Lessons In Collaboration From B.B. King’s

I am reminded today of the blues. Back in December, nGenera held our members conference in Memphis, TN, hosted by the good folks at FedEx. On the second evening, we were treated to dinner and at B.B. King’s Blues Club followed by the musical stylings of Preston Shannon’s Memphis Blues. What does this have to do with collaboration? A lot.

A blues or jazz band—or any ‘jam band’ for that matter—operates using many of the design principles we’d like to see from a collaborative enterprise. Unlike an orchestra, a band is much more fluid in their interpretation of the music. They are able to improvise on the spot, blend sounds, and often play to the mood of the audience. In other words, they innovate, create mash-ups, and are responsive to users.

I’m not the first person to use the band analogy. Barry Rabkin of the Market Insight Group asks whether technology analyst firms are more like a jazz band or symphony orchestra. He alludes to the fact that the jazz band style is more agile and responsive to customer demands—another important outcome of collaboration:

“Another area where jazz musicians differ from their symphonic counterparts is that jazz musicians, sensing their audience, can and do take liberties with new selections not identified during their rehearsals. They can do this because they have a broad library of music and musical explorations in their knowledge set and, as importantly, they know how to blend their sounds together to get the best outcome possible for their audience.”

What’s more, in a symphony orchestra the conductor alone is responsible for guiding the entire team, whereas with a distributed, ad-libbing crew, anyone can start pushing with a new riff or mood and the others will follow suit. In this way, the benefit of each player’s perspective and expertise is baked into the model.

One of the factors that allows a band to operate in this manner is the existence of very well defined roles (i.e. guitarist, vocalist, drummer, base, keyboards, etc.) and somewhat open tasks (i.e. what songs to play, when to riff, what chords to use, etc.). This is another important learning for the enterprise. As Lynda Gratton and Tammy Erickson note in the HBR article Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams:

“Cooperation increases when the roles of individual team members are sharply defined yet the team is given latitude on how to achieve the task. […]Assign distinct roles so team members can do their work independently. They’ll spend less time negotiating responsibilities or protecting turf. But leave the path to achieving the team’s goal somewhat ambiguous. Lacking well-defined tasks, members are more likely to invest time and energy collaborating.”

In addition to looking at how bands are structured, we might also consider how band members collect largely unstructured customer experience ‘metrics’ in real time and use the feedback to adjust their approach. These metrics provide a useful analogy for the type of approaches leading companies should take when developing customer strategies, including:

  • The applause of the crowd: What kind of noise are customers and prospects making online and in social media channels? Using sentiment analysis companies can find out if it is positive (cheers) or negative (boos) and change their tune accordingly.
  • Number of people dancing: How engaged is your audience? Metrics might be based on active participation on forums, comments online, rating of content, and re-broadcasting of brand messages, or more passive (i.e. head bobbing) activities such as subscribing to feeds, friending, and following.
  • Song requests: What kinds of requests are coming into your contact center and support organization? In many organizations, the contact center is an untapped wealth of customer feedback, largely ignored by groups like marketing and product development. Listening to this channel and other prosumer input can lead to dramatically improved customer experience.
  • Duration of stay in the bar: How long do customers hang out in your online properties? Using Web analytics, companies can now obtain this information, as well as data about how people got there, what path they take along the way, and how influential various ‘promoters’ are at bringing in prospects.
  • CD and merchandise sales: How are Web interactions translating into sales? The performance is about creating an experience, but ultimately, in order to be profitable, you need people to buy your stuff.

As companies continue to seek best practices and metrics for collaboration, I firmly believe that some of the more innovative solutions will come from non-traditional fields that have deep roots in collaboration, but that have eluded formal study and analysis. (If I’ve managed to spark an interest in enterprise lessons in collaboration from other disciplines, also see my previous post on Measuring collaboration: Lessons from Shane Battier and the NBA and the related Collaboration box score.)

Article written by

Naumi Haque has more than a decade of experience in the research and advisory industry. Naumi has been at the forefront of customer experience management, recently arguing that enterprises need an integrated customer experience strategy to meet customer expectations. He has conducted research and provided thought leadership on a wide variety of topics related to emerging technology and business innovation, including: social media strategy, customer experience, next generation marketing, enterprise collaboration, open innovation, digital identity, new sources of enterprise data, and disruptive web-enabled business models. He received his MBA and his Honors in Business Administration from the University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business.