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Social Intrapreneurism and All That Jazz

Social Intrapreneurism and All That Jazz

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[Social intrapreneurs and jazz musicians share a] sense of aliveness... a strong sense of curiosity... a history of hard work...astute listening and observational powers, an ability to communicate with others... [and] a passion for ‘quality'.
The power of great jazz musicians to connect with others and convey musical "stories" is the centrepiece of a new book on business innovators addressing global social problems.

Social Intrapreneurism and All That Jazz (Greenleaf Publishing, March 2014) by Prof. David Grayson, Melody McLaren and Prof. Heiko Spitzeck uses the language and lessons of jazz improvisation to bring to life a rich array of stories, insights and practical tips collected from interview research with "social intrapreneurs"—corporate innovators who are developing new products, services and business models that address a range of social and environmental problems around the world whilst creating commercial value for their companies.

The book also features 20 jazz photos by Melody McLaren which were used to illustrate key points in the book and are online here.

The following is an edited excerpt from the Introduction chapter.

What does jazz have to do with social intrapreneurism?

Our references to jazz music, both in the title of this book and at various points in the text, have emerged from discoveries we made during the course of our research that paralleled the experiences of two amateur jazz pianists in our extended working community: Melody McLaren, a Doughty Centre research associate co-authoring this book, and Lionel Bodin, a senior manager at Accenture Development Partnerships, supporters of the League of Intrapreneurs.

As McLaren describes it:

"During the period of our Doughty Centre team's research on social intrapreneurs I was, by coincidence, also spending a lot of time with great jazz musicians. Whether I was listening to their performances in concerts or jam sessions, being tutored by them in jazz workshops or just conversing with them, I was struck by their aliveness, their connectedness with other musicians and the power of their musical 'storytelling.' When I was in a room with these people, I didn't want to leave.

I had similar experiences when I was interviewing social intrapreneurs. Their accounts of their lives and the development of their projects conveyed a strong sense of connectedness, not only with what was happening in their businesses, but also with issues and events in the wider world including poverty, social exclusion and environmental degradation, along with their innovative practical solutions for tackling them. Whether they were describing project successes or failures or simply describing their day-to-day experiences, I had the sense that these people were very much alive. I could have listened to them for hours without losing interest in what they had to say.

That sense of aliveness was the initial common thread between these two groups. Later on it became apparent that they shared other qualities—a strong sense of curiosity that emboldened them to take risks, a history of hard work to learn and perfect their 'craft,' astute listening and observational powers, an ability to communicate with others in a compelling way and, above all, a passion for 'quality.'"

During many discussions between the authors, Melody would often explain a point she was making with reference to her jazz experiences. To communicate these ideas to the research team in a more concise way, she began using terms such as 'woodshedding' (solitary practice to improve technical skills), 'comping' (accompanying, or providing support for, others), 'soloing' (putting your own ideas forward), 'being a sideman' (contributing to a group in which you are not the official leader but a supporting team member) and 'paying your dues' (contributing to your immediate team/community, thereby earning the trust of others). While some of these jazz colloquialisms, which are numerous, are no longer in current use by jazz musicians, they nevertheless resonated with our team, other colleagues and social intrapreneurs with whom we shared our ideas.

When we began to analyse in great depth the interviews with individual social intrapreneurs and later on with their colleagues who helped create the 'enabling environment' for social intrapreneurism, parallels between the worlds of jazz musicians and social intrapreneurs became increasingly explicit. While some of the terms we use in this book (e.g. godparent) have, to our knowledge, no equivalents in the jazz lexicon, the resonances between the worlds of jazz and social intrapreneurism were sufficiently strong that we decided to introduce jazz metaphors to describe many of the ideas that emerged from our research.

1. Social intrapreneurism is not a solo act. Our interviews underscored the point that successful social intrapreneurism is a group (vs. individual) activity. Intrapreneurism and entrepreneurism are distinctly different in this respect. Nothing of significance can be achieved by a single person working alone inside a company, however heroic their efforts. There is simply too much to do.

While there is a Western business stereotype that celebrates the heroic efforts of the intrepid business entrepreneur, a successful social intrapreneur, although perhaps originating an intrapreneurial project idea of their own, must learn to work in, and then help to create, 'ensembles' of like-minded individuals with complementary skills and ideas, as happens with jazz musicians who are 'jamming' or performing together, in order to succeed. If the number of individuals involved is sufficiently large (i.e. the intrapreneurial project requires assembling a 'big band' with a diverse range of talents), the proportion of orchestral 'scoring' required relative to the amount of free improvisation may need to increase to grow a corporate project to a large scale. And, as with jazz ensembles, the mere presence of other players is not enough. We found that the quality of the 'conversation'— the collaborative relationships—between social intrapreneurs and their colleagues both inside and outside their organisation (often partners in external not-for-profit organisations) was instrumental in determining whether an idea could get off the ground and secure support in a company.

2. Woodshedding' hones skills for playing in corporate 'bands'. Many people, particularly non-musicians, believe that jazz musicians simply sit down and start producing music spontaneously without serious preparation. Nothing could be further from the truth. All jazz musicians must do their share of 'woodshedding'—developing a wide spectrum of technical skills. Jazz musicians often describe their practice as 'woodshedding' inasmuch as a musician would frequently go out to a woodshed to hone their skills in private. 'I'd had years of training as a classical pianist,' says our team member Melody McLaren, 'but I had to develop a completely new set of skills for jazz—particularly listening and developing a more accurate sense of rhythm and pulse as well as getting my ear used to completely new harmonic forms—before I could join in a jazz conversation properly. It's taken me years and I'm still having to work at it.'

Stephen Keogh, a professional jazz drummer and educator who directs the Global Music Foundation says:

Jazz is a language ... one has to learn a vocabulary and grammar. Then there can be a conversation ... there are principles that must be learned, lived, memorised, and an instrument that must be mastered, plus attention to sound, pulse, intonation, repertoire, etc. This is all training and it never stops.

Arnie Somogyi, a professional bassist, bandleader and lecturer at Birmingham Conservatoire, adds: A successful improvising musician should develop the technique required to communicate their musical 'language.' Bill Evans, for example, has a very different piano technique to Monk's, which was seen by some as primitive. But they make very different sounds on the piano. Monk's technique was integral to both his piano playing and composing.

3. Great intrapreneurs know how to 'jam' well with others. For jazz musicians, solitary practice is not sufficient. Jazz musicians have to develop their listening and improvisational skills by playing in groups with others—an activity known as 'jamming'—where they can try out unfamiliar harmonic or rhythmic lines with their fellow musicians in the relative safety of an informal setting.

Arnie Somogyi, an experienced composer, notes that truly novel ideas may be generated before being aired in a jam session, 'either by individuals or in rehearsals with a band where ideas are open to interpretation and "workshopping."' However, in preparation for 'jamming,' musicians have to have done their share of 'woodshedding,' as described above. Playing in a 'jam' requires a deep knowledge of jazz standards, along with a general knowledge of musical 'form'—the rhythmic and harmonic structure of jazz compositions—and, most importantly, the capacity to listen with focused attention to the music being played by other musicians in the ensemble and, in response, to communicate relevant ideas in appropriate ways. Over time, a musician who is seen to be proficient at exchanging and transforming musical ideas will gain the trust of other musicians. They will be invited to more jam sessions or even be asked to perform in public with, and perhaps join, an ensemble.

Social intrapreneurs, like great jazz musicians, excel at exchanging and developing new ideas in informal exchanges with colleagues. Like Nobel laureate Linus Pauling, they recognise that 'The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.'

4. 'Paying your dues' creates a licence to operate—and break rules. To make the transition from idea generation to project leadership, social intrapreneurs have to be trusted by their peers and by managers who control the investment of corporate resources, time and energy in projects. It helps if social intrapreneurs have, in the language of jazz, 'paid their dues'—invested time working and proving their abilities in an organisation, thereby earning their colleagues' trust—before asking for permission and help to develop a new project.

One of the giants of the jazz world, [[Charlie Parker}} (one of the founders of the 'bebop' movement) stepped up to play in a jam session at the Reno Club in Kansas City when he was only 16. He veered from the harmonic conventions of the day so wildly that Jo Jones, the drummer, threw a cymbal at him and drove him off the stage. Parker's immortal words were reputedly, 'I'll be back.' The Guardian critic John Fordham regarded this as such an important moment in jazz history that he selected it as one of the '50 key events in the history of jazz music' (Fordham 2011) and it has also been immortalised in Clint Eastwood's biographical film Bird (1988).

Only when Parker went to New York and began jamming at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem did he meet such like-minded young swing dissidents as drummer Kenny Clarke, former church pianist Thelonious Monk, Benny Goodman's star guitarist Charlie Christian and the harmonically advanced trumpeter John Birks 'Dizzy' Gillespie. In the small hours at Minton's, bebop, or just bop, was forged (Fordham 2011).

5. Intrapreneurs 'comp' for others as well as 'soloing.' The jazz musicians in our extended team have experienced 'that thing in jazz where you have someone who does five choruses, and then everyone is lost! Usually a front-line instrumentalist.' Skilled jazz musicians are great at both 'comping' (accompanying other band members) and 'soloing' (playing their own interpretation of a jazz tune). Listening, as well as speaking clearly, are both essential skills for a great jazz 'conversation.'

Similarly, successful social intrapreneurs tend to be great communicators, unlike out-of-control 'soloists' who 'preach' about sustainability without hearing the needs of the business. Social intrapreneurs 'listen' to what others in the business say they need, 'accompanying' them as needed. Only then do they 'speak' about their ideas—always in ways that make sense to others, particularly senior decision- makers who control needed resources. They practise and refine their listening/ comping and speaking/soloing skills over time.

In this vein, Arnie Somogyi cites the work of jazz trumpeter, bandleader and composer Miles Davis, considered one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century:

Miles was great at putting 'teams' together. He employed the musicians who could move the music into new directions without it sounding contrived. All of Miles' bands were innovative but came out of a tradition with reference points to what had been done previously.

When everyone in the corporate 'band' is adept at 'soloing' and 'comping'— playing with ideas already put forward by other band members and helping new ones to emerge—the collaborative whole becomes more than the sum of its parts.

6. Intrapreneurs excel at being 'sidemen' as well as 'bandleaders.' In jazz, a 'sideman' is anyone in a band who is not the bandleader. 'Sidemen are generally required to be adaptable to many different styles of music, and so able to fit smoothly into the group in which they are currently playing.'

Similarly, successful social intrapreneurism depends not just on a single individual but on a team—sometimes a small ensemble, sometimes a more highly-orchestrated 'big band'—all of whom have done their 'woodshedding,' excel in their own disciplines as well as being adept at collaborating with others as 'sidemen' or 'bandleaders,' to bring ideas to fruition in new products or services.

Generally, we have found that jazz metaphors have helped us to re-frame our observations of social intrapreneurism, and business activities more generally, in new and useful ways. Our Accenture colleague Lionel Bodin, a management consultant who has also led jazz bands of his own, has pointed out, for example, that while the management literature is full of sporting metaphors that focus on competitiveness, winning and the importance of individual leaders, jazz metaphors emphasise the value of cooperation and provide a more nuanced view of leadership (as in the example of sidemen who demonstrate excellence, not only in their individual instrumental disciplines but also in their capacity to listen and contribute to a greater musical 'whole').


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