Episode 66: Learn To Build An Effective Team From This Extraordinary High School Jazz Band

The Miles Davis Sextet and the seminal Kind of Blue

The idea for this episode came to me while watching Ken Norton’s presentation “Please Make Yourself Uncomfortable” at the 2017 Mind The Product Conference in San Francisco. His talk was organized around one of the greatest musical collaborations every captured on vinyl, the 1959 recording sessions that led to Miles Davis’s seminal Kind of Blue.

As Wikipedia says of Kind of Blue’s influence:

“Kind of Blue has been regarded by many critics as the greatest jazz record, Davis’s masterpiece, and one of the best albums of all time. Its influence on music, including jazz, rock, and classical genres, has led writers to also deem it one of the most influential albums ever recorded.”


Ken wanted us to take some lessons from the jazz greats and apply them to our teams, our product teams. Jazz is by its nature fluid and uncertain, collaborative but individual. Not unlike the environment our product teams work in.

Can we learn something about thriving in conditions of uncertainty from the great jazz artists? You can watch Ken’s talk on his site – it’s not only a great message, but it’s also a beautiful presentation in its own right.

As I was listening to Ken’s talk, though, I kept thinking about another extraordinary jazz band, which happened to be headquartered only a few blocks away at the San Francisco Jazz Center.

Is your team the Miles Davis Sextet? Or more like a high school jazz band?

The SF Jazz High School All-star Jazz Band has been an ongoing project of SFJazz for many years. It’s led by Paul Contos, who recruits talented high school musicians and molds them into an awe-inspiring ensemble that regularly performs at festivals around the country.

And it seemed to me that, although there are things we can learn from Miles Davis and Ella Fitzgerald about how to operate in conditions of uncertainty, there is a particular and important difference between them and our teams.

At the time Miles recorded Kind of Blue, he and the rest of the Sextet were among the best musicians who had ever played music, much less jazz. It’s arguable that the Sextet, at the time, was among the most talented group of jazz musicians recording.

Our teams are much less noteworthy, as talented as they are. They are not the best, or in the pantheon of the best (unless you are very, very lucky!). In that regard, they are much more like bands of talented high school all-stars. Definitely exceptional amongst their high school peers, but none of them is likely to be the next Miles Davis or John Coltrane.

Learn about exceptional team leadership from Paul Contos

One of Paul Contos’ most important tools is building psychological safety for his bands, so his kids feel safe to fail as they reach for higher success and achievement.

In the episode I also talk about Google’s Project Aristotle, their research project to find out what differentiates the most effective teams at Google. They found that, contrary to expectations, it wasn’t the skills or training of the team members. There were five key characteristics of the most effective teams, the most important of these being, indeed, psychological safety.


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