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Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz Hardcover – August 7, 2012

4.9 out of 5 stars 64 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“In his new book Yes To The Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz, Frank J. Barrett makes an engaging and convincing case that the leadership style that it takes to make great jazz can also make business more innovative and successful… if you are a jazz fan, you'll really enjoy getting an insider's view of how the music you love is created.” — USA Today

“This is a fascinating read.” — Smooth Jazz News

“The book is breezy and fun, and offers vivid real-life stories from Barrett’s musical career and observations about some jazz greats, all juxtaposed with anecdotes from the business world.” — Forbes

“Jazz has always been a good metaphor for the art of leadership. In Yes to the Mess, Frank Barrett knocks it out of the park.” — LeadershipNow

“Jazz has always been an art form that blends structure with learning as you go. So it is no wonder that Yes to the Mess has a playful tone— dare I say there’s a ton of fun in this business book? If you are problem solving for your organization or team and have an imaginative personality, you’ll feel like a cool cat from reading this book.” — Small Business Trends (smallbiztrends.com)

“a short but powerful book about how to be more focused at work, how to understand chaos as opportunity, and how to be better prepared to approach it.” — 800 CEO READ

ADVANCE PRAISE for Yes to the Mess:

Karl E. Weick, Rensis Likert Distinguished University Professor, Ross School of Business; coauthor, Managing the Unexpected: Assuring High Performance in an Age of Complexity
“Frank Barrett’s remarkable fusion of jazz improvisation and organizational innovation promises to reshape how we think about creative work. Innovations are improvised into existence and here, for the first time, is a backstage look at how that happens.”

Ellis Marsalis Jr., Professor Emeritus and Jazz Studies program founder, University of New Orleans —
“Barrett’s insightful book shows how business can learn from the ‘risky business’ of jazz. Yes to the Mess is a great treatise on improvisation and on the courage to persist irrespective of a predictable outcome.”

Amy C. Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management, Harvard Business School; author, Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy
“Jazz provides an illuminating metaphor for managing in the knowledge era. Frank Barrett writes beautifully about leadership, learning, and innovation and pulls together great stories from a range of industry settings—from jazz performance to automotive manufacturing. Yes to the Mess is a great read, which I recommend enthusiastically."

Edgar H. Schein, Professor Emeritus, MIT Sloan School of Management —
Yes to the Mess provides a fascinating view into the world and mind-set of jazz musicians and will stimulate you to think differently about leadership and organization. Read this book.”

Douglas R. Conant, former President and CEO, Campbell Soup Company; coauthor, TouchPoints: Creating Powerful Leadership Connections in the Smallest of Moments
“This book describes a powerful and necessary paradigm shift to advance the craft of leadership in the twenty-first century. Barrett gives every aspiring leader a new model for proactively dealing with the chaos and disruption that has come to characterize the world of work in our time.”

Roger H. Brown, President, Berklee College of Music; cofounder, Bright Horizons —
“Finally! A book that applies the tools of an improvising jazz musician to great leadership. The modern world can no longer afford the orchestral model of management—lots of people playing the same part and a leader who stands apart from it all. The new world is premised on intense communication, lightning-speed decision making, risk taking, and a degree of perfected competence that allows spontaneous and brilliant composing—namely jazz. Yes to the Mess gets it right.”

Richard Boyatzis, Distinguished University Professor, Case Western Reserve University; coauthor, Primal Leadership and Resonant Leadership
“With the velvety tones of Wes Montgomery and the wail of Miles Davis, professional jazz musician and management scholar Frank Barrett plays a set to enchant us. Pour a glass of wine, sit back, and listen to this engaging story of how to help teams and organizations innovate instead of replicate.”

Ken Peplowski, award-winning jazz clarinetist and saxophonist —
“I’ve known Frank Barrett for over thirty years, and we’ve often discussed the strange confluence of learned experience and pure intuition that exists in jazz improvisation. Frank gives us an insight into that world and how its lessons can be applied to almost any walk of life—truly fascinating!”

About the Author

Frank J. Barrett is Professor of Management and Global Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He holds a PhD in Organizational Behavior from Case Western Reserve University and is an accomplished jazz musician. In addition to leading his own trios and quartets, Barrett has traveled extensively with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. His research interests and expertise include organizational change, social constructionism, organizational innovation, improvisation, and appreciative inquiry.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard Business Review Press (August 7, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1422161102
  • ISBN-13: 978-1422161104
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 6.5 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (64 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #274,802 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
At first blush, this appears to simply be a clever take on a conventional management or leadership text. There are plenty of books that tell business fables through the lenses of other fields, like sports or military history. It's reasonable to expect this to be yet another such book, particularly when it's published by such a reputable business house. But there's a whole more here.
Though couched in the familiar language of business books, Barrett lays out a fundamentally different paradigm for management and leadership. Miles Davis isn't just a new take on an old story, but the path to a radically different model. This isn't leadership from the front (like a general or a much-ballyhooed CEO) or servant leadership (popularized by Jim Collins and others). This is a new organizational role and behavior. Because this is a business book and because it is published by a conventional business house, it takes some reading between the lines. But it's well worth it.
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Last Summer, Harvard Business Review Press published Frank Barrett's Yes to the Mess(1). I have been working with Frank's ideas from organizational improvisation for the past seven years in our jazzinbusiness workshops and I am lucky and happy to have him as one of the mentor's on my doctoral dissertation committee. This review provides a guidepost to the book and provides a synthesis and a challenge to Frank going forward.

Frank's book builds on the seven principles he originally described in his 1998 paper on creativity and improvisation in jazz and organization(2), but takes them to the realities of today's world and brings them even closer to a business practitioner audience than the very accessible scholarly article did.

In chapter one, 'All that Jazz' Frank introduces improvisation as an art for business and shows with numerous examples that in contrast to the neat and planned stories, most leadership is messy, in the moment, requires creativity, courage and on the spot decision making. Only when we look back do we see if things are actually working. In jazzinbusiness, we use Frank's principle of retrospective sensemaking to help our participants make sense of the core of improvisation and how it can be applied in the moment.

In chapter two: 'Yes to the Mess' Frank discusses what it takes to embrace the uncertainty and the imperfection that are core to improvisation. Contrary to the aesthetics of perfection that go with planning and performing a composition, leadership is a messy business. Embracing an aesthetic of imperfection and a willingness to act into the mess are conducive to the creation of options, possibilities, and surprises that inspire innovation, novelty and change.
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By B. Day on September 7, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Before I went into software consulting, I was a jazz musician as well. Reading this book has been an eye-opener because the stuff that I would do in a trio or quartet setting is completely different from what I'd do if I were leading or coaching a team. I've got a lot of 'control freak' tendencies that simply don't show up in my playing. This book has given me to stuff to "shed" as far as what I need to do with teams in the future.

Great book. Interesting anecdotes, too.
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The author makes a good case for a loose management style as opposed to a top-down, hierarchical "command and control" way of doing things. I am reminded of the Marine Corps saying that Marines don't plan, they improvise, which is a bit of an exaggeration, and also ironic in that most people think of the military chain of command as the perfect antithesis of what the author recommends. But there are lots of ironies here, including a management professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey simulataneously being an accomplished jazz pianist who can jam with the best of them.

The author's approach certainly works better when dealing with small groups of individuals who must create (and recreate) on a consistent basis, and is applicable to knowledge workers in particular. The parallels to jazz are clearly drawn. The only issue I have is whether the model is more universally applicable, extending to much larger groups and areas where creativity is not so important. As someone once remarked, "creativity is not necessarily a good thing when wiring three-phase."

Otherwise, a very good read, and one I would recommend to managers, especially those in the software development domain who embrace the agile philosophy. I've done my share of managing, and I'm an aspiring tenor saxophonist, so I can support the notion that the author knows what he is talking about.
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I began working with Jazz in Organizational Development in the late 90's. Frank Barrett's work was invaluable. His writing is clear, economical and very rhythmic – he's also a hell of a pianist. I've played with him. His authenticity as a jazz musician is what makes this book so powerfully effective.
Every manager, C suite exec and business school professor must read this. To put it in Nancy Adler's words, Frank's book is the antidote to the "dehydrated language" of managerial studies.

Thank you Frank. More Please!!!

Michael Gold
Jazz Impact
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