Jazz Improvisation and Consulting

Those of us interested in getting involved in the school music program were summoned to the elementary school cafeteria to speak with the music teacher, Mr. Whiteside.

Mr. Whiteside looked at each of us carefully—almost as if he was going to purchase a horse at auction.  We had to show him our teeth and mouth so he could determine what instrument he deemed would be best for us.

When my turn came, he looked at me and said, “So, what do you want to play.”  I responded, “Trumpet, Mr. Whiteside.”  He looked carefully at me and declared, “With an embouchure like yours, I think clarinet would be best.”

I informed him in a rather matter-of-fact matter that my natural father had died before shortly before I was born, that he was known for being quite the trumpet player and I wanted to follow in his footsteps.  I told him that I had his horn and was ready to start.

Mr. Whiteside said, “Well, okay, but I don’t think you’ll ever amount to much of a trumpet player.”  It’s not good to tell me (or anyone for that matter) that I can’t achieve something for which I’ve set my intention.

I started playing trumpet when I was in the fourth grade.  When I entered junior high in the 6th grade, I wanted to be the first chair trumpet.  The guy who had held that seat for a couple of years was in his fourth year at the junior high school and didn’t expect some kid right out of elementary school to come in and take first chair—his chair. After all, I had only 2 years experience; he had 5.  I challenged him for first chair early in the school year and won on my first attempt.

The lesson: In music and in life, you can never become complacent; there is always someone who can come along and replace you.

Thanks to great teachers, inherited talent and hard work, I excelled at playing trumpet.  In junior high, I performed with high school groups. During high school, I performed with college groups and adult big band jazz groups made up of professionals who had toured with the likes of Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Buddy Rich and others.

When it comes to playing trumpet, I’ve pretty much done it all. I played lead and jazz trumpet in big band jazz groups, had my own small jazz groups to earn money going through undergraduate school, performed with pit orchestras for musicals, marching bands, symphonic bands and symphony orchestras, etc.  Mr. Whiteside and I even played a few gigs together.

Please don’t ask me about one horrible January when I had to play for one month in a Palo Alto, California, German beer house polka band each Friday and Saturday night wearing lederhosen and a silly felt hat.  Thankfully, there are no photos of this—I would have to buy them.

So, what does playing jazz have to do with consulting?

When you play a jazz tune, the tune itself provides the framework or essential structure within which you live for the duration of that tune.  A tune is played in a certain key, with specific chord progressions, etc.  The tune sets the context; it is the target that you have to stay within the entire time you are playing it.

As jazz musicians, we play the tune, several of us take improvisational solos within the context of the tune, and we conclude by replaying the original tune in its fully-recognizable form—bringing it home as we say.  The start and ending are completely predictable; it’s the middle that holds the mystery.

In many respects, consulting is a lot like playing jazz.  You know what the outcomes are that you are intending to produce.  What you don’t know is all the twists and turns that project will take in the middle as you seek to create the outcome(s).  But, just as in music, you know what the ending has to look like to successfully conclude the effort.

Here is a story about an improvisation I made with a client in mid-Michigan back during the year 2000.

Powell Fab is a capital equipment manufacturer located in St. Louis, Michigan, a town of about 4500 people.  The company employed 43 people at the time.  The culture in mid-Michigan could not have been more different from what I was used to in Silicon Valley.  The majority of the team members were not very keen about me being there to implement changes to the way this 35-year old company had done business.  Here’s a bit about the situation I faced:

  • I was helping the company implement a small ERP system that the president had invested in but had not been integrated with any of the core business processes.
  • There was an open stock room accessible by everyone.
  • The president rejected the idea of installing a cage around the stock room to secure the inventory.
  • The inventory record accuracy was deplorable.

The challenge I faced was getting the employees to:

  • Transact all inventory consumed or returned with the person who oversaw the stock room to properly account for inventory and improve inventory accuracy, and,
  • Ensure that the parts were properly charged to the jobs they were used on.

In my gut, I knew I could never sell them on the idea of “transacting inventory.”  Those words would hold no appeal.  I’d be laughed at.

So, given my music background, I challenged myself to define a powerful metaphor that would change the behavior forever and ensure that my client got what he wanted: compliance with the new processes.

As I drove by the Wal-Mart in a neighboring town, it dawned on me:  None of these people would ever think of going into the big open stockroom called Wal-Mart and bypassing the cash register going out the door.  That would be shoplifting.  Nobody wants to get caught shoplifting.

When it came time to train people about the new process, I told them that if they didn’t stop by the check-out stand as they left the stock room on their way to the shop floor, that action would be the equivalent of shoplifting.  The team connected with that immediately.  They got it and we had instant, enduring compliance.

When people would come out of the stock room with one or more parts in hand, others would immediately look at that person, point and ask, “Did you shoplift that?”  They held each other accountable.

I help clients implement appropriate, sustainable solutions to their business execution challenges.  Sometimes, you have to improvise to create enduring change.  It works in jazz and in business.

Dave Gardner, Gardner & Associates Consulting http://www.gardnerandassoc.com

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