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Jazz Requires Systems Thinking – and Living at the Edge of Chaos

The other day I was talking to a friend who loves jazz, and it got me thinking.

One of the many things we touched on is how, unlike classical music, which is played pretty much as written on the page, jazz is by nature improvisational. This means that players weave an ever-changing tapestry around a single theme. It is a group discussion, where participants take turns talking. Like a group discussion, it works best when all of the participants listen to each other and respect each other’s turns.

I was reminded of how I recently saw a foursome comprised of McCoy Tyner, Ravi Coltrane, Esperanza Spalding, and Francisco Mela, and how I was struck by how smoothly they managed the transitions between full-on playing by the group and solos supported by the others. The solos were long and far-ranging, sometimes played with clear intention and sometimes with wild abandon. The four clearly listened to each other playing, they played to support the others when it was not their solo, and they watched for signals about the transitions.

Jazz musicians enjoy a great deal of freedom but, like freedom in other contexts, it works best when that freedom is exercised with awareness of and respect for the other members of the group and for the group itself.

And within that context, magic can happen.

It occurred to me as we were talking that jazz requires systems thinking. It requires awareness of the system, and awareness of how changes affect that system.

It requires agreement from the participants to support the system and each other.

When participants don’t support each other and the system and they focus only on themselves, indulging in tunnel vision, the result is noise. Chaos.

And yet – jazz also requires living at the edge of chaos.

How aware are you of the systems of which you are a part? Whether the system is a work group, an organization, a committee, your family, or a sports team, how well does that system work if the members don’t think beyond themselves? At the same time, how flexible are those systems? Do they support creativity, innovation, improvisation?

Bobby Fischer Teaches Systems Thinking

Yes, Systems Thinking. Disguised as chess.

One of the great challenges that faces small business people – and big business people – is tunnel vision. Ever wondered how it can be dangerous, and how you can overcome it? Consider the following…

I’m reading “Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess.” No, I’m not a brainiac. I’m just a person who has taken up chess again after more than 30 years and I’m tired of getting my pants beaten off. So my chess partner recommended this book, and after a few more humiliating defeats I went out and bought it.

I go to bed with Bobby Fischer. I ride the train with Bobby Fischer. And I have to say, this is a great book. It’s very simple, consisting of picture after picture of scenarios where you’re asked to identify whether or how one side could either checkmate the other or escape checkmate. You’re given the answer on the next page.

Like I said, very simple. My six year old niece could probably absorb this very quickly and then she could beat my pants off, too.

Well, I’ve been reading the book, and one of the key lessons that are being pounded into my head is to remember to Watch The Entire Board. Brilliant strategies fail miserably when you overlook the one thing in that corner over there and a Bishop zooms in and takes your Queen. Ouch!

I was struck by another important lesson the other day. Bobby and I were taking the train into the city, and I was getting a lot of the answers right – more than half, anyway. There was one scenario where I was pretty sure the answer was, “No, White can not checkmate” Black in this scenario. I turned the page and…. Doh! Wrong again! What? Surely not! Oh. Again I was looking at the board with tunnel vision, thinking about the possibilities only in certain ways, and I completely forgot that a Queen can move diagonally as well as forward and backward. Doh! That’s pretty basic.

And so I would have missed an opportunity to solve a situation quickly because I forgot about the capabilities of one of my pieces.

Which made me think: How often do we in organizations fail to utilize all of the talents of the people on our teams because we overlook their ability to move diagonally as well as up and down? How often do we limit ourselves by forgetting our own capabilities? How often do we miss opportunities because we don’t even see the opening in that corner? Or we see it, but think, “Oh, I can’t do that” or “I don’t know anyone who can help.”

If you’re feeling stuck or at a loss for ideas, I highly recommend that you spend $7.99 on “Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess” – and that you read it. Not so you can obliterate your opponent, or even avoid getting shellacked by your opponent. But it may change the way you look at situations and people – including yourself.

And you’ll look like a brainiac on the train.

March Madness, or How the Final Four Made Me Think About Systems Thinking

Disclaimer: I know very little about sports like basketball and baseball, and I am likely to show more about what I don’t know than what I do know. But here goes.

Recently I was watching my favorite news show (Charlie Rose, who is a big basketball fan), and the first topic was an analysis of the Final Four. Which teams had the best players, the best coaches, the best strategies, the best teamwork. And it occurred to me that basketball is really about Systems Thinking.

There are a lot of skills that are required in basketball, including the individual skills like shooting, dribbling, jumping, rebounding, and so on. There are a lot of interpersonal skills, whether offensive, like passing, or defensive, like guarding. But what really makes a team work is teamwork. Systems Thinking.

Thinking about things like, Where are the other players on my team at every given moment? Where are the players on the other team? Where are they likely to go next? Oh, and Where is the ball in relationship to all of those people? What are the possibilities if we can get the ball positioned over here instead of over there? What are the possibilities if the other team moves it this way rather than that way?

It isn’t just about “How do I get the ball?” or “What do I do once I’ve got the ball in order to get the shot?” It’s about “Where do I need to be whether I’ve got the ball or not?” and “What series of moves do we need to make together even it if means somebody else takes the shot?” and “How do we close the gap so the other team can’t take the shot?”

Systems Thinking.

Baseball is a little different, because there isn’t the constant opportunity for turning over from defense to offense and back again at any given moment. An entire team is on defense and one person on offense has the opportunity to hit the ball. The defensive players just have to be ready to catch the ball and get it to the right place to throw the runner out. (I know, I just ignored the crucial role of the pitcher in keeping the batter from hitting the ball in the first place.) This becomes increasingly complex, however, when the offensive team has runners on base. The pitcher has to anticipate who might try to steal, and the other defensive players have to be ready if the ball comes to them and choose the most important position to get the ball to in order to throw a runner out. It’s even harder when there is a series of actions that need to happen – in the right order – and this is why a triple play is so exciting.

Systems Thinking.

Do you find yourself standing in the outfield, terrified you’ll drop the fly-ball? Or even more terrified you’ll catch it and have to decide where to throw it next? Are you a player who only thinks about rushing the ball to the basket and taking the shot? Do you, as a manager, have a team that runs smoothly, passing the ball and being able to effectively assess where it needs to go next based on constantly changing scenarios? Or is your team so mired in process that they can’t respond quickly to changing conditions? Are they all individual contributors, some always taking the ball, some never even thinking about where the ball came from or where it goes once they pass it? Are they terrified if it comes to them?

A player who lacks individual competence and confidence will likely only think systemically in order to protect him or herself, whereas a player who has individual competence and confidence may not think about the rest of the system at all.

Systems Thinking. It requires a level of individual competence and confidence from each of the players, and it also requires thinking about the other parts of the system and the ability to think forward in time.

How good is your team at it?

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