Business, Dialogue, Organisational Change, Reflecting, Staying Curious

Punk HR? Can I listen to Miles, please?

I have a confession to make. I’m not wholly certain what Punk HR actually is. If you  are reading this and not on Twitter or not connected to the current reflection of HR/ L&D/ OD through the CIPD Hackathon campaign, you too might be bemused.

Now to me, beyond the tartan and safety pins ( I’m Scottish. I can handle both), there is something deeper in the punk philosophy, which I quite like;  something anti-establishment, a questioning of authority, a rejection of the mainstream…that stuff… So fine…. I get it as a metaphor – Rage Against the Machine (more my era);  Question what is, in order to create space for what could be – I’m all up for that as a template for looking at how our organisations could be reconstructed, questioned, reconfigured radically.

I am.  Honest I am.

It’s just – well, Punk doesn’t do it for me. It seems aggressive, shouty, show-y. Lots of yelling and in-your-face provocation. So it leaves me…rather turned off, to be honest; a bit cynical and a bit disappointed sometimes.

You see,  I respect provocation, the notion of radically moving things forward, of saying the unsayable, of pushing boundaries, of trying new stuff….. but punk? To me? A cacophony. A noise. I can’t connect with it….

I’m old school. I was raised on classical music, jazz, blues and some terrible folk music that almost put me off for life (thanks Dad) and though I’m not an aficionado by any stretch of the imagination, the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues fest is kicking off here in the City and I’m off the back of dancing to some low down earthy blues courtesy of Seasick Steve at a festival last week…so let’s see if this can be done without ridicule.

As part of the MSc studies, we were invited to read a paper by Frank J Barrett where he draws parallels between improvisation in Jazz and organisational learning.

In the paper, Barrett points out that what seems like formless “improvisation” (the Jazz part that is often jumped upon and pilloried as being “not proper”) is actually highly skilled musicianship.

The musicians (HR practioners?) actually have to learn rules, theory, rhythm, pace of the music before they can start to improvise. Once learned? Rules and theories can be adapted, shifted, turned into something new.

Barrett outlines 7 characteristics you need for true Jazz Improv:

  1. Provocative Competence : interrupting Habit Patterns
  2. Embracing Errors as a Source of Learning
  3. Minimal Structures That Allow Maximum Flexibility
  4. Distributed Tasks
  5. Reliance on Retrospective-sensemaking
  6. Hanging out – Membership in Communities of Practice
  7. Alternating between soloing and supporting.

Barrett then goes on to explore how using these characteristics can really support organisational learning and change. Including my own favourites: Create Organisational climates that value errors as a source for learning and Cultivate Serious Play: too much control inhibits flow.

For me?  This Jazz metaphor works ( in as much as any ever do) as a means of understanding how individuals AND groups must work to interplay with each other and produce something tuneful, meaningful.

And not just that – but if I’m cooking up a storm or about to go into a potentially dissent-heavy meeting, I’d rather have Miles playing than the Sex Pistols… or I MIGHT JUST GET A BIT ARSEY

My version of change? Understand the rules, so you can bend them. Improv.  Trial and error stuff – and be honest that that is what you are doing. Encourage minimal structures, maximum flexibility. Work by learning and playing together.  Hang out with ideas and people. Recognise the skills of the soloists and the whole.

Shall we?

Thanks entirely to the learning offered through Ashridge Masters in Organisational Change ( AMOC) and specifically through faculty member Caryn Vanstone who works with improv and jazz as a lens to generate change in organisations

15 thoughts on “Punk HR? Can I listen to Miles, please?”

  1. I get it. I get the metaphor, and I get the way you’ve helped to share this through the work done by Barrett.

    I just don’t get the whole music genre metaphor thing. For me music is what it is. I enjoy it, I appreciate it, and I like to dance to it. Why do I need to create a metaphor of what musicians do, or what a genre represented and the links I can draw to it.

    I want to just listen, indulge, and perhaps learn about myself through the lyrics and share an experience.

    This isn’t to say I don’t think there’s a place for music in organisations. More that I don’t think there’s a place for the metaphor.

    1. Nice post Jules. My Dad was a big fan of trad jazz, and I grew up listening to Acker Bilk and many others. I confess I was pleased to be distracted by punk in the late 1970’s. I was an angry disillusioned young man, and my Mum’s untimely death at the age of 48 in 1979 just made me angrier. It was the right music for me then and I still enjoy elements of it now. On the plus side I like punk because it is often simple, it is often challenging, deconstructive….destroy to create? And there are many aspects of it – like the ones you highlight, that make it much less helpful.

      I wonder what would happen if we could put Miles Davis and Joe Strummer together?

    2. I’m a bit surprised to read this given your review of “The Music of Business” on Amazon Sukh. I do however get the idea that people don’t always want their hobbies ‘polluted’ by business ideas. I think it takes great skill to work a metaphor through so that it has real resonance and value.

    3. Sukh… I don’t know how to answer you… I have no answers to your why’s. For me? Everything is potentially a metaphor – a cup of tea, a dance move, flowers blooming, fracking the earth….

      Doug – the Joe Strummer stuff is a bit of a gift – new to me, so thank you.

    1. OK. I’m up for a longer conversation – I’m saying I don’t get the Punk thing.. that’s not to say I can’t. It’s just not a thing for me…….Yet maybe

  2. Hi Julie,
    Great post, to be honest I’m with you on the Punk stuff. We can pull metaphors from any music, as you love Jazz others love Punk, Classical, Rock etc, we all find inspiration and metaphors in different things. As you say, you feel a connection to Jazz. I haven’t connected with any particular genre myself, I like what I like no matter what category it’s in, and Sukh, if it wasn’t a music metaphor it would be a sports or something else. It doesn’t really matter where the metaphor comes from. If we can make connections between things and business aren’t we ultimately learning and developing.
    Julie, I love the points you make and totally agree, whether it’s through Jazz or Tennis 🙂

    1. Thanks, Tash.. we need metaphors and stories to show each other the world well…. whatever form these come in.

  3. I get all this. I love the construct of this. I love Peter’s take on HR through Punk. Doug’s comments are right on, even what Sukh and Tash have said makes sense.

    Not knowing Peter’s work 3+ years ago I created a discussion about PunkHR. It was to make HR folks think differently. It did.

    On twitter and through my blog I have some fun with the #PunkHR hashtag. Simon Heath created some nice artwork for me and people started asking me to speak about it.

    It – PunkHR is what Doug and Peter have described. Music disappearing up itself? Enter 1976 Punk to save music from beige fashion and tired rhythms.

    Musically I am soulboy through and through. I was – and still am really – a Mod. I have never worn tartan and saftey pins at the same time.

    When Punk crossed over in 1976/77 some people climbed on board a bandwagon and became mail order Punks. Predictable gear, fake anarchists and masquerading as different.

    HR as innovative disruptors? Those on this blog fit that bill. They stand out like Miles or Strummer. When we crossover – and we will as HR needs something new – others will become mail-order HR disruptive innovators.

    Thanks for challenging and helping others see that true Punk means accepting all no matter their “look” and even musical genre is. Accepting all based on their beleifs, their attitude, their energy to disrupt now THAT’S Punk.

    I stand by PunkHR as it drives my thinking. And I hope I’ve never spat, offended or shouted at anyone. Acceptable Punk? I call it attitude with acumen. Add to that respectful invitations to think differrently and stand for positive change and I stand firm.

    So whilst listening to “So What”, I’ll still be thinking about productive anarchy. Room for musical metaphors to help our thinking and generate discussion.

    And have some fun. Let’s not forget that. Work CAN be fun.

    Else it all becomes “Pretty Vacant”

    1. Hey Perry – I’m starting to understand more about what lies beneath the Punk HR tag now – as a late joiner to the party, some of the foundations of the image were kind of lost on me… so the discussions here have helped open that up, a bit…..

      I can work with attitude with acumen – respectful invitation to think differently is key in Barrett’s piece – the musicians must respect each other and you need to have put ion the work, earned the right, got the knowledge to riff in new ways. You have to respect the craft.

      Underneath it all, I guess we are reaching toward the same thing – innovation, new thinking, change.

      For some, change comes spitting and hissing at the world around them. For others, it is more incremental, for others, there is beauty in watching change emerge and unfold – new music and phrases created.

      As ever, I enjoy your comments and thinking….. thank you

  4. I think we can and do stretch analogies a bit too far sometimes. But I really liked this one, because it explains that you have to be competent and understand what you’re doing before you can become truly radical and creative.

    And also, since for me much of this style of Jazz becomes self-indulgent noodling, designed more to show off to the other players rather than engage the listener (as memorably spoofed on The Fast Show) it demonstrates another key point – why are you doing this innovative HR thing in your organisation? Is it to show to your peers what a great HR person you are? Or to enhance your organisation and make it more successful? (however broadly you define success)

    1. Oooh.. the ego question – Nice (see what I did there?)

      Barrett argues that soloists who wander off into self indulgent noodling too often are seen as poor players – they don’t work with. Ego becomes more important than outcome ( sound familiar?)

  5. Hi,
    Came across your article (very late) through a Google+ search on “Improv Jazz” and a link from the wonderful John Verdon. Love the article.

    Would I be right in thinking you have read Frank Barrett’s book “Yes to the Mess” which obviously takes his thoughts further? It’s really good.

    To me the punk era symbolised rebellion and rejection of the status quo. This is no bad thing in itself, but was always in danger of accepting anarchy … which I think brings us too close to acting in a manner that displays “dog eat dog”, “tooth and claw”, “survival of the fittest” attitudes, which I reject.

    As an HR and “change” person who loves jazz … especially the type that combines improvisation displaying artistic skills that stretch my senses, yet still enough structure and order to retain a clear recognisable audible link with the basic score … I get absolutely everything you are saying.

    I also believe there are important messages in this kind of thinking for the way we lead and manage in increasingly adaptive organisations.

    Hope to exchange ideas with you.


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