The Year I Stopped Looking For a Script and Learned How to Improvise
I have always wanted to play jazz. I found the rhythms difficult to master, and the unscripted improvisations made me uncomfortable. As a flute player, I kept firmly to classically scripted scores through my collegiate years. The most improvised thing that I did was switch to playing the sousaphone in college marching band. While it was challenging and different, I still played off of a scripted and memorized sheet of music. During one brief, brilliant moment living in Morocco, I played with a big band jazz pickup group—a virtual United Nations of musicians from all over the world. But even then, I must be honest, I hid my meek flute sound, afraid of being heard making mistakes.
I recently conducted a retrospective on my career to give a presentation for colleagues new to public service. When I looked back from college, through graduate school, to a career in public service and international relations, I have constantly looked for that compelling scripted score to follow.
That script has been elusive, of course, courtesy of turbulent world events and technological advances. As an undergraduate, I watched the dissolution of the Soviet Union confound my international relations teachers, who confessed they no longer knew what to teach us when it came to international politics. As I entered graduate student and later as new employee, I watched my affiliate organizations struggle to adapt to the World Wide Web. On the second day of my Foreign Service career, September 11, 2001, everything we thought we knew about the "post-cold war world" changed. My State Department trainers told us to hold on; policies and regulations would change more than they could predict during our orientation. There would have to be a lot of real-time learning in the field as a result.
While I served overseas, another shift started happening with the arrival of social media in 2004. The trends of government 2.0, enterprise 2.0, and management 2.0 emerged four years later, kicking off a new way of thinking inside of organizations as well as out. It also marked beginning of when I finally learned how to jump in and improvise.
In 2009, then Secretary of State Clinton founded an employee idea generation forum to source ideas directly from employees. As I listened to her speech, I thought "I wonder who's going to run that? It sounds like what I've read about IBM Innovation Jams...." The opportunity to help shape the forum landed in my lap that afternoon, and I jumped at the chance. In reality, I knew only the first step: how to find the people with the talent to help. The State Department's Office of eDiplomacy had been teaching me how to use blogs and wikis to further knowledge management. (You can read more about these programs in a Brookings report on eDiplomacy).
It's now 2013, and I've been the program manager for that employee idea generation program at the State Department for almost five years. I have learned a thing or two about the nature of ideas. Each idea is like a musical note. One idea, like one note or one molecule, is worth very little on its own. But in combination with others, you get rich music, rich material with which to make something happen. At first, it may only be learning that happens. And that can be about as frustrating as middle school band (whereas IBM Innovation Jams are more like the National Symphony Orchestra). But when you stick with it, you practice your way into art to collaboration design.
In late 2012, I came across this provocation on the Facebook page of Insight Labs, a philanthropic think tank. "Online technology lends itself well to brainstorming. But that's not collaboration. It's just more input." To someone working with online collaboration forums, those were fighting words. Then I saw that the author, Frank Barrett wrote a book titled "Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Improvisational Jazz." Improvisational Jazz. My heart's desire and long-time creative nemesis.