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