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Reflection – Rachel Elkington

by on November 28, 2007

Sense and Simplicity: Count Basie v Benny Goodman

For class on Monday, we had a fabulous presentation by MSIM’s own Jill Woelfer. Jill presented the paper she did as an independent study for the change management class. She applied the Jazz Metaphor to a situation she had experienced in her professional career at Phillips. Her application of the metaphor was productive, especially in that it described why the Phillips divisions in Germany and the one in Seattle had major difficulty working together: they spoke different organizational languages. The Seattle division operated on the complex adaptive model while the plant in Germany used a more organizationally rigid approach. These two perspectives were not interoperable when they tried to collaborate.
Jill explained to us how the Count Basie Band and the Benny Goodman Band spoke different organizational languages in much the same contrasting fashion. The Basie band operated on a complex adaptive model, while the Goodman band was more hierarchical and rigid. Both made fantastic and commercially successful music, but the process they used was very different. Before playing music from each band for us, Jill asked us to each individually think about how we anticipated each band would sound based on what she had told us about their organizational languages. I thought that the Basie band would have a bass instrument that the rest of the band would follow. I thought this because my Dad is a musician – he has played bass occasionally in the Magnolia band here in Seattle. He told me that in an improvisational band, there is one instrument that keeps the structure intact no matter what, and as a musician, if you are ever lost, you should listen for the bass. So, I listened for the bass and didn’t hear it. How, I thought, do the musicians find the common line in all that improvisation? I posed the question to Jill and she said that since the Basie band played in loud dance halls, the low bass could be hard to hear, so it was changed to a higher-toned drum to keep the band together. So, there was one instrument that was serving as the orientation for all the musicians, but wasn’t the one I thought.
This has interesting applications for change management, I think. Complex adaptive behavior is a great way for individuals and groups within organizations to deal with change. However, it does require some basic orientation to a common perspective. That is essential in getting quickly changing action to cohere properly. Someone has to be – if not leading the change – coordinating it in such a way that everyone can get a basic read on where they are and what the next step is. I think this roughly maps to John Kotter’s idea about communicating the vision. All the musicians had the same vision – the same musical phrase – and constant orientation by way of the drums, in case they got lost. Basie’s band did the communication of the vision in a very free-form way. Goodman’s band also communicated the vision, beforehand in the form of sheet music that was to be played exactly as written.
One of the main take-aways from Jill’s paper that she left with us is that both organizational languages or styles work, but it doesn’t work to mix them much. The vision can be communicated through subtle coordination or by authority-driven assignments, but trying both at the same time is very difficult. The organizational dynamics that must be present for each are mutually exclusive. That is important for us to remember as managers in the future – one of the most common scenarios in change management is two companies coming together (either by merger, acquisition, or by collaboration on a contracted project) to work together. Their styles can cause a huge amount of conflict and discord. Jill’s paper gave us a metaphorical framework through which to think about that discord.

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