Jazz: A Metaphor for High-Performance Teams
RICHARD C. WILSON
In this paper I argue that jazz can provide an enlightening metaphor for participative manufacturing management, especially to dramatize some characteristics of high-performance work teams. Continuous improvement of manufacturing effectiveness often depends on the participation and involvement of all employees. Terms such as quality circles, concurrent engineering, quality-of-work-life programs, employee empowerment, and job enrichment are used to characterize participative approaches to management. But each term evokes an imagery that may be highly dependent on a person's background and experience. Because so many of us share an awareness and enjoyment of music, we should find it helpful to use the insights that a special form, jazz, offers as a metaphor for employee involvement and empowerment. The growing literature about jazz provides considerable insight about the organizational and social dynamics of the jazz world through anecdotes about the behavior of its performers and leaders. Does this organizational research on the behavioral aspects of the jazz milieu have wider implications for the practice of employee involvement groups in other occupations? Can statements by jazz artists stimulate you to think about the nature of production jobs with a fresh viewpoint? I believe they can. In developing this argument, I admit to sharing the view of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who says (Helland, 1990): “Jazz music really teaches you what it is to live in a democracy. The whole negotiation of the rights of individuals with responsibility to the
group.” How is this view of jazz helpful in thinking about groups in manufacturing?
SOLOING AND SMALL JAZZ GROUPS
Consider the following statements by jazz artists, and their applicability to the behavior of manufacturing teams:
Dave Holland, a 44-year-old jazz bass player says (Mandel, 1989): “I've always been attracted to jazz's group context. I admire how the soloist works with the rhythm section, how the bass player interacts with the drummer. To me, the music is group music. I want any group I put together to function on that level, where everybody feels they have a place, that they can be themselves, that they can stretch their imaginations and their creative aspirations as far as they are able. So I've always encouraged as much involvement from the musicians as possible. My thing is to create a setting—and I learned this from Miles [Davis]. During the time I played with him he would create the environment for the music, then let the musicians deal with it.”
Jazz drummer and leader Art Blakey says (Rosenthal, 1986): “I try to play in the rhythm section to make the soloist play, make him feel like playing. The rhythm section can make the soloist play over his top, play things he never dreamed he could play, if you get behind him. You can't have a battle up there and see how much you can play, because if you make too much noise behind him, he can 't concentrate on what he wants to play. . . . You got to get out there and push him. When I'm playing for Dizzy [Gillespie] I play one way, if I'm playing with Miles I play another way.”
The jazz drummer Shelley Manne gave an interviewer his definition of jazz musicians (Crow, 1990): “We never play anything the same way once.”
Jim Hall the guitarist says (Balliett, 1986): “Accompanying is hearing the whole texture from top to bottom of the music around you and then fitting yourself into the right place. . . . What you're trying to do is swing, and swinging is a question of camaraderie. You could be playing stiffly, but if everybody is playing that way the group will swing. But if one person is out of sync, is dragging, it feels like somebody is hanging onto your coattails. ”
These quotations from drummers and bass and guitar players identify musicians' attitudes in high-performance jazz groups. In small group improvisation (fewer than eight players), the players must share a commitment to excellence demonstrated through the creativity and imagination of their improvisations. The group conditions must free the players to establish the group cohesion and interdependence of their own contributions. To achieve group excellence, each of the players must be highly skilled on his instru-
ment and play in styles that are mutually compatible. Players who respect one another's playing are more likely to share ideas and coach each other in group playing. Communication among the players is essential during performance, as they listen to and instantly respond to each other's improvisation ideas. During performance, the effectiveness of the group is determined at the lowest level of the organization, the players themselves. They intimately share instant information about their performance, have the power to determine and modify its direction, share full knowledge of the performance technology, and immediately share the rewards of the audience response. Do these sound like the criteria for the ideal work team? Bastien and Hostager (1988) report a study of a four-person jazz group and argue that the crucial factors of shared information, communication, and attention in jazz performance have implications for the study and management of organizational innovation in other contexts such as corporate acquisitions and new industry development.
Similar factors have been identified as critical to the performance of work teams in many settings other than jazz (Buchholz and Roth, 1987; Lawler, 1986). Thus, the concept of group creativity in a jazz performance may provoke some new ideas for organizing production work. For example, the moments of creative opportunity for a jazz musician are a small but highly motivating fraction of his total professional life. Hours of uncompensated practice are required to achieve those creative moments. Would most employees be similarly motivated by the opportunity for occasional breaks from routine work to engage in a creative job experience?
The value of the small jazz group as a metaphor for a manufacturing work group is certainly weakened by a number of disparities. Most obviously, the jazz group performs for itself or for an audience, whereas the manufacturing group produces a product for an often unseen customer. For the jazz musician, soloing involves a high risk of public exposure of mistakes, and of immediate criticism. The effectiveness of a performance is instantly assessed by other members of the group, unlike manufacturing, where performance evaluation may require analysis of data several hours afterward by independent auditors. Hence gratification for the jazz artist can be immediate and satisfying (Hackman, 1990). Furthermore, the jazz musician generally feels his work is meaningful, that performance is an expression of life and an intense emotional experience. Eisenberg (1990) calls this phenomenon a “jamming” experience and suggests that similar transcendental experiences can occur in other activities, including manufacturing groups. Unlike many manufacturing jobs, however, the price of admission for the jazz musician is a lifetime apprenticeship for a highly insecure career poorly understood by the ultimate consumer. The consequences may be a high level of psychological anxiety and stress, sometimes manifested by individual health problems (Wills and Cooper, 1988).
THE LARGER JAZZ ENSEMBLE
The amount of player self-determination in jazz varies from the complete freedom of “free” jazz improvisation, to the partially structured collaborations of small groups such as the Modern Jazz Quartet or the Art Blakey and Miles Davis groups, to the limited freedom exhibited by the heavily arranged Stan Kenton and later Count Basie bands. As the number of musicians in a jazz ensemble increases, collective improvisation becomes increasingly hard to execute. Listening to all other players becomes difficult, and without some organizing structure, improvisations tend to conflict and become muddy. Perhaps this is related to the “magical number seven, plus or minus two” (Miller, 1956). Jazz ensembles of more than seven players have rarely attempted collective improvisation. Instead of relying on chord changes to a tune for the skeleton of group improvisation, larger jazz ensembles use written arrangements that provide planned opportunities for improvised solos. Thus the arranger becomes an important determinant of group performance. His arrangement, not the individual player, determines the style of the ensemble. The “big band,” comprising 12 or more players, removes much of the self-determination from the individual player, limiting his creative contribution to the musicality of his section performance and to his occasional solo opportunities. The success of the big band is dependent more on the distinctive “sound” of the band, rather than the distinctive creativity of the soloists. Those big bands that survived through several eras were distinguished by a single leader (e.g., Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Woody Herman, and Glenn Miller), who established an identifiable sound for the group and dominated the selection of players and the performance style of arrangements perpetuating that sound. For example, the Basie band of the 1930s grew out of a small ensemble in Kansas City that featured “head” arrangements (ensemble arrangements improvised collectively by the band in performance) invented by the many outstanding improvising soloists in the band. In time, these soloists left the band and were replaced by others. Basie relied increasingly on arrangers to provide a continuity of style. Eventually, the arrangements dictated the distinguishing sound of the band, and personnel were chosen for their ability to play and solo in a style compatible with the Basie sound. Thus, the decision-making process was removed from the collective level of the ensemble players to a specific individual, the leader.
A similar tendency toward specialization of function, formal organizational structure, written systems and procedures, and a planned communication mechanism is found in larger manufacturing organizations. The jazz literature, however, clearly illustrates that the style of personal leadership may be nevertheless a significant determinant of the performance in even these larger organizations.
Anecdotes about the behavior of band leaders are many, and mirror the realities of interpersonal relationships in other organizations. A band leader generally retains complete power to hire and fire his musicians, and within boundaries established by the American Federation of Musicians, to set their pay levels and the conditions of their travel. His relationship with fellow musicians in the band ranges from tolerant avoidance to lifelong friendship. For example, the Bunny Berigan band was said by trombonist Ray Conniff (Shapiro and Hentoff, 1955) to be “a tight little band, just like a family of bad boys with Bunny the worst of them all. We were all friends. In fact, Bunny wouldn't hire anybody he didn't like.” Truly cooperative bands were unusual (the Casa Loma Band was a notable example). Depending on the leader's attitude, band members could have anywhere from no role to a significant role in recommending new musicians, allocating parts within a section, writing arrangements for the band, and choosing numbers, soloists, and directing the band during performance. Because of the intensity of continuous travel together, quirky behavior exacerbated the relations among the members, sometimes in humorous ways and sometimes in disagreeable ways.
Trombonist Grover Mitchell describes Duke Ellington's band when he joined it (Crow, 1990): “The first night or two everybody had gotten on the bandstand and really roared. But the next two, three, or four nights maybe there would be five or six of us on the bandstand, and eight or ten guys walking around out in the audience talking to people, or at the bar. One night we were on the bandstand and a waiter came up and told Jimmy Hamilton that his steak was ready. He stepped off the bandstand and started cuttin' into a steak. Later I say to Duke, ‘Man, how can you put up with this?' And he told me, ‘Look, let me tell you something. I live for the nights that this band is great. I don't worry about the nights like what you're worrying about. If you pay attention to these people they will drive you crazy. They're not going to drive me crazy.'”
Bill Hughes, long-time trombonist with Basie, reports (Hughes, 1989) that he was asked to fill an empty chair in the Basie band. After a week or so, he was still uncertain about his prospects with the band. He asked Basie if he could expect to stay with the band. To which Basie replied: “You're still here, aren't you?” Hughes then asked how much he would be paid. Basie: “Don't worry; we'll take care of you.”
Duke Ellington solved an absentee problem in Chicago (Crow, 1990, p. 252) when Sam Woodyard failed to show up for a week at the Blue Note. Duke hired a local drummer to replace him. When Sam finally came to work, Duke had him set up alongside the other drummer and they both played. Sam messed around with the time just enough to cause the local drummer to resign, and Duke had the band back the way he had originally wanted it.
Stories about Benny Goodman are legion. Pianist Jess Stacey said (Crow, 1990, p. 260): “With Benny, perfection was just around the corner. He was hell on intonation, too. Between each set he had me pounding A's on the piano so the saxes and trumpets could be perfectly in tune. When I went with the Bob Crosby band I had the habit of pounding A's between sets. Bob looked at me and said, ‘If you keep pounding that A, I'm going to give you your five years' notice.'”
Woody Herman was once asked if the continuing turnover of personnel in his band bothered him. He said the first time some of his star musicians left the band, he was devastated. He thought he would never again have such great players. In time, as personnel changes became a continuing fact of his music world, he said he began to look forward to the newcomers' new ideas and the contributions they made to the ongoing Herd.
In contrast to small jazz groups, the leader of a big band has a strong individual role in establishing the style and the expectations about the quality of performance. He relies on written communications (arrangements) to provide the structure of the performance relationships and to indicate where individuals can contribute their own creativity through solos. Nevertheless, these anecdotes suggest how widely the leadership styles of the band leaders may differ. Although the style and discipline of the band may therefore be a reflection of the leader 's personality, there seems to be no obvious correlation between leadership style and commercial success. I am aware of only two serious organizational studies of jazz orchestras (Bougon et al., 1977; Voyer and Faulkner, 1989), and neither deals with professional bands whose livelihood depends on their public acceptance. In both studies, the factors affecting organizational effectiveness and process are specified by the musicians and therefore are specific to jazz orchestras only. Analogous studies of manufacturing organizations are unknown to me. It is tempting to suggest that the big band provides a better metaphor of current manufacturing organizations than the looser structure of the small jazz groups. However, more careful comparative studies seem necessary to support such speculation. Perhaps as Lawler (1986, p. 210) suggests, the most important asset leaders of jazz orchestras share with leaders in manufacturing is their long-term vision for the organization itself.
Jazz as a metaphor for even larger multiechelon manufacturing organizations may be stretching beyond the scope of plausibility. With some reservation, then, I close with an anecdote about the Savoy Sultan Jump band. As the house band at the Savoy Ballroom, the band alternated sets with the visiting band. It was common practice for the Sultans to open their set by playing along with the last chorus of the closing number by the visiting band, and to continue playing through several choruses on their own without losing a beat. Not only was this a graphic demonstration of their musicianship, but, to the chagrin of the visiting band, they often swung
much harder to boot! Can you visualize an analogous performance by workers during a factory shift change?
Karl E. Weick, Rensis Likert Professor of Organizational Behavior and Psychology, The University of Michigan School of Business Administration was most helpful in the preparation of this paper.