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Parallels between Jazz and Business

Former Director of Getting Shit Done at Shopify

IP Interview
Published on August 10, 2020

Why is this interview interesting?

  • Comparison between Jazz and business in organizing an ensemble and a team respectively
Executive Bio

Adrian Cho

Former Director of Getting Shit Done at Shopify

Adrian has over 30 years of experience working for both small and large organizations including IBM, Fujitsu, Bankers Trust, and Shopify. At Shopify, as the Director of Getting Shit Done, he started and led a business unit that helped the company through a critical period of hyper growth by accelerating and becoming more effective at scale through the growth of culture, hacking process, coaching people and teams, and building automation to reduce friction. Adrian is also a musician who has been performing for over forty years, he is best known as the Artistic Director of the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra, a unique, critically acclaimed symphonic jazz ensemble he founded in 2006.

Interview Transcript

How do you think about building cohesion between individual musicians, within an ensemble?

One of the things we talk about in jazz, is that we have this saying about people who have big ears. Not like Mickey Mouse, but people who have very high awareness; people who have very high contextual and situational awareness and high team awareness and high self-awareness. For example, as a musician, when you are playing your instrument, you have to have high self-awareness because you need to know, whatever techniques you are using to play your instrument, that it’s sounding right and everything is coming out the way you want it to. But of course, you are combining what you’re doing with this sound of what everyone else is doing. You have to be so aware; you have to be listening to that combined sound, all the time. You also have this other contextual awareness of what’s happening in the room, because you are performing for an audience and, in order to be connected to that audience, you need to be seeing and listening and watching what’s happening out there, in the audience, and how people are responding.

I think that really builds the cohesion is people who have that really high awareness and are not in their own little world. They’re really attuned to what’s happening in the rest of the team. Especially when you are doing something like jazz, it’s a very real-time activity and you have to have that on, all the time. You can’t go to sleep, even for a second, because you may miss things. It might be something that could be a critical thing that, if you missed it, would send it off the rails. But it also just could be something that might have made the performance better such as if one jazz musician played something interesting and was hoping that someone else might take that and respond to it and make something of it. It’s very much like that in improv comedy, for example. Someone puts something out there and someone else will take that and they will respond to it and they will build on it. You have to be really on the ball, looking and listening for those things. That awareness is really the most critical thing, in building the team cohesion.

When thinking of cohesion, how do you think about organizing musicians to drive creativity?

In jazz, for example, we don’t necessarily have the rigid structure that you have in some other ensembles. If you go and see a symphony orchestra, it’s very hierarchical in nature. There’s a conductor, typically, and then there’s different sections of the orchestra and each section has a principal and an associate principal and so forth. In jazz, the leadership is so much more fluid. You have to have people who are both good at leading and good at following.

When you watch a jazz performance, sometimes it’s hard to actually work out who is the leader, at any one point in time. Someone may organize the performance and someone may decide what they are going to play and someone may count off the tune. But once the tune begins, once the performance of a song begins, the leadership is moving around. So there are opportunities for everybody to provide creativity into the process. But of course, they also have to be fairly good and I think this is the most powerful thing – it’s that fluidity of being good at both leading and following and knowing when to pull back and when to take the lead and when to follow. I think that’s a critical thing.

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