Marching Down The Road Unknown – Life Lessons From Jazz

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The attraction of a Davos Open Forum session is obvious as the audience arrives much in advance to guarantee themselves a seat. Normally, we would enter the transformed swimming pool to find a neatly arranged row of chairs on the stage. The blue and white colored name tags are an early announcement of who will speak during the evening. But Thursday evening was different. Instead of chairs, we have a set of instruments and no label revealing the upcoming star of the evening. A rangy person, wrapped in a sack coat and with distinctive glasses appears on stage, followed by a group of musicians. “Good evening and welcome! My name is Chris Washburne and this is my band SYOTOS. We have come from New York City, to share our world with you tonight in a very unusual event.”

Chris Washburne
Source: Nikolaj Fischer

This scene could be from anywhere else except from the WEF in Davos. Although performing arts play an important role at the WEF, it is not common to have such a famous musician on the stage who combines art with an exercise in jazz, improvisation, and life lessons. Chris Washburne is one of those unique individuals who are able to connect effortlessly between art, personal life, and collaboration when working. Together with my fellow Student Reporter Akash Arasu, I had the chance to catch up with Mr. Washburne at a cafe a day before his gig. This being Davos during the WEF, this was by all accounts no mean feat. Most cafes are either overtaken by companies and therefore closed to the public, or overcrowded to the point that any sort of recorded interview would be unintelligible. Armed with only a few basic questions and no set shooting location, we started our talk with Chris, hoping that an artist – less strict than the general business leader – might forgive the less professional approach to the interview. We were wrong in our worries. True to his mantra of “winging it”, Chris actually appreciated our unstructured approach to the interview.

The SYOTOS Band
Source: Nikolaj Fischer

As Chris was talking about his learning from jazz, he explained that “one of the most basic components of jazz is for improvisations to lead to a kind of spontaneous creativity.” Jazz musicians sit together and start to play, as SYOTOS did that evening. The first thirty-seconds may follow the sheet music, but “what comes after, we have no idea what’s going to happen.” But according to Chris, “improvisation is probably one of the few universals that all human beings have.” Whatever we do, at some point, we always encounter new territory and have to think quickly and “If we couldn’t improvise, we would all be dead.”

Saxophonist
Source: Nikolaj Fischer

So what does this have to do with the WEF and sustainability? Chris starts to draw connections and analogies between jazz, education, leadership, and collaboration. Education in our days, for example, is highly structured, removing the space for “discovery and being curios [and it] allows very little room for failure” – all skills that we need in a constantly changing world. Some of these students go on to become leaders and often fail to tackle complex global issues as their fear of failure makes able them unable to unlock their inherent ability of thinking on their feet. Being able to fail – and moving on from that failure – is a crucial treat that is unfortunately lost in European societies. Our current education system is not very helpful in solving this problem either. What we teach often lacks behind current issues and the transformation is a slow-moving process (see our post: Another Brick in the Wall – The Transformation of Management Education). Nevertheless, how we teach might be even more crucial, as Chris elaborated. Trapped in a cage of structure and goal-oriented learning, we lose our natural skill to improvise. As what we learn is outdated by the time we should apply it, so we need to at least be able to open the space for creativity and find solutions in environments that we are unprepared for.

In a similar way, when leaders sit together, as they do here in Davos, the mood is often described as one of stagnation and staying on course. The conference becomes a matter of listening rather than participating. Chris explains this with a short historical overview of jazz – the music born out of colonialism. As “there was a group of people that was silenced for many years”, what you end up seeing “in jazz improvisation is that everybody’s voice counts.” In contrast, what we observe, whether at Rio+20 or in Davos, is that participants often just reel off their prepared statements, shut their ears, and open them only at the reception cheering on the ‘lively’ discussion. There is this misconception of collaboration in many gatherings as everyone prioritizes talking over listening. In order to really find answers to our most urgent problems, we then have to carefully listen to all of the voices in order to truly collaborate. Or, in Chris’s words: “what happens in jazz, when you are collaborative and listen very intensely, is that the music is much better.”

While Davos is often criticized for empty words, Chris proves that he means to act on his words by inviting up to the stage the young Global Shaper whom he just met, Linda Briceño, for a final piece of true improvisation. Inspired by his ideas, we talked to other WEF participants about their experiences and we created a small collage of different perspectives on improvisation.

What participants and organizers of the World Economic Forum say about improvisation:

Jonathan Hsu, CEO of Recyclebank

“When you have three kids you realize that you don’t own your schedule at all. What you do is you live in the moment. You know, frankly, no matter how good or tough a day I have, when I come home my three girls don’t care. They just want to see me, and whatever I think I have to do goes out the door and then I will just spend time with them and realize what life is all about.”

David Aikman, Senior Director; Head of Young Global Leaders, Global Shapers and Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship

“The best approach to improvisation in today’s context is one of iteration. This is the way I think the world is going. It is this iterative model of creation where you are open to every feedback to make something better. If you stand around and wait to make the perfect plan or to launch the perfect business, you are never going to get anywhere, you are never going to accomplish anything, you are never going to make the world a better place and you are never going to fix any of these global challenges. We are not going to fix poverty, we are not going to fix climate issues, and we are not going to fix economic injustice by playing safe, by waiting until we have the perfect solutions. We have to get out there and see what sticks.”

Zanny Minton Beddoes, Economics Editor, The Economist

“This evening [during the Eurozone panel when an individual received the microphone and asked an inappropriate question]! There is no script there; you will have to figure out what to do. Journalism is always improvising, we never know anything… we never know nearly enough about things that we write about.”

Stephen Toope, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of British Columbia

I would only say that I think much of life is a form of improvisation. As much as we imagine that we are planning and setting ourselves up for certain opportunities, there is a high level of serendipity involved with what actually comes to one in life. I remember when I was being hired, I had this blinding moment. I was headhunted for this job but then when I was interviewed I realized that I had never managed a budget larger than 10 million dollars. I was going to be in an institution where my budget is about 2 billion dollars and thought to myself, wow, that’s a big shift. So how do I improvise out of that one? I think that the answer is that you try, as improvisers do, to draw on your technical training; you try to bring to mind all of those things that you’ve learned and then you try to analogize and say, ‘Okay, I have seen hints of this before. How do I play it out now in this different environment?’ and I think we all have to do that in life.”

Gilbert Probst, Managing Director and Dean, Leadership Office and Academic Affairs, World Economic Forum

I think that I have to improvise all the time. I am still a Professor and you know that you have to prepare a class; on the other hand, I never work with slides so I try to improvise in the sense that I really have a lot of interactions with the students. I am constantly improvising – maybe more than I actually like since I am a management professor, so I really think things should be planned and structured, and I think about my objectives, structures, and plans. But then I go into classes, meet with my team and things don’t go that way and I improvise all the time and in a way, I love to improvise. I think again this is a question of balancing and I think we need both. If you are well-prepared, if you think about your objectives, and if you have a plan, you will feel comfortable. But life is not like this and you have to improvise all the time.”

Akash Arasu contributed to this article.

4 thoughts on “Marching Down The Road Unknown – Life Lessons From Jazz

  1. Great post and video – really enjoyed it. It very much reminded me of an interview with with Frank Barrett, jazz pianist and author of “Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz” that recently appeared as a podcast on Harvard Business Review. (http://blogs.hbr.org/ideacast/2012/08/what-leaders-can-learn-from-ja.html).

    My favorite quote from the interview with Frank Barrett which I might add to your collection of perspectives on improvisation reads as follows: “Miles Davis once said, if you’re not making a mistake, it’s a mistake. And what’s behind that is, he’s saying you need to be experimenting and exploring and trying new things all the time. So if everything you play is clean and fresh and slick, that means you’ve given up experimentation.”

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