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The Jazz Process: Tools and Processes Won't Save You

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Many organizations and 'business experts' place their greatest trust in the least important of all their assets. Powerful tools and appropriate methodologies may be crucial, but they're essentially worthless without the most important asset of all: people. Adrian Cho, author of The Jazz Process: Collaboration, Innovation, and Agility, points out why skilled people belong on the top of the list of your requirements and assets.
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People, Tools, and Processes

Any attempt to complete a complex or large-scale task requires two basic ingredients: skilled people, and a plan or method for doing the work. Some tasks require a third ingredient in the form of tools. Let's consider some examples:

  • Musicians in a band must be skilled at playing an instrument. Notated musical parts provide the method for their work, and musical instruments are their tools. There are a number of variations on this theme. Singers performing a capella have no need for external instruments, but instead employ their voices as tools. Musicians have no need for sheet music if they're performing from memory, but there is still a method to what they play. Even if they're freely improvising without reference to any specific melody, musicians begin with an initial intent to play without any predetermined key, tempo, or groove. As they proceed through their performance, a plan invariably begins to develop. A musician plays a rhythm or a melodic idea and another musician follows with a response—perhaps an imitation of the idea or something completely contrasting.
  • Basketball players must be skilled in handling the ball. A strategy of game plays act as a plan, while a basketball court, a basketball, and the right shoes and uniforms are the tools.
  • Soldiers must be skilled in the use of weapons and various military tactics. The process takes the form of battle plans and orders to execute the plans, while various types of military hardware serve as the tools for carrying out the work.
  • Software developers working together on a project must be skilled in designing, writing and testing software. They must follow a methodology or process and a project plan and employ a variety of software tools such as work management applications for tracking feature requests, defects, and other work efforts, programs for managing the configuration and history of source code and programs for compiling source code into executable code.

Sometimes a team fails in its attempt to reach a goal, or its performance is lackluster. Areas for improvement must be identified to avoid repeating failure or to improve future performances. Of the people, processes, and tools, usually the tools and processes receive the most attention. Tools tend to be highly commoditized, and it can be an easy decision to acquire different tools and direct a team to begin using them. Some tools, such as open source software tools, may be acquired with little or no outlay of funds. The true cost may not be readily apparent, however, as additional overhead from training, support, and maintenance may be required. Establishing a dependency on proprietary tools may prove expensive in the future if the vendor goes out of business or fails to maintain the tools to meet your requirements.

While not as highly commoditized as tools, processes are just as widely promoted as panaceas and performance enhancements. It used to be the case that vendors sold tools and consultants pushed services to facilitate the adoption of processes or to ensure compliance. Today, vendors tout tools that support particular methodologies; and, while consultants are still able to hawk training services, the wealth of knowledge on the Internet and in books has empowered organizations to educate themselves like never before.

People First

There's no doubt that the right tools and processes can make a big difference, but they can't save a team of underperformers from themselves. Much can be learned from the way in which projects and teams are managed in the upper echelons of the military and the arts. While these two fields seem poles apart, military and artistic teams frequently are required to deliver unique, high-quality performances under challenging conditions. Their leaders know that the key to staffing high-performance teams lies in employing the best people.

Colonel John Boyd was a military legend, known in the late 1950s as the finest fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force. He developed many important theories of execution that have led some to proclaim him as the greatest military strategist since Sun Tzu. His ideas are now frequently mentioned in business circles. Boyd understood the importance of military hardware as tools. His Energy-Maneuverability theory was highly influential on aircraft designers and initiated critical improvements in the design of the F-15 Eagle. He is often called the father of the highly successful F-16 Fighting Falcon and F/A-18 Hornet combat fighters. Boyd also understood the importance of following orders and employing various tactics in the sky. He was one of the first instructors at the Fighter Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, where he wrote the curriculum on dogfight tactics. Yet, despite his appreciation for tools and processes, Boyd was fond of proclaiming, "People, ideas, hardware—in that order," [1] extolling his belief in people as the most important variable in the equation of execution.

The U.S. military Special Operations Forces (SOF) may be the best-equipped fighting force in the world, but even with access to superior hardware, they realize that their most critical success factor is not technology, but people. This basic principle is encoded in four rules, known as the "SOF Truths." Gen. David Baratto, the first chief of operations of the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), defined the first of these truths as "Humans are more important than hardware." Linda Robinson, author of Masters of Chaos: The Secret History of the Special Forces, noted that the SOF "view the individual soldier and his brain as the key factor in the fight." [2] Gen. Wayne Downing described the philosophy in his foreword to Special Operations Forces: Roles and Missions in the Aftermath of the Cold War: [3]

As USSOCOM moves into the 21st century, we have formulated a strategic plan. We must continue to evolve to meet the changing security environment. The most important factor in this evolution is people. Indeed, the most important component of success in all our missions is the people we commit to them. We are continually seeking new and innovative ways to select the right people, to train them thoroughly, and to develop them professionally throughout their career. We know that the best equipment in the world without the right person operating it will not accomplish the mission. On the other hand, the right person will find a way to succeed with almost any equipment available.

Jazz musicians know the importance of talent versus practiced routines and expensive instruments and gear. An established group of mediocre musicians is no match for a team of great musicians—even if those virtuosos are working together for the first time. The mediocre musicians performing packaged material, and therefore relying largely on process, might be able to dazzle with a handful of well-rehearsed tunes, but give them something new or unexpected, and their weaknesses will be revealed.

Identify Individuality

Military and artistic leaders know that the key to people-based success lies in identifying and maximizing individuality, not suppressing or ignoring it. The individual outliers are most likely to provide creative solutions to tough problems or to help a team in developing a unique offering. In the past, businesses tended to seek abstract thinkers and people in "creative" disciplines such as marketing. In truth, all disciplines can benefit from strong individuals with creative talents. In his book A Whole New Mind, Daniel H. Pink explains how creative thinkers will dominate the future. [4] In the quest to reduce costs and leverage the global workplace, companies are moving more work to regions where intellectual labor is cheaper.

The message is clear: If you want to be in demand, you need to be right brain–enabled. In his book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?, business author Seth Godin proclaims that one of the ways to establish yourself as an indispensable resource in an organization is to deliver unique creativity. [5]

In jazz, individuality is highly prized not only for the personal creativity expressed in improvisation, but for the ability to play a critical role without backup. Even in large jazz ensembles such as a jazz orchestra, there is very little "doubling" or redundancy in parts. Every musician plays a unique and crucial role. This approach differs from that of a symphony orchestra, in which many musicians may play the same first violin or cello part. In small SOF teams, soldiers typically play unique roles, specializing in certain disciplines. SOF teams must be highly independent and self-reliant, as they often operate deep in enemy territory with limited or no support. In many cases, the government may deny their mission, or even their existence, if they are captured.

Stay Lean

In software development, most people are familiar with Fred Brooks' law, "Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later." This rule comes from Brooks' classic 1975 book, The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering. [6] While adding more people can indeed delay a project's delivery, the greater cost is the detrimental effect on a team or organization's agility. Col. John Boyd, whose theories were rooted in agility (in aerial combat as well as more generally), studied the tactics of the German Blitzkrieg. There is a myth that the use of Blitzkrieg by German forces during World War II was based on a strategy of repeated "shock and awe" tactics through the use of overwhelming force such as the armored divisions of the German Panzerwaffe. Military historian Julian Jackson has observed that newsreels portrayed the German army as a mechanized juggernaut—when, in fact, the German army had 3,350 tanks and 650,000 horses when it attacked the Russians in 1941. [7] The truth is that Blitzkrieg, which is German for "lightning war," was all about speed and mobility. It was the German general Hans von Seeckt who realized the importance of agility, writing "The mass cannot maneuver, therefore it cannot win." [8]

When focusing on people, it's easy to fall into the trap of "bulking up" in the pursuit of greater performance. SOF leaders know that this is a mistake; while there may be an advantage gained by greater numbers, it comes at the expense of organizational agility. Think of the second of the SOF Truths, "Quality is better than quantity," and the third, "Special Operations Forces cannot be mass-produced." When teams are staffed with quality over quantity in mind, they can be both skilled and lean. This means that they can achieve better results with more unique and creative solutions, and can also respond more readily to unforeseen problems.

Get Your Priorities Straight

In the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, the very first statement declares the value of "individuals and interactions over processes and tools." Yet this rule seems to be lost on many people, who obsess over such details as whether people should be allowed to sit in daily "stand-up meetings," the optimal sprint cycle length, or even whether a specific aspect of the team's process qualifies them as official users of a particular methodology. Such details may be worth time, but only if a team can first claim to have skilled and experienced individuals who are dedicated to accomplishing their team's goals. Furthermore, these people must have trust and respect for one another, commitment for their team and its projects, and passion for their work. They must be willing to take the initiative, performing and interacting with others in an open and transparent manner, being mindful not only of the value that their efforts bring to the team, but also of the cost and the impact of such efforts. They also must be willing to exchange ideas and take calculated risks.

If you really want to succeed, find the best people and manage them as a team of individuals, recognizing their personal strengths and weaknesses. When pursuing greater performance, seek and develop better people, instead of just adding more people. By all means, help your teams to be successful by equipping them with the right tools and processes, but don't kid yourself by thinking that those things alone will save weak teams from failure.


[1] Coram, Robert. Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War. Little, Brown and Company, 2002: 354.

[2] Robinson, Linda. Masters of Chaos: The Secret History of the Special Forces. PublicAffairs, 2004: 114.

[3] Downing, Wayne A., Richard H. Schultz, Robert L. Pfaltzgraff, and W. Bradley Stock. Special Operations Forces: Roles and Missions in the Aftermath of the Cold War. Diane Publishing Co., 1996: 3.

[4] Pink, Daniel. A Whole New Mind. Riverhead, 2005.

[5] Godin, Seth. Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? Portfolio Hardcover, 2010.

[6] Brooks, Frederick. The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering. Addison-Wesley, 1975.

[7] Jackson, Julian. The Fall of France: The Nazi Invasion of 1940. Oxford University Press, 2004: 218.

[8] Citino, Robert M. The Path to Blitzkrieg: Doctrine and Training in the German Army, 1920–1939. Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1999: 9.

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