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Collaboration Lessons From A Jazz Band

In seventh grade, I played piano in my junior high Jazz Band.  It was six or seven budding musicians – a sax, a couple horns, a clarinet, a bass, a piano and a drum set – and the band leader was our teacher. Our sound probably fell short of New Orleans quality jazz, but looking back, we were learning a very important leadership lesson. We were learning how to collaborate.

A good jazz band is amazing to watch.  Each artist displaying their talent on their instrument. The band leader keeping the rhythm of the group on track. A periodic solo that brings out the melody – then returns to the full sound of the band.  An improvisation that proves interesting, even surprising to the audience.  A bit of a live experiment between talented musicians who have rehearsed so well they can improvise in public. A unique collaboration in every performance.

In jazz music, we understand that collaboration is essential to the outcome. So why is it, that we have mixed feelings about collaboration at work?  Why is it that we see collaboration as inconvenient and inefficient at work? Why is it that we find working with our colleagues troublesome or difficult, instead of essential to superior performance?

Let’s take a few leadership lessons from the jazz band – and make collaboration the path to a standing ovation.

  1. What song are we going to play together?

Popeyes franchisee leaders remind me of this lesson often.  They say it this way: “could we agree on the problem, before we start debating the right solution?”  When we come together as a team, we are often so determined to get to the action plan – we often skip the first step of agreeing on the problem.  Let me give an example. When Popeyes launches a new product, each franchisee must order the ingredients to be ready for the launch.  The corporate office suggests a recommended order, but the franchisee makes the final decision on how much to order. The result is that a franchisee may order too much or too little of the new product – resulting in either wasted food, or guest disappointment when the restaurant runs out of product.  So if we come together to discuss this matter – where do we start?  We must start with a common view of the problem. Is the corporate recommended order quantity wrong? Is the franchisee too conservative in their purchases? Is the test market data reliable?  Or is the problem a complex interaction between all these variables?  Agreeing on the problem to be solved is the first step of a good collaboration.

  1. What instrument am I playing in the band?

We each play a role to play – do we know what it is? We are part of a team because they need our experience, talent, and ideas. But some of us are pianists, some play the clarinet, and some play the drums. Too often, we launch into the collaboration without any discussion of our unique roles – how will each person contribute value to the collaboration? We start solving before we clarify roles. This happens often in franchisor- franchisee collaborations.  Franchisees typically have more experience and expertise in operations and restaurant profitability than corporate leaders.  Corporate leaders typically have more experience in innovation and strategy than franchisees. Why not acknowledge openly our different roles in the collaboration – and listen carefully to one another when we are speaking in our area of strength. By doing so, we demonstrate respect for one another and we are more likely to have a complete understanding of the problem and potential solutions. Clarity of roles enables a sound collaboration process.

  1. Did I practice my part before coming to rehearsal?

There is nothing more frustrating in collaboration, than team members coming unprepared to the meeting. Lack of personal accountability holds back the team’s performance.  To avoid this outcome, it is important to agree on who is responsible for advancing the work before the next meeting.  Define what is expected and the due date.  At the next meeting, review each person’s deliverables and let the full team see who is doing their part – and helping the team get to a superior outcome. Every summer at Popeyes, we have a planning process.  It begins with a 5 year plan – and culminates with a detailed annual plan for the upcoming year.  It is a highly collaborative process – and we manage this process with a detailed calendar of meetings and due dates.  Marketing must submit a sales forecast.  Operations must estimate new openings. Supply chain must bring forward cost estimates. Human resources must recommend salary changes. Finance collects all the inputs and models the financial performance of the company. Every department of the company has a role and responsibility in the process – and if anyone misses their deadlines, the whole team experiences a delay or a poor quality plan. Personal accountability is critical to good collaboration.

  1. Am I playing in sync with the band leader?

One of the highest dysfunctions in collaboration – is when team members go off and do their own thing – and get out of sync with the team and the leader. They become a soloist that forgets they are playing in a jazz band. Perhaps they mean well – and just got carried away.  Or perhaps they have a wrong motive – to gain personal credit or benefit. Either way the team suffers from the solo. I recently observed this on a Popeyes project team. One functional expert on the team had created a detailed work plan for a portion of the project, but they did not include the rest of the team in the process.  While well-intended, the result set the team back – because the “solution” developed by one function was not understood or agreed to by the other team members.  The team had to stop and regroup – to share, to listen, to debate the proposed work plan.  The team recovered, but there was lingering sentiment that the collaboration could have been better.  Even though each team member has important expertise, the solution is best developed in concert with the full team.  Staying in sync with other team members and the leader, results in the best collaborative outcomes.

If you are frustrated with a collaborative process at work – review these lessons from the band – and enhance your likelihood of superior performance results.

First Published On July 12, 2016

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