New York City, 1949: Nine musicians are listening to Charlie Parker’s Yardbird Suite on the record player. They sit inside a small mid-town basement apartment, floating in a haze of reefer, just three blocks away from the clubs that represent the epicenter of the jazz scene. Every day they spend hours discussing their craft, comparing styles and experimenting with their instruments. The group is Miles Davis and his all-star jazz Nonet, and this apartment will become the incubator for one of the most radical transformations in music. They’re creating a new style of jazz and one of the best albums of all time: “Birth of Cool.”
Industry-transforming revolutions like this one are rare. Miles Davis did it once with “Birth of Cool,” and then twice more over the next two decades. In contrast, most businesses come up short in their efforts to create new innovative ideas or tackle bold, large-scale endeavors. Whether launching a new major product line, entering new markets or reforming their operational capabilities, most companies fail or settle for modest results.
So how did Miles Davis do it? He was exceptionally talented and a musical prodigy, but individual talent alone wasn’t enough. Music is a team sport, and Miles assembled, led and managed his musical ensembles in a revolutionary way: He built a team of virtuosos.
Management professors Andy Boynton and Bill Fischer have spent years observing virtuoso teams, and they found they are fundamentally different from the garden-variety groups that most organizations form to pursue more modest goals. Virtuoso teams consist of elite experts and convene for especially ambitious projects. Miles Davis and his collaborators are a textbook case study of this concept in action, Boynton and Fischer wrote in “Virtuoso Teams: Lessons from Teams that Changed the World.”
Assemble the Stars
Miles Davis had an ear for finding the best talent. He skillfully hand-picked the best jazz musicians for his ensemble, position by position. He worked with both established musicians and up-and-comers like John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock. Davis insisted on working with the “best talent obtainable” rather than the “best talent available,” even if he had to adjust playing times and locations to accommodate the musicians’ schedules.
Most organizations staff their projects with people who are available, not necessarily the best. As a result, teams often focus more on execution than on breakthrough ideas. Davis realized that thinking can be more important than doing. Instead of assembling a variety of individuals and scaling their talents to the lowest common denominator, he hired his band members for their skills and their willingness to dive into big challenges.
Build the Group Ego
Elite talent often comes with ego. Most team leaders attempt to suppress the individual contributor in favor of the team mindset. Davis recruited musicians based on their ability to bring new ideas to the music and viewed the ensemble as a collaborative effort. Rather than operate under the tyranny of “we,” Davis gave his players individual freedom. He gave the arrangers of his band equal billing with his name when they performed at clubs. Though featured solos were traditionally reserved for the ensemble lead, he allowed his performers to improvise solos. Not only did this celebrate their talent, it changed the way jazz music was played forever.
Make Work a Contact Sport
In most corporate environments, project leaders emphasize team harmony and choose people based on how well they work together and avoid confrontation. Unfortunately, conflict-avoiding politeness can be a barrier to fast, effective conversation and can lead to mediocre results. Davis wasted no time on politeness, and team communication was direct and goal-focused. He felt that talent was too scarce and too precious to waste time on being cordial. In studio recordings for the album “Kind of Blue,” you can hear Davis chastising his musicians when he felt that their performance was weak.
Davis prototyped and experimented with different musicians and ensemble configurations to get stronger performances out of his players. For example, when Davis recorded “Birth of Cool,” he surprised his band members by hiring rising-star Bill Evans to play on the album instead of his usual pianist Wynton Kelly. When both showed up to the recording session unaware of Miles’s plan, he used the opportunity to get the best performance possible. Both pianists performed head-to-head on the album’s first track “Freddie Freeloader,” and the result was one of the best performances of Bill Evans’ career.
Challenge the Customer
Davis and his band respected the intelligence of their audience, and this was reflected in their performance. Their choices contrast sharply with teams who play it safe by rehashing ideas or delivering mediocre results. This all-star team of performers wasn’t afraid to challenge their audience with new experimental music, and Davis led numerous changes in style over the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. After each disruption, he grew restless, assembled another expert team and experimented anew.
Herd the Cats
When revolution is the goal, there is a fine line between brilliance and excess. Davis practiced “controlled freedom” with his band members. His goal was to help individual performers and the group as a whole achieve their highest potential. At the same time, he maintained enough control to prevent the show from going off the rails. Davis’s occasional written instructions were general motifs sketched out on staff paper. Instead of telling them what to play, he instructed his players what not to do. He provided a general structure and then allowed his talented team to explore.
Organizations and business leaders tend to shy away from the practices Miles Davis used when developing project teams, because they perceive them as risky, expensive or too far outside the norm. They assume a team of egocentric know-it-alls is a recipe for disaster. It is in fact easier to manage a team of people who try hard, mean well and avoid stepping on each other’s toes. This process is fine for run-of-the-mill projects, but ambitious ones need more ambitious models. Instead, do as Miles Davis did: Assemble the very best and let their talents soar. Encourage intense dialogue that makes sparks fly. If you allow the most brilliant minds in your organization to collide and create, the result will be true excellence.