Jazz as business metaphor

As a fan of avant garde jazz and an MBA who reads a lot of professional develpment stuff, I’m often frustrated by articles that use jazz as a metaphor or analogy to impart some advice about the importance of improvisation in business. However, I liked several things in Michael Blanding’s recent review of Michael Wheeler’s book on negotiation: The Art of Negotiation.

Blanding opens the review with a quote from Eisenhower that I really like:

There’s a saying in the military: “Plans go out the window at the first contact with the enemy.” Even General Dwight Eisenhower—who oversaw the most ambitious military invasion in modern history—said, “Plans are worthless.” But he added an important caveat: “Planning is everything.”

The review covers many aspects of negotiation, from the aforementioned planning/preparedness, to dealing with uncertainty, to listening, to strategy, to mindfulness and more. Quotes from great negotiators are laid side by side with quotes from recognized artists/improvisers. Near the end of the review, Blanding says:

Being centered emotionally is essential to negotiation success. Wheeler says it requires being comfortable with seemingly contradictory feelings—for example, being simultaneously calm and alert—and approaching negotiation as an ongoing process of discovery about the situation, your counterpart, and perhaps even yourself.

And as long as I’m discussing this, I might as well provide a link to my friend Scott’s article a few years ago, talking about what jazz soloists know about creative collaboration.

 

The Green Prince

This past weekend I saw several films at the FullFrame Documentary Film Festival. The ones that I liked most were The Case of The Three Sided Dream, about Rahsaan Roland Kirk (who I’ve been a fan of for years) and The Chaperone, an animated short that was surprisingly funny.

The film that has stuck with me the most, though, was The Green Prince. It centers on the relationship between the son of one of the leaders of Hamas and his handler in the Shin Bet (Israeli secret service). I’ve seen several documentaries on Israel/Palestine, but this one really stood out.

Rather than focusing on the conflict and its history, or one particular series of events, or cause/effect, this was really a story about the relationship between two men who know that they are on different sides but have found some common ground. They’re both articulate and conflicted, and I was never quite sure where the story was going to go.

The film was really remarkable for its lack of moralizing. So many documentaries, particularly ones that deal with politics and war, keep hammering home a directorial viewpoint. The Green Prince seemed to keep trying to do the opposite – to avoid black and white depictions of right and wrong and instead to emphasize the shades of gray in between. It touched on issues of culture, personal identity, choice, responsibility, and more, but always with a very light touch.

I really appreciated the way this story was told, and since the film did well at Sundance, I’m guessing it will have decent distribution. I’d definitely recommend keeping an eye out for it.

The Power of Habit – afterword and appendix

I found the afterword and appendix to actually contain some of the most powerful, straightforward stuff in Duhigg’s book (though you may need to read the entire thing for this to be the case).

The afterword includes follow-up stories with some readers who had written in with thier experience using Duhigg’s guidance to lose weight, quit smoking, stop procrastination and improve teaching. One of the things that struck me the most in this chapter was the discussion of setbacks, and the importance of developing a plan for dealing with them. Duhigg says that “if you plan for failure, and then plan for recovery – you’re more likely to snap back faster.”

The Appendix provides a practical guide to using all the ideas in the book. Duhigg is careful to warn that even with a common habit, such as overeating, the cues, cravings, rewards, etc may be different for each person – which is why he created the book as a framework rather than a prescription. His framework is:

1) Identify the routine – the habit loop of cue, routine and reward seems simple enough, but figuring out the cue can be more difficult than you might expect. The routine itself, however, should be simple to identify.

2) Experiment with rewards – the reason for experimenting with rewards is actually to help to figure out what craving the routine is satisfying. As you test each reward, look for patterns by jotting down the first three things that come to mind once you have completed your routine with the new reward. Then, set an alarm for 15 minutes and when it goes off ask whether you still have the craving for the routine. The rationale behind these steps is described in the book, and reviewing the notes on how you felt immediately after the replacement rewards as well as 15 minutes later will help identify exactly what craving this routine has been satisfying.

3) Isolate the cue – Duhigg shares scientific evidence that almost all habitual cues fall into one of five categories: location, time, emotional state, other people or immediately preceding action. So when he felt a craving for the routine he wanted to change, he wrote down answers to the questions: Where are you? What time is it? What’s your emotional state? Who else is around? What action preceded the urge?

4) Have a plan – Once the cue is identified and you already know the routine you want to change and a suitable replacement reward, all the elements are in place to create a better routine. The plan is crucial for dealing with setbacks, and gettting back on track.

 

Are we responsible for our habits?

The final chapter of Duhigg’s The Power of Habit discusses neurology and personal responsibility. Once again, he uses two powerful examples to make his point.

One example is of a man who killed his wife while experiencing sleep terrors (a slightly less conscious version of sleepwalking). Scientific and circumstantial evidence showed that this man had no intent to kill his wife, and that he was simply following a deeply ingrained habit – fight or flight – and was left with a deep sense of guilt. Not only was he found not guilty, the judge attempted to console him.

The next example was of a woman who developed a habit of compulsive gambling, declared bankruptcy and moved to another state to avoid casinos, but was drawn back in by predatory marketing and grief over the loss of her parents – which ended up in the loss of her $1 million inheritance.

A study of the neurology of problem gamblers showed that their brains showed the same reward reaction to near wins as they did to wins, whereas other gamblers correctly interpreted near wins as losses. This showed up in the brain stem and basal ganglia, the same areas as sleep terrors. Further, people who have taken medication that affects these areas have been found not to be responsible for sudden binges of gambling, eating, shopping, etc. So should all problem gamblers who exhibit this deterioration be excused for their actions?

Duhigg says no:

We can choose our habits, once we know how. Everything we know about habits, from neurologists studying amnesiacs and organizational experts remaking companies, is that any if them can be changed, if you understand how they function.

Further:

However, to modify a habit, you must decide to change it. You must consciously accept the hard work of identifying the cues and rewards that drive the habits’ routines, and find alternatives. You must know you have control and be self-conscious enough to use it…

The habits of societies – how movements happen

Chapter 8 of the Duhigg book, focusing on the Montgomery bus boycotts and the founding and growth of Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, is the beginning of the third portion of the book – the habits of societies.

Early in the chapter, Duhigg introduces the concept of weak ties – the people who are not close friends but instead casual acquaintances or friends-of-friends. As I’ve heard before, weak ties can be more important than close ties in finding a job. But it also turns out that they are crucial to building a movement. In discussing Rosa Parks, Duhigg says:

A movement starts because of social habits of friendship and the strong ties between close acquaintances. It grows because of the habits of a community, and the weak ties that hold neighborhoods and clans together. And it endures because the movement’s leaders give participants new habits that create a fresh sense of identity and a feeling of ownership

.

Duhigg talks about how Parks was an extraordinary individual, with ties that crossed many social boundaries and was admired throughout the community. But that is just a catalyst. It is when “the strong ties of friendship and the weak ties of peer pressure merge” that momentum is gained.

As always, Duhigg takes what seems like a simple 1+1 recipe and then says there its a secret ingredient – in this case it is this:

For an idea to grow betting a community, it must become self-propelling. And the surest way to achieve that is to give people new habits that help then figure out where to go on their own.

This was the secret to the growth of both the bus boycotts and then the larger civil rights movement as well as Saddleback church, posits Duhigg.

Movements don’t emerge because everyone  suddenly decides  to face the same direction at once. They rely on social patterns that begin as the habits of friendship, grow through the habits of communities, and are sustained by new habits that change participants’ sense of self.

When companies predict (and manipulate) habits

Chapter 7 in Duhigg’s book begins by talking about Target, and how they infamously used their analytics to identify pregnant women before they had told their families. The seemingly incongruous example paired this time is the Outkast song Hey Ya, which software had predicted would be a huge hit.

In both cases, the initial result was failure. The Outkast song was too different from what listeners were used to, and the Target targeting through coupons was too creepy.

Duhigg shares the secret recipe for creating habits from an old U.S. government study when they were trying to get Americans to eat more offal: people will try something new when it is surrounded by what is familiar.

So Hey Ya was played in between mega hits, and Target started putting the baby coupons next to unrelated common consumer items, and both succeeded.

The power of a crisis to instigate habit change

Chapter 6 of Duhigg’s book talks about the role crisis can play in instigating habit change. But first he explains the research of Nelson and Winter, who wrote about institutional habits as truces between warring factions within organizations. Duhigg says “There are no organizations without institutional habits. There are only places where they are deliberately designed, and places where they are created without forethought, so they often grow from rivalries or fear.”

Duhigg uses the examples of rampant medical errors and a major transit safety incident, which underscores his point: “Sometimes one priority – or one department or one person or one goal – needs to overshadow everything else, though it might be unpopular or threaten the balance of power that keeps trains running on time.”

Crisis brings this into sharp focus. Crisis brings a turmoil in which habits are more malleable and the sense that something must be done. It is easier to institute change and form new habits and routines in a crisis our its immediate aftermath.

While Duhigg emphasizes this for organizational leaders, it seems relevant to the individual as well. When we feel we are in crisis, out is easy to say “I can’t take on new changes during this time of chaos.” But maybe that’s actually the best time to make a change because we see the need and are open to it.