What I Learned About Product Management From Jazz 🎷

Dealing with Ambiguity

Photo by Dolo Iglesias on Unsplash

What could Jazz and Product Management possibly have in common? In fact, much has been said about this topic already.

Here are some ways thinking about jazz has made me a better product manager.

A Masterful Concert Against the Odds.

By the time of his solo European tour at age 29, Keith Jarrett had well established himself as a premier American jazz pianist, working with Miles Davis and others. In the winter of 1975, Jarrett arrived in Cologne, Germany after an exhausting six-hour bus ride over the Swiss Alps. His strenuous tour schedule exacerbated his back pain and he needed a brace to sit at the piano.

To make matters worse, when he arrived a few hours before the beginning of his show he discovered the wrong piano on stage. Instead of a majestic 9ft Bösendorfer Imperial Grand Piano he requested, the venue had wheeled in a used 5ft practice baby piano from backstage storage. Its upper keys could barely register a tinny reverberation and the lower bass notes were muddy and hollow. It was out of tune and had a broken sustain pedal. Jarrett threatened to cancel, but nothing could be done to correct the error in time for the gig.

After some convincing, Jarrett took the stage in front of a sold-out crowd at 11:30 pm, after an earlier Opera event had cleared the concert hall. What followed is considered by many to be one of the most transcendent solo-piano jazz performances of all-time. The limitations of the piano forced Jarrett to improvise his melodies and alter his techniques in unique ways. Jarrett used repetitive riffs and percussive chord progressions to bring the most out of the piano. Today the recording of the Köln Concert remains not only the best-selling solo jazz album but the best-selling solo piano album of all time.

I love listening to the Köln Concert because I know the story behind the music, and the story reveals one of the primary truths about Jazz music: that creativity and innovation are frenetic and haphazard behaviors.

Embracing Uncertainty. Dealing with Ambiguity.

Transcendence in music and sparks of creativity do not happen within rigid or predictable processes or environments. Creativity requires risk-taking — beginning without knowing where the road will take you. It requires that you embrace complexity and uncertainty. In order to create or innovate, you must take informed risks.

Dealing with ambiguity is a phrase that I hear often in the business world, and it is a key competency of all great product managers I know. Jarrett felt the limitations of the broken piano, the discomfort from his aching back, and exhaustion of his mind and body. But, within the context of those detractions, he found a way to express music which he wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.

Likewise, the product manager deals with ambiguity on a daily basis. A few examples from recent memory: Video conferencing software breaks 5 minutes before your customer demo. Testing environment data got wiped out in last night’s refresh. Customer success ropes you into a last-minute call with an unhappy user. How do you handle these situations?

The most relevant example of a product manager’s need to embrace uncertainty and ambiguity is in creating a Product Roadmap. We need to find product-market fit, reduce customer churn, and deliver this business outcome in order to close a big deal. Talk about uncertainty and ambiguity!

How you handle the ambiguity of these moments will make or break you as a PM. Staying calm under pressure and leaning into the uncertainty and ambiguity of the situations will allow you to perform well and achieve success.

John Coltrane’s Circle of Fifths diagram

Structured Chaos.

Having just enough guidelines and structure keeps work progressing forward without chaos and confusion. If jazz musicians weren’t proficient in key signatures or knowledgeable of music theory then their music would sound like a bunch of cats crying. Likewise, if product managers don’t have solid product vision and a strong knowledge of the software development lifecycle then product development will be disordered and unproductive. Musicians improve by mastering their craft and by building a solid foundation. Likewise, product managers can improve by learning the foundational skills of product management, such as customer interviewing, user experience testing, and backlog prioritization.

The appropriate conditions must exist in order for creative success to occur. Creative success requires enough structure to set the right direction, but enough freedom to encourage experimentation, failure, and risk-taking. For jazz musicians, the key and time signature keeps the music flowing forward with enough structure to not sound bad, but within this structure lies the freedom to innovate and create.

As product managers, our key-signature is our bias towards data-gathering and driving towards business outcomes. Our time-signature is our relentless desire to talk to customers on a regular basis. Our music theory is our knowledge of qualitative and quantitative data gathering techniques. By focusing on these PM guide rails, product managers are free to experiment with enhancement ideas, make product risks, and deliver product innovation.

Riffing and Iterating.

Jazz often begins with improvisations on a melodic line. The melodic line is like the beginning of a question or the thread of an idea. By iterating on the idea, jazz musicians create unexpected beauty. The end product of beautiful music is not preordained on sheet music. It arises from iterative riffs and the pursuit of a beautiful sound. Jazz musicians approach this with an “As-If” mindset: “Let me try this out as if it will work.” Let’s pay attention to what happens and adjust along the way.

As product managers, we must likewise learn to begin with a question, not with a formulaic solution. We investigate the thinnest thread of an idea to see what can come of it. When we pursue a customer problem with curiosity and humility, we find unexpected and delightful solutions which were not obvious to us beforehand. We dig into a customer problem, hypothesize a solution, build, measure, and learn from our solutions.

Trust & Empathetic Competence.

To experiment and iteratively build software that achieves business outcomes, the PM and dev team cannot be afraid to fail. The team must trust each other and work in a blame-free environment. A cohesive team listens and learns from each other. The cohesive team has empathy for one another.

Frank Barrett calls this “empathetic competence” in his excellent book on jazz and business, Yes To The Mess. Teams trust each other’s ability to competently perform their functional role with the team. They have empathy and grace for their teammates to fail, which encourages the team to take risks, which allows the group to improve.

One last thought on how jazz can help us to work better as a team. Jazz ensembles are all about dialogue and response. The interaction between the instruments is fun to hear. There is a diversity of sound that comes together to achieve something that is greater than the sum of the parts. In product management, a development team that has diverse perspectives will be able to achieve a more balanced and thoughtful product to the market than a team that is homogenous.

Takeaways.

Good jazz musicians deal with ambiguity and thrive in uncertain environments. Good PMs must learn to do the same.

Good jazz musicians start with an idea, curiosity, and the willingness to make mistakes. Good PMs must learn to approach their work in a similar mindset in order to find innovative solutions to customer problems.

Jazz groups have competent empathy towards their bandmates. PMs must foster an open environment where the dev team trusts each other and is not afraid to fail.

More resources:

Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz

Jarrett, Keith. The Köln Concert. 24 Jan. 1975, Opera House, Cologne