Part 3: Too Much Improvisation Gets You Nowhere


Part 3: Too Much Improvisation Gets You Nowhere

Posts in this four-part series examine how product leaders can better operate through the lessons of music.

When you first start playing drums, the drum fill is your first foray into improvisation. A fill allows drummers to stand out now and then among the entirety of music.  Drum fills also create petulant drum monsters.  You learn to play for that next fill. You throw down ridiculousness, hit that cymbal and let the world know you are there.  It also detracts from music.  It becomes too much.

Years later I became a designer and “learned” Photoshop.  Specifically, filters.  I applied every filter known, because I could.  And you can imagine the steaming pile of trash that came out of my computer.  Later, I learned of young developers falling into a similar trap of spending more time architecting code for the sake of code, rather than solving problems. They built code factories to create code rather than just getting to the point.

Many of these challenges extend from a lack of experience, excitement, and a yearning to master a craft. Early in their careers, these habits tend to be a natural part of growing up. Good habits form with time, experience and mentorship.  However, sometimes this yearning for the spotlight can impact product creation and success. Good habits must be nurtured and guided. You are responsible for building your team, helping them gain experience, guiding everyone in their role AND helping them become more than their job description.

  • Your team is talented
    Let’s start with an assumption, you have a talented team at all levels.  If you don’t, correct this as soon as you can. There’s nothing worse than spending too much energy on someone that has no intention of  continually improving. (Ask any band with a talented-head case of a lead singer.)Believing in your team’s talent, changes how you treat them.  The respect you have becomes palpable and expected.  A willingness to confirm your trust becomes a part of your team’s culture.  And their willingness to take risks and improvise become more prevalent.
  • Paint a clear vision, continually reinforce it
    You point the way.  How you get there can be laid out loosely but where you go, why you have to get there and by when, that’s all on you.  If you don’t paint a clear vision someone will fill the void and take point. Now you have a two headed leadership monster on your hands, or worse.  Staff can’t take intelligent risks if there’s no framework upon which to take those risks.  With floundering direction, you either see the innovation faucet run dry or it explodes with way too much improv and no results.
  • Recognize improvisation and reward it when done right
    You can recognize and reward improvisation when you believe in your team’s capabilities and provide clear and consistent direction.  It may come in the form of a team member refuting then improving upon an initial idea.  It may be an operational efficiency.  It may be someone trusting their team well enough to share an “off the wall” idea that is exactly what you’ve been looking for. In any way improvisation rears its head, call attention to it.

Often, your professional team is no different than playing in a quartet and hearing a piano player pull off an amazing improvised solo.  You connect with them and encourage it with eye contact.  You say with your eyes, “That was amazing! My turn.”  And eventually, the band gives you the framework to show your stuff without detracting from the overall show. Healthy music allows a musician to take the spotlight but only enjoy it because they have other people in the band to share it with.

Piano image by YoLaGringo

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