I've been a music fan all my life.
Like many other teens, I picked up the guitar and played in various bands throughout high school. In college, I joined the jazz band. Our conductor was an accomplished sax player who was connected with the best jazz musicians of the era. We'd regularly have concerts featuring Miles Davis and Lionel Hampton.
Oh, and once, I even got to share the stage with Dizzy Gillespie. It was amazing to say the least.
Even as I began my professional career, my friends and I would often meet in a garage to jam, trading fours and swapping solos. To those unfamiliar with jazz, trading fours is a technique where musicians consistently alternate brief solos of a preset length--typically four bars (a bar being four beats). The leader calls the tune and everyone takes turn jumping in.
To do it right, you have to have some sort of predetermined structure, tempo, the overall melody, etc.--but the time set aside for you in trading fours is all yours.
If it sounds complicated, it's not. Even when you're playing with people you've never jammed with before, it always seems to come together. There's something almost magical about it. And that's always been my favorite thing about jazz--its structural spontaneity.
In the business world, as in music, there's room for improvisation and spontaneity within the corporate structures that already exist. The same principle can help your team members work better together, find new insights during brainstorming sessions, and promote a culture of active listening and active participation.
Here's why trading fours will help your team become better collaborators:
Like jazz, the business world thrives on a combination of structure and improvisation.
By their very nature, brainstorming sessions are freeform--just like much of jazz.
But that freedom of space can get out of hand pretty quickly. People might talk way too long, cut each other off, or take things in a completely unproductive direction. At the end of an hour-long meeting, you've got nothing to show for it but a messy whiteboard and a frustrated team.
In a jam session, structure prevents things from getting out of hand.
The reason trading fours works is because there's a system in place. Songs tend to be composed of 12 or 16 bars and then repeat on an A and B theme. Many jazz songs do four bars of theme A, four bars of theme B, and then back to four bars of theme A. When you trade fours, everyone takes a four-bar theme.
And when you're trading fours, you don't just go straight into improvising. Typically, you go through the melody or 'head' a few times first. And once you start the improvisation, each person has a set time to play their solo, and then it's someone else's turn. You can't cut someone off, even if they hit a wrong note.
You can apply these same parameters to business meetings.
Instead of just sitting around a table and saying "okay, go," you can have a specific agenda, use a timer, and/or designate a moderator. The leader can start with a few slides or a short video to introduce the topic before opening up the brainstorming portion. This streamlines the process so things don't get out of hand. And don't cut someone off if they happen to hit a wrong 'note' from time to time. That's just uncool.
Once you have a structure in place, opportunities for innovative collaboration open up.
Trading fours is all about active listening.
The key to unlocking the magic of a good jam session is active listening.
If you're not aware of what the musician before you did, you won't know where to build from. Everyone will play something completely different, and that isn't making music--it's just blowing notes.
If you read any biographies of great business leaders, all of them talk about active listening.
When team members tune in and listen to one another, it catalyzes a crescendo of insight. Each person makes the previous person's idea stronger. The ideas get better and better until you collectively reach an answer.
This principle also applies to your relationship with customers. Behind every customer call is a person looking for guidance. With trading fours in mind, you can use active listening to make each person feel heard, understood, and served. This means asking follow-up questions to effectively target their pain points and find an innovative solution.
When you're not just listening, but listening with the intention of doing something about it, you foster the space to create something remarkable.
It can create opportunities for major breakthroughs.
You aren't trading fours if each person is just building off what the other person said and not adding anything new--that's an echo chamber.
Succeeding in any business likewise requires constant innovation. You have a set of best practices and protocols, but you have room to experiment and improvise within them.
Take AirBnB, for example. It wasn't the first home sharing service out there, but the startup improvised and innovated within the existing sphere by taking out the friction of trust, accepting payments, and handling damages--all with an easy, user-friendly digital platform.
In jazz and in life, the best breakthroughs happen when you add an original twist to an existing structure.
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