trained in Jazz :)

Two main ideas
I was chatting with Vanessa about her post. I asked what the main ideas were. She explained there were two, and in her own words:
  1. All organisations should realise they have to adapt to this new age;
  2. Organisations should give employees leeway to be more like jazz musicians rather than stuffy violinists
Regarding point #1, I'm sure that in today's context, no organisation can afford to operate like a traditional orchestra (i.e. playing set pieces all the time) -- and they know it. Those that don't recognise this or refuse to change would have closed down by now. As for point #2, I think the issue is not whether organisations give leeway to employees to improvise, but rather "how much leeway".

Does everyone want to be in a Jazz Band?
But implied in those two main points seem to be this -- "Employees want to play Jazz". From my conversations with friends and also my observations, such a statement is not necessarily true.

I have come across people who prefer to play set-pieces more than they'd like to improvise. These employees are not necessarily from the "old economy". They could be fresh out of school -- those relatively new to the New Economy.

Thing is, these employees probably see themselves as Jazz Players too. They want the latitude to improvisation. The problem is the degrees in which they are expected to. In short, they may only be prepared (actual or perceived) to improvise that much.

For instance:
  • Employee: "Excuse me boss, may I have a decision on this matter?"
  • Boss: "What would you do?"
  • Employee: (Silently thinks, "You're the boss, aren't you supposed to make a decision instead of asking for one?")
There are always two sides, or more, to an issue. The above example may over-simplify things. I'm just illustrating some employees who might think or react.

Admittedly, there have been times where I've reacted like that employee. But in truth, I've come to relish the chance to make decisions on behalf of "the boss". Even in situations where I've been given instructions, I'd try to test where I'm allowed to be creative. Not that I can be creative all the time (some things I should and will not, like financial policies).

How Jazzy should I play it as an employee?
That being said, it'll be a mismanagement on the part of any boss if -- knowing that the employee likes to improvise -- the boss deliberately assigns a lot of routine tasks to that employee.

That's not to say we shouldn't assign routine tasks at all. I have routine tasks all the time, like monthly reports. I think they are a pain, albeit necessary ones. Generally it's the assignments outside normal routine that keeps me happy. I make that fact known to my boss. I let it be known that I like to play Jazz.

How Jazzy should I let employees play?
As a manager, I have colleagues reporting to me. I tend to give them the chance to make decisions too. However, I've learnt that doing so might be misconstrued as not playing my part as "the boss".

Is there a way to resolve this?

I think it's about (1) the boss not making any assumptions that the employee is comfortable with making decisions; (2) setting expectations right between boss and employee, and (3) keeping communication open, i.e. really say what each other feel in a tactful manner.

As a manager, I'd assume that the onus on me to initiate the discussion -- although in truth, I'd prefer colleagues to raise them first. For one, it alerts me to the issue in a more direct manner. Two, it signals that the employee takes ownership of their work and personal development.

What if I want to play more than Jazz?
There are of course cases where certain employees wish to improvise more than what the organisation is prepared to accept. Continuing with the Music/ Jazz analogy, it's a case of the employee preferring to play rock tunes in a Jazz Band. That's a job-mismatch issue.

Either the player follows the jazz band, or find a rock band instead. Or you can stay in the Jazz Band and slowly introduce them to Rock. If you survive the process and the band still retains you : )

Whatever way, I believe we all have a choice.

Achieving Musical Equilibrium in an Age of Globalisation
Taking an academic perspective, the ideal situation is when we achieve Equilibrium between the Employee's Propensity for Improvisation and the Expectations of the Organisation.

In plain speak, there's a disequilibrium when:
  • The employee wants more leeway to improvise but the work environment/ culture tends to veer towards more central control, or
  • The employee wants more structure whereas the work environment is way too dynamic and exceeds the ability of the employee to improvise.
  • And combinations that basically create an imbalance.
(Sheesh, my plain-speak isn't that plain afterall...)

Understanding the Language of Jazz
Traditional orchestral pieces will still have their place in this world but definitely fewer than they used to be. Even they will employ variation in playing their pieces. I believe that as effective employees or bosses, it's a given that we need to understand the Language of Jazz. We need individual competencies. Then we need a framework to exercise those competencies.

But in life, that "framework" isn't as clear cut as Jazz. Playing a piece of music is a lot more defined than, say, "Promoting Reading" or "Promoting Libraries".

I suppose it comes down to this -- in all things there needs a balance (I realise that sounds like a cop-out statement; nevertheless, that's my final analysis). That balance will come from engineered effort but also forces more subtle. Things will evolve. In the final analysis, I believe we either play Jazz or learn to create a new form of jazz.

The alternative is perhaps not play at all.

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  1. Anonymous2:02 pm

    In the context of this discussion, I wonder where the group "Bond Girs" & a similar group of 12 gals from China come under : classical or jazz? Do they not symbolise hope for orchestra players in the future, ie. playing more "jazzed-up" music with your "old" instruments, and appearing in hip outfit.

  2. Hi Anonymous, your question, while valid, seems to have missed the point of the post. The context was really about organisation structures and employee mindsets. The Jazz/ Orchestra was only an analogy. The post wasn't a discussion on how orchestras would have to transform themselves. Cheers.

  3. Anonymous3:31 pm

    Interesting analogy. Applying it more narrowly to libraries, I would say that while organizations as a whole could be "going jazz," certain departments would by necessity remain "classical", e.g. cataloging, where there are very specific rules to adhere to (AACR2, DDC/LCC etc.). However, even in classical music, there is room for interpretation, and so too in cataloging, where no matter what the rules are, a lot of times what we call cataloger's judgement/making your own decision is still required.


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