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Entertainment - Written by on Tuesday, March 9, 2010 16:58 - 5 Comments

Naumi Haque
Lessons in collaboration from B.B. King’s

I am reminded today of the blues. Back in December, nGenera held our members conference in Memphis, TN, hosted by the good folks at FedEx. On the second evening, we were treated to dinner and at B.B. King’s Blues Club followed by the musical stylings of Preston Shannon’s Memphis Blues. What does this have to do with collaboration? A lot.

A blues or jazz band—or any ‘jam band’ for that matter—operates using many of the design principles we’d like to see from a collaborative enterprise. Unlike an orchestra, a band is much more fluid in their interpretation of the music. They are able to improvise on the spot, blend sounds, and often play to the mood of the audience. In other words, they innovate, create mash-ups, and are responsive to users.

I’m not the first person to use the band analogy. Barry Rabkin of the Market Insight Group asks whether technology analyst firms are more like a jazz band or symphony orchestra. He alludes to the fact that the jazz band style is more agile and responsive to customer demands—another important outcome of collaboration:

“Another area where jazz musicians differ from their symphonic counterparts is that jazz musicians, sensing their audience, can and do take liberties with new selections not identified during their rehearsals. They can do this because they have a broad library of music and musical explorations in their knowledge set and, as importantly, they know how to blend their sounds together to get the best outcome possible for their audience.”

What’s more, in a symphony orchestra the conductor alone is responsible for guiding the entire team, whereas with a distributed, ad-libbing crew, anyone can start pushing with a new riff or mood and the others will follow suit. In this way, the benefit of each player’s perspective and expertise is baked into the model.

One of the factors that allows a band to operate in this manner is the existence of very well defined roles (i.e. guitarist, vocalist, drummer, base, keyboards, etc.) and somewhat open tasks (i.e. what songs to play, when to riff, what chords to use, etc.). This is another important learning for the enterprise. As Lynda Gratton and Tammy Erickson note in the HBR article Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams:

“Cooperation increases when the roles of individual team members are sharply defined yet the team is given latitude on how to achieve the task. [...]Assign distinct roles so team members can do their work independently. They’ll spend less time negotiating responsibilities or protecting turf. But leave the path to achieving the team’s goal somewhat ambiguous. Lacking well-defined tasks, members are more likely to invest time and energy collaborating.”

In addition to looking at how bands are structured, we might also consider how band members collect largely unstructured customer experience ‘metrics’ in real time and use the feedback to adjust their approach. These metrics provide a useful analogy for the type of approaches leading companies should take when developing customer strategies, including:

  • The applause of the crowd: What kind of noise are customers and prospects making online and in social media channels? Using sentiment analysis companies can find out if it is positive (cheers) or negative (boos) and change their tune accordingly.
  • Number of people dancing: How engaged is your audience? Metrics might be based on active participation on forums, comments online, rating of content, and re-broadcasting of brand messages, or more passive (i.e. head bobbing) activities such as subscribing to feeds, friending, and following.
  • Song requests: What kinds of requests are coming into your contact center and support organization? In many organizations, the contact center is an untapped wealth of customer feedback, largely ignored by groups like marketing and product development. Listening to this channel and other prosumer input can lead to dramatically improved customer experience.
  • Duration of stay in the bar: How long do customers hang out in your online properties? Using Web analytics, companies can now obtain this information, as well as data about how people got there, what path they take along the way, and how influential various ‘promoters’ are at bringing in prospects.
  • CD and merchandise sales: How are Web interactions translating into sales? The performance is about creating an experience, but ultimately, in order to be profitable, you need people to buy your stuff.

As companies continue to seek best practices and metrics for collaboration, I firmly believe that some of the more innovative solutions will come from non-traditional fields that have deep roots in collaboration, but that have eluded formal study and analysis. (If I’ve managed to spark an interest in enterprise lessons in collaboration from other disciplines, also see my previous post on Measuring collaboration: Lessons from Shane Battier and the NBA and the related Collaboration box score.)


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Marilyn Davison
Mar 10, 2010 3:18

Wonderful rich thought provoking analogies and a re quote of a favourite quote from Geoffery Bateson t if you juxtapose two forms of description, such as art and science or art and business, that ‘double description’ affords you an unexpected bonus of insight akin to the perception of ‘depth’ in binocular vision – a surprise effect not predictable from working with either of the ‘descriptions’ alone. We all know that when we focus on something with just one eye, we merely a monocular view. We are unable to perceive depth. Depth ‘appears’ when use both our eyes at once….” (quoting John Comino in Orchestrating Collaboration at Work).
Do think that symphony orchestras provide as vibrant experience as Jazz though, the work of Miha Pogacnik http://www.mihavision.com; in which business people are placed in the midst of an orchestra opens ears and minds to a different dimension of experience.

Naumi Haque
Mar 11, 2010 13:10

Hi Marilyn,

Thanks for the quote! I agree that some of the most interesting things occur at ‘the edge’ where disciplines juxtapose one another. I had never heard of Miha, but it’s an intersting business model. I’m not really in a position to comment on the relative vibrancy or jazz vs. orchestra, not being a real avid listener of either, but I do agree they align with two different types of organizational structures – one very hierarchical and structured, the other more unstructured and collaborative.

Ben Ziegler
Mar 12, 2010 13:16

Good post Naumi,

I like how you relate the jazz band performance to customer metrics. Fine examples. I also like Marilyn’s quote and comment.

Interestingly enough, there is a long-standing tradition in classical orchestral music for improvisation – in the form of the soloist’s cadenza. It’s been a bit neglected of late.

Both jazz and symphony players require big ears, i.e., listening skills. The nimbleness of a jazz band comes largely from their size. In big band jazz, all the players (excepting soloist of the moment) are reading from charts (like in a classical orchestra).

The size factor is vital to generating high-performing teams (e.g., of 6-8 people).

Totally agree with you (and Marilyn) on the power of bringing diverse fields of study/analysis to the collaboration equation.

Rodney Brim
Aug 16, 2010 15:28

Enjoyed the blog considerably. I haven’t noticed that anyone previously attemtped to define performance metrics from a customer standpoint.

Although those are very relevant, especially to the establishment, I find internal performance criteria are even more relevant to having a group of musicians continue to work together. It can be as basic as does the player stay in a groove, listen well to others, keep the beat, have something tasty to add when improvising, etc.

I blogged awhile back on jazz as a form of project management and would be curious about your response at:

Rodney Brim
Blog: http://www.performancesolutionstech.com

Aug 17, 2010 17:35

Hey Rodney, thanks for the comment. I love the idea of looking at it from an internal perspective. Great analogy with project management – using different approaches of project/performance management based on how well defined the outcome is (i.e. jazz for loosely-defined outcomes and orchestra for well-defined outcomes). Makes perfect sense to me.

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