Say Yes to the Mess

What if your organisation was like a jazz band? What would it look like? How would work be organised? What would it feel like? How would decisions be made? How would errors be viewed? Who would be included in the band?

When I was at the Summer Reflections workshop at Bore Place in Kent last week, one item on the superbly composed agenda was to watch a DVD with Frank Barrett talking about creativity and improvisation in jazz and what implications this has for organizational learning. I had the benefit of participating in an AI course featuring Frank in Copenhagen in 2005, organised by Resonans. He then told us about how he combines his experience of being a professional jazz musician with his job at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. He has written an excellent article in Organizational Science about it, where he emphasise the hope that jazz brings.
”Finally, jazz improvisation can be seen as a hopeful activity. It models individual actors as protean agents capable of transforming the direction and flow of events. In that sense, jazz holds an appreciative view of human potential: it represent the belief in the human capacity to think freshly, to generate novel solutions, to create something new and interesting, reminding us of John Dewey’s contention that we are all natural learners.” (p. 620)
Hope was also one of the underlying themes for the Summer Reflections workshop, at least that was what I felt. We were thirteen AI consultants sharing experiences, reflecting upon our past and making plans for the future. Anne Radford, who organised the workshop with Jane Magruder Watkins, also introduced us to another metaphor: The Jewel Net of Indra. This wonderful story about how to view the world and its connectivity was a great point of departure for our discussion concerning how to create an AI network in the UK. Anne brought us this metaphor from the AI Consulting network, who uses it in its charter:

The doctrine of The Jewel Net of Indra is an ancient view of the universe from Hua-Yen Buddhism. It teaches that the cosmos is like an infinite net of glittering jewels, all-different and each located at the connecting points in the net. In each one we can see the images of all the others reflected. Each image contains an image of all the other jewels; and also the image of the images of the images, and so ad infinitum. The myriad reflections within each glistening jewel are the essence of the jewel itself, without which it does not exist. Every jewel is a Centre of the universe. Organizing in this image is not a machine. It is more like a hologram. Each part is the whole. Indra's Net is a web of relationships that sparkle, nourish, and amplify. It is an ancient image of oneness and diversity.
One of Frank’s messages, based on his jazz metaphor and also experience from an increasingly complex world, was “say yes to the mess”. For a person like me who likes order, is good at organising and makes a living by helping others create order, this sometimes is a hard lesson to learn. However, jazz is not totally without order. There is a basic structure with chords, there are some rules although they are sometimes not made explicit. The secret lies in providing just enough structure, making room for improvisation but also creating wonderful music. I would like to be better at creating jazz. Maybe I should start playing the bass clarinet again…

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