Saying Yes to the Mess – The Improvisational Mindset of Frank J. Barrett

In the midst of change (large or small), our natural instinct is often to try to control the chaos and the mess.

What if instead of fighting it, we said yes to this mess?

This question and more is one posed by author and professor Frank Barrett in his new book, “Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz.”

His approach is one we might recognize, as the author of “Appreciative Inquiry – a Positive Approach to Building Cooperative Capacity.

We can safely say he is a fan of the tenants of Improvisation and Positive Psychology and their application to leadership and management.

This Improvisational mindset is one we’ve discussed:

  1. Face the mess
  2. Learn to take action with incomplete information – you can’t always stop and problem solve
  3. Build affirmative competence by learning how to respond in the moment
  4. Solo and Support – Learn to play both roles, let others shine, while following your instincts.

Learn more from Barrett in this insightful interview here!

Leadership as Jazz: Becoming an Improvisational Leader

Sometimes articles pass through your news feed that, when you read them, make you nod your head so consistently you fear you’ll give yourself a headache.

If Miles Davis Taught your Company to Improvise

“Nurturing spontaneity, creativity, experimentation, and dynamic synchronization is no longer an optional approach to leadership. It’s the only approach. The current velocity of change demands nothing less. It demands paying attention to the mental models, the cultural beliefs and values, the practices and structures that support improvisation.”

How do we as individuals, leaders and organizations prepare to Improvise? It can be done. In fact, here are 5 tips.

It’s why Improvisers rehearse, warm-up, and spend a lot of time building trust. We learn the structure first, and then find the freedom within the safety we’ve created.

1.  Approach leadership tasks as experiments – Be open to what emerges by suspending a defensive attitude. Improvisers are skilled at withholding judgement – with both our own ideas and the ideas of others.

“An experimental approach favors testing and learning as you go. It means presenting ideas, then observing how others pick up and build on them. This is leadership with a mind-set of discovery”

Being more open and receptive to the ideas of those around you also helps to break up a routine or automatic habits that may be weighing you, and your team down.

2. Expand the vocabulary of yes to overcome the glamour of no – Saying “no” is a habit for many of us, for many different reasons. To use what’s in the room, and accept all offers is to heighten and find the positive in what is already available to us. In improvisation, wishing things were different is truly a useless game.

“Too often, in established cultures, cynicism is a way to attain status, and cynical responses to ideas seem justified because they are more “realistic.” It is much easier to critique than to build. Yet equating cynicism with realism shrinks the imagination.”

3. Everyone gets a chance to solo – Learn the give and take. And, at the same time, if you’re passionate about an idea, do you have the freedom to go solo and experiment beyond your comfort zone?

4. Encourage serious play. Too much control inhibits flow.

5. Cultivate provocative competence: create expansive promises as occasions for stretching out into unfamiliar territory. – Competence versus a learning and growth mindset? Is there a happy medium?

“The need of leadership in a distributed age has never been greater. Instead of imposing competence–a virtual impossibility–leaders provoke it by designing the conditions that nurture strategic improvisation and continuous learning, and thus help their organizations break out of competency traps. Great leaders like Miles Davis are able to see people’s potential, disrupt their habits, and demand that they pay attention in new ways.”

Innovation as Jazz

“Jazz is a conversation that is comfortable with uncertainty and new knowledge,” said John Kao at the ASTD conference keynote session last week.

Jazz, he says, is a metaphor for innovation – where you need a combination of improvisation and discipline.

“If you play just to what’s on the sheet of music in front of you, you’re limiting your options. Jazz musicians have a different mission – to go new ways with the music and create new notes and moments.”

The freedom found in the limitations creates the magic.

Develop the basic skills needed to play the notes – build your capacity first, set the ground rules, set the target – but realize that the real innovation happens in the space between that structure and the unknown.


How to foster creativity in the workplace – it may be easier than you think

Companies all over the world are wondering where they can order an unlimited supply of creativity. What is the secret sauce and how much does it cost?

To unleash the true creative power of your workforce, start by examining your work environment – says author Jonah Lehrer in his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. 

For one, “scientists have determined that people in a relaxed state and a good mood are far more likely to develop innovative or creative thoughts”.  Yes, this seems obvious to most, but it may cause us to stop and think about “office perks” that are actually creativity boosters, if used correctly.

The neurological implications of relaxation and happiness are what matters here.

We know two things:

Happiness and laughter release dopamine which contributes to stress reduction.

Stress reduction and an overall relaxed state triggers responses in our brain that coincide with inhibition – and the ability to have more insights.

In thinking about training and wellness programs, Jonah Lehrer spent some time researching Improvisers at Second City in Chicago.

When we improvise, we turn off a part of our brain that deals with inhibitions, which as we know can contribute to a substantial increase in creative insights.

Lehrer spent time learning how Improvisers prepare for spontaneous creativity on stage. The key is to “create without worry” – to relax the brain enough to free up room for creativity.

Improvisers do this by participating in warm ups that help them to:

1. Let themselves go

2. Get rid of their censor

3. Fry their brain

4. Relax

5. Get  “out of their heads”

Consider if there are constraints in your company that keep creativity at bay. What can you do build a culture where people can “create without worry”?