Original Content

Teamwork and Jazz

"Jazz Players" by  Pedro Ribeiro Simões / CC BY 2.0
“Jazz Players” by Pedro Ribeiro Simões / CC BY 2.0

Jazz is a pretty unique genre that demands a lot from musicians; a skilled jazz artist must not only be adept at their instrument, they must be highly skilled improvisors and communicators as well. Where other styles of music may only require that a musician remember how to play a piece and run through it the same way every time, good jazz artists can play the same song in an infinite number of ways. Furthermore, they must also be able to collaborate with other jazz artists who can also play the same song an infinite number of ways. This makes jazz an inherently human art form because a listener never knows what to expect; when a jazz group performs, the outcome is the unpredictable result of each musician’s personal taste and style merging into a group effort.

In a lot of ways, team projects are kind of like a jazz performance: you have several people with different skill sets coming together to work toward a common goal, and the outcome is dependent on the people involved. While there are obvious limits to how far we can stretch this metaphor, I think we can learn a lot about being an effective team member from some of the traits all jazz greats have in common.


Trust your bandmates

Many hands make light work. Sometimes we may feel like we could get more done if we simply work alone, but this puts an artificial limit on how effective you can be. Learn to get over the impulse to do it all yourself and trust in your colleagues enough to delegate some of your work. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, and great teams know how to balance these differences. Even though Miles Davis was a great trumpeter, his greatest performances were always collaborations with other greats, or at least with a backing band. Great musicians inspire each other to do their best and try to remove all creative hindrances. This hyper-creative environment just isn’t possible to replicate in isolation.

When we got a new metadata librarian here at FSU, I had been making my own MODS records for a few months and was uncomfortable with giving up control over this aspect of my workflow. I’ve since learned that this is his specialty and not mine, and I trust in his expertise. As a result, our projects now have better metadata, I have more time to work on other things that I do have expertise in, and I have learned a lot more about metadata than I ever could have working alone.


Learn to play backup

Everyone wants to play the solo. It’s the fun part, and all the attention is on you. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to shine, but if everyone solos at the same time it defeats the purpose and devolves into noise. Good jazz musicians may be known for their solos, but the greats know how to play in a way that supports others when it’s their turn to solo, too. They are more concerned with the sound of the band as a whole instead of selfishly focusing on their own sound.

A big part of trusting your “bandmates” is staying out of their way when it’s their turn to “solo”. Can you imagine trying play music on stage with someone who doesn’t even play your instrument yelling instructions at you about how you should be playing? That would be pretty distracting, but the office equivalent happens all the time. Micromanaging teammates can kill project morale quickly without even being aware of it. Sometimes projects have bottlenecks where no one can move forward until a specific thing gets done, and this is just a fact of life. If you are waiting for a team member to get something done so you can start on your part of the project, politely let them know that you are available if they need help or advice, and only provide help and advice if they ask. If they don’t need help, then politely stay out of their way.


Communication is key

Jazz musicians aren’t mind readers, but you might think they were after a great performance. It’s unbelievable how some bands can improvise in the midst of such complex patterns without getting lost. This is because improvisation requires a great deal of communication. Musicians communicate to each other using a variety of cues, either musical (one might drop in volume to signal the end of a solo), physical (one might step towards the center of the group to signal the start of a solo and then step away to signal the end), or visual (one might nod, wink or shift their foot as a signal to the rest of the group). These cue systems are all specific to the context of people performing on stage, but we can imagine a different set of cues for a team project that work just as well.

Like jazz musicians, team projects can be incredibly complex and a successful project requires all team members to be aware of their context. It is essential that everyone knows exactly where a project is at on a timeline so that they can act accordingly, and this information can be expressed in a variety of ways. Email is a popular choice, as it leaves a written record of who said what that can be consulted later. Email is great at communicating small, specific bits of information, but it is always helpful to have a “30,000 foot view” of the project as well so the team can see the big picture. Fellow LITA blogger Leo Stezano wrote a post about different ways to keep track of a project’s high-level progress, covering the use of software, spreadsheets, and the classic “post-it notes on a whiteboard” approach. I prefer to use Trello since it combines the simplicity of post-it notes on a wall with the flexibility of software, but there are a lot of options. The best option is whatever works for your team.

Equally important to finding good ways to communicate and sticking with them is uncovering harmful methods of communication and stopping them. Don’t send emails about a project to the rest of your team outside of working hours, it sends the wrong message about work-life balance. Try to eliminate unnecessary meetings and replace them with emails if you can. Emails are asynchronous and team members can respond when it is convenient for them, but meetings pollute our schedules and are productivity kryptonite. Finally, don’t drop into someone’s office unannounced (I do this all the time). Send an email or schedule a short meeting instead. Random office drop-ins derail the victim’s train of thought and sends the signal that whatever they were working on isn’t as important as you are. Can you imagine Miles Davis tapping John Coltrane on the shoulder during a solo to ask what song they should play next? I didn’t think so. Being considerate with your communication is an underrated skill that may be the secret sauce that makes your project run more smoothly.