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Dialogue with the author - Frank Barrett

We had an on-going dialogue with Frank Barrett, author of Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz, over a period of 3 weeks from Monday, May 4th to Friday, May 22nd. People read Frank's book and discussed themes, questions and ideas that emerge with the online community. Our dialogue with the author will culminated in a webinar discussion with Frank on Friday May 22nd at 1:30 PM Eastern Standard Time.

A recording of the webinar is available at this link. Click here.

Also, please order Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz.

We hope you will continue to join the online discussion for as long as people have questions and sharing to do. We look forward to discussing with you further!

More about Frank J. Barrett:

Frank J. Barrett is Professor of Management and Global Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He holds a PhD in Organizational Behavior from Case Western Reserve University and is an accomplished jazz musician. In addition to leading his own trios and quartets, Barrett has traveled extensively with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. His research interests and expertise include organizational change, social constructionism, organizational innovation, improvisation, and appreciative inquiry.

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  • I want to welcome everyone to this online dialogue with Frank Barrett. We officially begin May 4th but please feel free to begin anytime now. Get the book, start reading and post ideas, questions, and your own examples.

    Have fun generating ideas and practices with others who also want to explore leadership through the lessons of Jazz.

    • Hello Dawn, 

      It's nearly 8pm in Singapore on 4 May so I thought 'well, it's late at my end of the world so why not just start!"

      I attended Frank's workshop at the Taos Conference 2013. In 2011 I had naively posted an appeal to leaders on a now rather dated website. I had been looking for a way of engaging potential clients without falling back on the old cliches of organization and leadership development. Jazz has been a great love since early teens when I illicitly bought a 2nd hand vinyl record in the street in Brighton, England. It was Sonny Side Up with Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt, Ray Bryant, Tommy Bryant and Charlie Persip. So as a non-playing jazz fan, I tried, probably without being technically accurate, to invoke Bill Evans 'Conversations with Myself' to explore a leader's interpretation of the organization. I had arrogantly perhaps not looked into the literature and when Frank's book was published my mind was as close to being blown as it has ever been. Here is a virtuoso piano player who really gets it and offers up examples that illustrate how to gain traction for ideas that could seem a bit too removed for many practitioners and leaders.

      I welcome an opportunity to explore the book on the forum and especially to compare practice. I don't think people have to be knowledgeable about jazz in detail - it helps obviously to have a rapport and an interest but don't be deterred by those who have or claim to have an encyclopedic knowledge. Frank is great at deconstructing the elements of a jazz band right from the preface and I don't think we should be afraid to go with it. 

      So here's an issue from my practice: A highly motivated but stressed out woman consulted me about managing a disorderly boss who kept introducing new projects with no consultation with the team.   It was just a monologue based on his latest idea without regard for the complex implications for action. This guy seemed to relish his own ability to improvise and seemed immune to feedback. So what's wrong with improvisation? Frank writes,  in Chapter 2, "Wouldn't it be wonderful if leaders could create organizational cultures in which people are able to engage in skillful activity in the context of responsive others." Well this guy wasn't interested in 'responsive others' who were a mere audience for his stream of (un)consciousness. Guess what - his 'band' broke up and the client is now with a team that better understands the balance between structure and impro.

       (the OD piece is still available on

      • Hi Greg,

        Thanks for posting.  First I have to say that I like your taste in jazz!  That's a classic recording.  And of course all jazz piano roads lead to Bill Evans in my opinion.  

        I'm struck by your vignette of the boss who introduces new projects without consulting the team and who was immune to feedback.  You're exactly right in separating this from the kind of improvisation that we're talking about here.  That's not a "yes to the mess."  The kind of affirmative moves needed for improvisation to work is the affirmation of the other as well as following one's own musings.  Improvisation is intrinsically a social act.  A leader must stay connected to others, must see proposals as offers for others to embellish, extend, modify, edit, and perhaps re-route in unexpected directions.  If a leader simply jumps in with the newest idea or project, then he / she has not been paying attention to what's going on in the organization.  The ideas, proposals, need to connect to the stream of social activity and take into account the group's readiness to respond.  That's implied in the penultimate chapter on provocative competence.  Someone who tries to be provocative all the time, introducing novelty constantly, is not connected and eventually will lose the capacity to influence (and lead).  

  • Thanks for getting us started, Greg! The dialogue is up and running so please join us here to post questions for Frank or thoughts about the book here.

    Looking forward to the discussion!

  • Hi All

    Great to have the opportunity to be part of the conversations - excited to be part of the exchange of thoughts, ideas and practices in this community!

    I just read the first couple of chapters in "Yes to the mess" and have a lot of reflections and questions popping up. To invite you into some of them:

    As a practitioner founded in social constructionist thinking I'm always curios about both the possibilities as well as the constraints of a mind set, an idea, a practice, etc. So when I read though the wonderful stories in the first chapters with all the stories that illustrates so elegantly why improvisation is a pivotal skill to master as a leader I thought to myself "Yes, exactly!" - and at the same time also thought: "Well, perhaps strategic planning, standardizing, schedules, etc. also has something valuable to offer in an organization?" Too much improvisation might lead to daily firefighting with no common direction and a lot of disengaged employees. Too much planning and sticking to "the script" might kill the emergence of new ideas and shared learning in the organization. Perhaps its the way we think about ex. strategic planning that can pose a problem? I mean, often a strategic plan becomes "the world" instead of just another construction or shared narrative that invites people to move in the same direction and that can/should be abandoned at any moment if a more useful strategy is needed. Would it be possible to think that strategic planning and improvisation can go usefully together? Or should we abandon the idea of strategic planning altogether and focus instead on the emerging strategy processes happening in every moment and that demands high levels of collaborative skills?

    I would love to hear your thoughts on this? 

    Best Michala 

    • Interesting ideas Michala.  I don't usually think of improvisation in contrast to planning.  I think of it in contrast to routines and rules.  And I would say that organizations need routines, just as you are saying they need planning.  

      Regarding strategic planning - I propose that we separate the activity of planning from the actual plan itself.  The activity of planning when done well, is a learning activity.  Coop and I wrote a chapter about a shift from strategic planning to strategic learning.  It's important to plan in the sense of entertaining multiple scenarios, "thought trials," etc.  Improvisers do this all the time.  They consider multiple paths and trajectories and keep options open regarding how to respond (within certain non negotiable constraints).  But I think that if organizations become too loyal to a strategic plan (as if its a product), they drive out the capacity to respond, adapt, improvise.  

      I have an image of the special operations units of the US military.  They plan and plan and plan.  They run multiple scenarios and alternative action repertoires.  When it comes time for execution, they usually have an overall plan in mind, but are ready to deviate in the moment as the environment changes.  (It reminds me a bit of Winter's concept of "dynamic capability" in organization theory).  

      I also remember a talk that Bill Walsh gave at Stanford Business School.  A student asked him how is it that Joe Montana is able to improvise so readily and adjust to whatever the defense does, including unusual formations and surprise moves.  Walsh denied that Montana was improvising.  He insisted that Montana had rehearsed multiple routines and subroutines and as the situation evolved, he drew upon learned resources.  

      Jazz musicians do something similar.  We learn patterns, licks, phrases, (something like plans) but in the moment we respond in ways that surprise others and ourselves.  So planning is important.  Falling in love with a plan is fatal.  

  • Welcome everyone and thanks for your interest in Yes to the Mess.  I will be checking in every few days to join the conversation.  For starters, let me suggest a few questions that might guide our inquiry and invite you to reflect and share.  To help get our discussion started and help us dive into the Preface and first two chapters, we might want to consider the following three questions.  Feel free to pose questions of your own or share insights from the book that you find intriguing, useful, provocative. 

     1.  How can we use the jazz improvisation metaphor to understand the process of innovation?  What do jazz bands do that allow them to be innovative and can these insights be transferred to other non-jazz contexts?

    2.  Where have you seen an over reliance on routines?  Why is it hard to get rid of routines and procedures after they have outlived their usefulness? 

    3.  How do you create a culture that makes it safe for people to leap in, to experiment with new ways of doing things even if the outcome is not guaranteed? 

    • Thank you for hosting these conversations Frank! In response to #2 I am thinking of the "teaching routines" that happen between the Attending and Resident physicians- specifically the routine of a full presentation ABOUT the patient in which the pre-determined plan is presented.(the preparation of the plan in pre-rounds is another whole set of associated routines) The Collaborative Care model we are implementing engages the patient and family in the care process- so necessarily is incongruent with the normal pre-rounding, and plan presentation by the learners to the Attending.  Even Attendings who want to do the collaborative process are concerned about "producing" a physician that is "too collaborative" and not able to "present, think and make a care plan on his own"- after all, it would be "unethical" to send someone out into the real (not yet collaborative) world "unprepared" in traditional ways- so the routines are held in place not just by the professionals at the bedside, but by the traditional teaching standards and "imaginations" of what would happen if...I am thinking of doing an exercise with them next week in which they work in groups to names one routine they might want to "unlearn" in order to move to collaboration. Any other ideas?

      • Interesting notion "being too collaborative, in which case you can't think and make a care plan on your own."  This assumes that making a care plan on one's own is ever the best option. What if it's not about unlearning routines but openly challenging those routines before following them? As I understand what Frank's talking about in the book, the routines are great to fall back on when some "new experiment" fails. I'm imagining a physician suggesting to his "collaborative team" --'this' is the fall back routine, but what if .... and opening it up to diverse thinking, including the patient and family. If the "experiment works" great, if not, fall back routine until the team comes together to rethink the experiment and try again.

        As a bottom line, I do think believing there is a standard care routine that fits all cases and is decided by one person is crazy-making and ultimately bad medical policy.  The collaborative approach, if done as research, could surface data that would provide at least greater variation in what might be considered "standard".

        • Totally agree with Cheri's point here regarding collaborative approach as a continuation of learning (or as she says "research").  It's important to pay attention to deviations, variations, anomalies, that are not "standard" as she says.  

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