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  • Writer's pictureDr Kiran Chitta

Saying yes to the mess

One of my favourite jazz artists, Miles Davis, states in his autobiography that ‘Bebop was about change, about evolution. It wasn’t about standing still and becoming safe. If anybody wants to keep creating, they have to be about change. Living is an adventure and a challenge.’

Jazz can be a powerful metaphor for how to live and work with agility, at a time when ‘stay safe’ has become a common – and obviously relevant - mantra. During this period, there has been avalanche of interest in the ‘Future of work’- the Financial Times has a whole series dedicated to this concept. In this post I explore how jazz could be a useful metaphor both for the so-called ‘future of work’, and the slightly chaotic way many of us work already.

The phrase ‘the future of work’ is itself a loaded and potentially misleading expression unless we contextualise it and make it specific. ‘The future’ is, basically, infinite. What is the timeframe we are considering? Does the expression ‘the future of work’ invite attempts at accurate prediction and realism? Or does it invite an optimistic stance, and corporate solutions? Whose future are we talking about? Our stance depends on who is asking and who is answering.

As I write, I recall a conversation I had with a friend recently while catching up over a cup of coffee (exotic, daring and anarchic as this may sound in these socially distanced times). The conversation strayed onto the subject of live music and how much we missed it.

He was talking about the last time he went to a concert that was not online. This had featured experimental orchestral music.

He concluded that although he had savoured deeply the overall experience of attending a live concert, he did not like the newer and more experimental kinds of orchestral music. This sparked a lively debate. My own musical tastes are quite eclectic. I asked him about jazz. He disliked the freer and newer forms of jazz.

I found myself defending the merits of experimentation and improvisation in music, for its spontaneity, technical creativity by musicians and surprises for audiences. It thus strikes me that a musical metaphor might offer signposts for how work is likely to evolve.

I am inspired and informed in this regard by Frank Barrett’s insightful appraisal of the leadership lessons from jazz, in his book, ‘Yes to the Mess’.

A jazz ensemble needs no conductor. Much is done from memory, with a melody and overarching musical progression in mind. There may be a band leader whose role is informal, and there is usually some goal in terms of duration, structure, or shape to each performance of each piece. There are containers and boundaries for the music. Still, the execution of each piece is very emergent. There is a need for musical congruence amongst members of an ensemble, even as individuals express their own feelings; jazz artists work with others while developing their own identity. One's role and identity is dynamic, idiosyncratic yet synchronous, not always easily categorised. Musicians often swap instruments during a set.

It is extremely unlikely that most organizations can be completely improvised or as agile as this in how they pursue their goals. This may be possible in some technology start-ups but once they scale, start-ups often start to put in place hierarchies, teams with specific functions, and overarching governance structures, much of which may be warranted. Structure can be vital to business. The question is to what extent is it necessary?

Right now, millions of working people are playing the working equivalent of jazz already, as they navigate unknown territory in their careers. The future of work – however it looks for each of us – will require some artistry. There are people in academia and the consulting industry who talk about the future of work as if it were a science, building a following on this basis. But for leaders to ‘follow the science’, or in this case an external prescription for work redesign, without thinking about the issues holistically, then deciding how to respond, is an abrogation of accountability.

Jazz artists listen and respond to what is happening within themselves, to their fellow musicians, and, until March 2020, they tuned into their audience. Sensing and responding to signals in our own context will for now be more productive than following neatly packaged prophesies. The latter brings little comfort to the millions of people in several economic sectors currently feeling a growing sense of personal obsolescence.

How do you see ‘the future of work’ in your current context? What metaphors or other tools and methods might you apply to explore it in a way that helps you?

See also -

Barrett, F.J. (2012). Yes to the Mess: Surprising leadership lessons from jazz. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing.

Davis, M. & Trope, Q. (1989). Miles: The autobiography. 2005 Edition. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

My books:

Strive: Unlocking agility and unleashing talent in a digital world

Change Agility: Leadership, transformation and the pursuit of purpose


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