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Is managing a business like conducting an orchestra?

Managing a business. Making music. Creating harmony. Bringing people together. Tuning instruments. Learning to find unity amidst both consonance and, of course, dissonance. This intriguing cultural comparison is the basis of a book by Frank J. Barrett, “Yes to the Mess: Developing a Jazz Mindset for Leading in a Complex World” (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012), which is of great use to men and women in the world of enterprise. It has been published in Italy by the Bocconi University publishing house Egea, with the title Disordine armonico (translation: harmonic mess) and featuring an enjoyable foreword by Severino Salvemini. The original (English) title is even more explicit and alludes to two of Barrett’s great passions, as he both teaches management at Harvard and plays jazz piano, and the book flows naturally through the many levels that the best culture of enterprise can express. Organisation and improvisation. Teamwork and the creative flair of the soloist. Repeating a common rhythm only to escape from that rhythm to explore new landscapes. In short, research and innovation, backed by great skill and a command of the instruments at hand.

These are recurring themes on this blog, and faithful readers may remember the bold, ironic comparisons between the music of Eric Satie and the production of a tyre. Signs of a constant processing of ideas towards more creative relationships between running a business and creating a culture, and a quest for meaning amidst the many twists and turns in an “industrial metamorphosis” that calls for new and better tools for understanding how to change paradigms in production, product and use. This changing of the times in response to the Great Crisis that we are still suffering through is also evoking daring ideas concerning forms of organisation and relationships between the leading players within an organisation. Music, and in this case jazz, can be of great help.

Proof of this can be found in the discussion surrounding Barrett’s book that has been raised within Bocconi by Salvemini, as well as by Alfredo Scotti, the chairman of Aon; Francesco Micheli, a man of finance, chairman of MiTo, and highly cultured musically; Filippo Del Corno, musicologist and councilman responsible for culture for the City of Milan; and by jazz musicians Paolo Fresu, Cesare Picco, Bobo Ferra and Enrico Intra.  Various voices. Original points of view. A stimulating debate both for those who run businesses and for those who make music.

Why? In the words of Salvemini, “The new models of business management need to follow the example of a variety of contexts that are less rigid than traditional management.” This is the lesson we can learn from Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and, more recently, the great Keith Jarrett, who all say that even the best soloist needs the backup of a steady rhythm, the efforts of an orchestra or other group (a trio, a quartet, etc.) to accompany, lead in, cue and otherwise support the voice of the soloist’s piano or trumpet. “To support the leader,” says Salvemini, “as it should also be in a company made up of a cohesive, tight-knit group of people.”