Book summary: The Jazz Process (I)

This is the first part of my summary of the book “The Jazz Process” by Adrian Cho (official website, Goodreads page), about high-performance teams. EDIT: see parts two, three and four. It has examples and stories from jazz, basketball, the military, and others. The book is divided into five sections: introduction, working, collaborating, executing and innovating. Each section except the introduction has a series of “rules” that comprise the Jazz process.

This first part of the summary will cover the introduction and the first half of “Working”. Also, as this book has so many interesting quotes, I’m going to use some of them in this summary. They’re not part of the summary strictly speaking, so you can just skip them if you want.


I used to think that running an organisation was equivalent to conducting a symphony orchestra. But I don't think that's quite it; it's more like jazz. There is more improvisation. Someone once wrote that the sound of surprise is jazz, and if there's one thing that we must try to get used to in this world, it's surprise and the unexpected. In this world of chaos, there's no other way of doing things. Truly, we are living in a world where the only thing that's constant is change. > > Warren Bennis > >
The model of management that we have right now is the opera. The conductor of the opera has a very large number of different groups that he has to pull together. The soloists, the chorus, the ballet, the orchestra, all have to come together—but they have a common score. What we are increasingly talking about today are diversified groups that have to write the score while they perform. What you need now is a good jazz group. > > Peter Drucker > >

People miss two things about jazz improvisation: it’s based on years of training and experience (it’s not just “making things up”) and the greater goal is to create something unique (innovate). This quest for innovation is always balanced against their responsibilities, like supporting the other musicians. The skill of improvisation should be as highly prized in business as in jazz. More than ever, responding to the unexpected is important.

[Talking about basketball and jazz] the team's performance emerges from a chain reaction of individual acts. So much of what makes jazz great is the unique chemistry among individual players [...] > > R. Keith Sawyer > >
And if you want to have a really good jazz group, how large can it be? [...] You can use seven to nine people—maximum. If you get more, you have to score. > > Peter Drucker > >

Big groups make it hard to express yourself without appearing obviously non-conforming.

Working: use just enough rules

To maximise performance, you need just enough rules to afford autonomy, while avoiding chaos. Autonomy is the independence and freedom that enables people to act individually. It facilitates agility as it limits constraints. Individual expression is essential to improvisation and innovation. The goal when defining a process is allowing the team to be agile and innovative, while addressing the success factors of the team’s business.

Rarely a single set of rules apply equally to every situation and for every person. The exact set of rules or the importance of each one will vary over time (example in p.25). Thus, process improvement is critical to long-term success.

If there’s a strict rule,  people must have a very good reason to break it. But more important is understanding the implications of doing it: breaking the rule might not be a problem, but not knowing that you’re doing it or not being able to explain the need to do it, probably is. If a rule is consistently broken, maybe it should be a convention instead. If on top of that, breaking it doesn’t cause problems, maybe it should be removed.

Working: employ top talent

Experienced and skilled people can adapt to almost any situation, even in new teams. Established but fundamentally weak teams can be good in a given setting, but in front of the unexpected the weaknesses will be revealed.

Duke Ellington wrote his pieces for concrete players, not for “Trumpet 1” and “Trumpet 2”. Same with Shakespeare. They considered the unique strengths of the performers and wrote parts featuring their greatest talents. The individualism of the musicians, channelled through Duke Ellington is what give greatness and uniqueness to the composition.

Individuality is about self-expression and creativity, but also about playing a unique part without backup. The team is as strong as the weakest link.

One of the most important skills of highly effective people is their ability to allocate a good portion of their personal bandwidth to collaboration. Inventors rarely make discoveries in isolation. The more proficient we are at our routine tasks, the more aware we are of our surroundings.

When building a team, quality over quantity. In lean teams, the problem is that there’s no redundancy, each member is a more critical resource.

Working: put the team first

In jazz, the musicians are accountable not only to the leader of the group, but to every person in the group and to the ensemble as a whole > > Adrian Cho > >

When a team has many strong individuals, each with distinctly specialised skills and experience, cross-fertilisation among individuals can unify the team. Special forces team members usually have a core speciality, but everyone in the team knows something about everyone else’s expertise. It’s the job of each specialist to conduct the training. This approach can both generate respect between team members and build redundancy that increases the robustness of the team.

The ability of every individual in the team to put the team first is often tested in a time of crisis (examples in p.50). The ability to absorb mistakes is one of the most important capabilities of an effective team: it succeeds and takes credit together, or fails and takes the blame together. No group ever becomes a team until it can hold itself accountable as a team. Another way to demonstrate cohesiveness is through willingness to tackle a challenge or traverse a risky path.

One potential problem of putting the team first is groupthink: abandoning individual creativity and critical thinking. The team may thus fail to innovate. This may be exacerbated by the tendency to self-select like-minded people and get rid of those who don’t think like the team. Ensure that people always feel empowered to speak out.

It's the group sound that's important, even when you're playing a solo. You not only have to know your own instrument, you must know the others and how to back them up at all times. That's jazz. > > Oscar Peterson > >

Focusing on the team helps people recognise the value of everyone’s contributions. It’s important that leaders and stars that get the praise acknowledge the contributions of colleagues. Acknowledging everyday heroes builds trust and empowers every member of the team to achieve higher levels of performance.

When a high-performance team exists within larger teams or organisations that are less productive, there’s the danger of tension. Putting the team first is not just for the immediate team, but for the larger organisation.

Nobody in the SAS [Special Air Service] looks down on any other unit of the army as being less important; no regiment in the entire army is so well aware of the essential attributes of what are often dismissed contemptuously as "administrative" troops. The SAS man, the fighting soldier par excellence, suffers from no delusions about his own importance. He knows his role is vital but he knows that a cipher clerk, or a cartographer, or even the skill of the opposing general's cook, may in fact be more important to the success of the campaign than quite a number of daring soldiers. > > Philip Warner > >