Two episodes ago, we heard our friend and HBS colleague Joe Badaracco suggest that we give ourselves permission to step back and reflect, at least for a few minutes every day. Turn away from the computer screen, he said. Put your smart phone away. Simply look out the window at the clouds passing by. Let thoughts and feelings come to you as they may. Making it a regular practice will improve your decision-making and lead to a more satisfying life.
In the same spirit, our guest here, Frank Barrett, offers another way to open your mind and spark your creativity. It’s an encore appearance for Frank, the author of Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz.
Frank has worked in two very different worlds. He has taught for many years at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. His students are high-ranking officers, some of them admirals. Before doing that, he was a professional jazz pianist, on the road with the Tommy Dorsey band. Some of the most important learning he’s seen in both contexts has taken place inadvertently.
Frank tells the story of how a low-ranking sailor, who had just come on board a ship in the Pacific, dramatically grabbed the arm of the captain who was steering the ship in a thick fog. Touching a senior officer is a serious violation of Navy protocol. But this captain was on course to run the vessel aground. The captain learned something important about navigation, of course, but others on the bridge who witnessed the incident learned a lesson as well: sometimes you have to break the rules.
Frank also describes a different kind of learning for musicians, not when they’re performing or rehearsing, rather when they’re “jamming,” or just playing for the love of it with no fear of making mistakes. Sometimes they stumble, but so what. And when they get in a groove, they’ve created something new and exciting.
Think of your own experience. What have you seen a colleague do—not in a workshop or class—that taught you an important lesson? And how about conversations at the water cooler (or now, on Zoom)? When did someone offer a thought that was entirely off topic, yet proved to be a great idea?
If it seems like it’s been a while, just sharpen your senses a bit. Your best learning may arise outside the classroom.