Book summary: The Jazz Process (IV)

This is the fourth (and last) part of my summary of “The Jazz Process” by Adrian Cho. See also parts one, two and three in this blog. This part will cover the rest of “Executing” and “Innovating”.

Executing: stay healthy

It’s often necessary to build instability to enable high performance (e.g. talented people with troubled personalities). The trick is managing instability so it doesn’t turn into unrecoverable or damaging situations.

Poor health has an effect on people’s impression and can create a positive feedback loop. If someone was hurting you or another person, you would tell them to stop immediately. That’s the reaction people inside a team should have. To stop a positive loop, do everything you can to stop the actions causing the loop; to stop hunting, increase the speed of reaction or increase friction by slowing down and relaxing.

On measuring health: compromised team stability/integrity or poor performance as a result of mistakes or failures indicates problems. It should be possible to create a useful measure of general health for any activity or system. E.g.: number of unresolved defects, number of  incomplete features, performance test results, etc. The problem with those reports is that they can be misused or misinterpreted, esp. if reduced to a traffic light-style of health. It’s important to take a strategic view and ensure that problems, not symptoms, are addressed.

Innovating: exchange ideas

Joy Paul Guilford, American psychologist, defined two types of thinking: convergent (associated to math/science: find a single solution to a problem) and divergent (arts, generating many possible solutions to a problem). The latter, Guilford associated to four skills: fluency (quickly produce large number of solutions), flexibility (simultaneously consider many solutions to the same problem), originality (produce solutions others haven’t thought of), elaboration (adding to/developing existing solutions).

Diversity can improve the success of innovation, either by producing more initial good ideas or by rejecting the poor ones at the end. Collaboration improves the success of innovation by leveraging free exchange of ideas. This is not always easy to achieve: it’s not a free-for-all or selecting what’s the best idea, it’s creating a common pool by listening, respecting, suspending and voicing (see William Isaacs and p.244).

Innovation is enabled by risk-taking, collaboration, diversity and exchange of ideas. Now, how do you create a culture of innovation? First, people must feel there’s room for it (not have all time committed to things that absolutely must be done). People often feel they don’t have the time or freedom (Google’s 20% time and such). They also must feel there’s room for mistakes.

I'm so glad you made this mistake. Because I want to run a company where we are moving too quickly and doing too much, not being too cautious and doing too little. If we don't have any of these mistakes, we're just not taking enough risk. > > Larry Page > >

Also important is to allow/encourage people to form groups for those things and work in whatever they want: top-heavy approaches can stifle innovation, especially if execs aren’t tuned in or don’t have the time and become a bottleneck.

Innovating: take measured risks

Basic options for risk management: avoid, transfer, share, reduce/mitigate, accept, ignore, exploit. Perils of not enough diversity: one study found that across the entire universe of patients, the single largest indicator of treatment wasn’t symptoms or background, but the doctor’s background.

Specific risks of the jazz process principles:

  • Use enough rules. Removing the wrong rules. Some rules guard against mistakes: in that case, compensate with skills or experience.

  • Employ top talent. Excessive individualism. Also, depending on highly talented people can be a problem if they leave. Another problem is overconfidence (top talent doesn’t guarantee victory). Finally, not using them wisely (ie. using them for routine tasks).

  • Putting the team first. Suffocating individualism, and amplifying bad behaviour/thinking (groupthink and polarisation).

  • Build trust and respect. Trust must be measured and not be blind (the need is proportional to the risk of the trust being misplaced). Always exercise caution and don’t be afraid to question things.

  • Leading on demand. Leadership should be granted to people who understand (and will keep) team stability. Also, define protocols for delegating, transferring and initiating leadership. Another risk is that no one will lead: have a default leader.

  • Act transparently. Early designs might put people off if they’re too early, and they might not give it a second chance. Transparency can be damaging, annoying or boring if it’s about the wrong things.

  • Make contributions count. The only real risk is being too reserved and contributing less.

  • Reduce friction. It may restrict performance (e.g. you could minimise social friction by repressing all dissenting opinions). It may be tempting to remove things causing friction, but it might be a bad idea: those things might have benefits, so it might be possible to reduce friction without eliminating them.

  • Stay healthy. The only risk is accepting too much outside help, or too quickly.

  • Exchange ideas. Focus might be lost, innovation attempts should be directed. When they are directed, the primary concern is introducing instability.

Final comments

“The Jazz Process” is a very good book, recommended to anyone interested in how groups of people can achieve high performance in any activity. It also has many jazz references, which make the book even more interesting if you’re into jazz. If I had to say something bad about the book, I’d say that it could be easier to skim if you just want to get information from it (it’s written to be read from beginning to end, it seems). Of course, if you want to read it the “traditional way” it’s probably an advantage, because it’s fun reading about jazz and other fields and it makes the reading flow better.