Say “Yes to the Mess” to Explore New Possibilities | The Best Words

Whether you are struggling to manage your daily life, a small business, a mid-size nonprofit, or a large corporation, you need to establish rules and expectations for how things will work. Chances are, you’ve already got an idea for how things will go, even if you have not written down a detailed 5 year plan.

However, not everything will happen according to a specific road map or recipe. There are too many variables. Life is unpredictable. Some might call it messy.

In his book Yes to the Mess, Frank J. Barrett argues that this unpredictability is not a problem. Uncertainty is to be courted and even intentionally created to allow for new possibilities. Frank Barrett is Professor of Management and Global Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA. He holds a PhD in Organizational Behavior. An accomplished musician, he traveled extensively with the Tommy Dorsey Band.

Organizations should train and trust their leaders to listen to each other, account for changes, and learn and grow together. In this way they can react to small changes and even massive transitions in order to get better results and arrive at a more profound final destination than anyone could have imagined independently.

I believe the same is true for our personal relationships. When we say “yes” to the mess in our personal lives, we can open up new possibilities and create a future that is richer and more rewarding than anything we could have imagined.

Forget what you know: Unlearn

Barrett discusses the need to “unlearn” some part of what you think you know about the business. In his music analogy, he insists that you have to know your part so well that you also know where you need to break yourself down and improve. A musician needs to be excellent at their instrument, a professional needs to be excellent at their work. That makes everything else possible.

But there is not a roadmap to the success of every company, or else every company would be successful.

He tells the story of a small group of Hungarian soldiers lost in the Alps. After four days of wandering aimlessly, some had resigned themselves to death, when one of them found a map in his pocket. He convinced his fellow soldiers to re-orient themselves, and commit to a path to survival. It was only when they had gotten to safety that they realized that the map was of an entirely different location.

In this case, it was their commitment to a plan more than the plan itself that proved helpful. They had to “unlearn” that they were lost.

The same is true in medicine, where research shows that people who are optimistic about their outcomes, even with fatal diagnoses, tend to live longer than their counterparts. One study even showed that people who acted as if their diagnosis was not true lived longer than those who accepted it!

We have to unlearn hopelessness.

And your five year plan needs to unlearn proficiency.

Identify your own flaws and weaknesses

Barrett says that a primary step in saying “yes to the mess” is to identify your own professional flaws to become “affirmatively competent.” It is this affirmatively competent person who can take music or a budget and certain resources and turn them into something useful.

You must accept that the resources are not just the ones you can list in the bank or on a ledger. Instead, know that you are the variable to make what you have be enough to accomplish your goals. “Yes to the mess” means understanding that things will go wrong, and that you will not always be performing under optimal circumstances.

However, it also means having the confidence in your abilities to know that the mess won’t prevent you from reaching your goals. In fact, because of the things that go wrong along the way, your goal will be richer and more rewarding when you reach it — or exceed it.

Barrett outlines his book in this 2015 interview with the Taos Institute.

Leading an organization or being in a relationship is like jazz. It involves performing and experimenting at the same time. The accomplished musician, like the accomplished leader, can perform the equivalent of building the plane while flying the plane.

This does not mean that we don’t make mistakes. It might surprise you to know that the healthiest teams report more errors. This is not because they actually make more errors, but because they understand that mistakes are how we learn and grow so they are willing to share them and learn from them. Weaker teams — and weaker leaders — hide their mistakes and fail to learn from them.

Barrett quotes Miles Davis, who said, “If you’re not making a mistake, it’s a mistake.” The point with jazz, and with leadership, is to take chances to explore what is possible.

There must be imperfection and there will be errors. A successful organization finds a way to forgive the individual mistake made and reported in the course of attempting to do the work. This forgiveness needs to happen in relationships too. It is important to be persistent and learn from mistakes.

Excusing the periodic mistake, Barrett explains later, is not the same as excusing consistent poor performance.

Minimal structure, maximal autonomy

Successful leadership, like jazz, happens with what Barrett calls “Minimal Structure — Maximal Autonomy.” There has to be a playbook, but there can’t be a playbook for everything. We can’t have everything ordered for us, but we also can’t have nothing ordered for us.

There must be constraints and an outline of the work in which we perform in our jobs and our relationships. He says, “Jazz works because the process is designed around small patterns, minimal structures that allow freedom to embellish.” In music there are specific chord changes in common songs that cannot be changed. This is how musicians who don’t know each other can nonetheless jam out together to a familiar tune. There are rules. But they don’t order every note.

In corporations, those rules are the mission and vision statements, the trademarked messages that are to guide the employees in every case. Those can (and should) be intentionally ambiguous and open to translation, but they allow individuals to interpret them as the situation calls for. Thus, these statements provide constraints. However, within those constraints, there is a lot of freedom to do the job well.

In relationships there are also basic agreements, often unspoken. They involve what sorts of activities you participate in together, and what sorts of personal information you are comfortable sharing. Over time, we explore and expand these boundaries as our trust and familiarity grow.

Because it is important to be able to know which of these rules can be “fuzzy” and which are rigid, many corporations encourage ways for their employees to be together socially. Barrett calls this “jamming and hanging out” like jazz musicians.

Professionals need to spend time together doing things that are NOT the work, or at least not explicitly the work. This helps them understand each other’s thinking and approach to problems so they can anticipate how each will react in a given situation.

Google is famous for having large play areas including massive indoor slides and space for ping-pong or other social games. They know it encourages breakthrough thinking and develops the trust that is necessary to confidently expand then known boundaries of their work. This is where real innovation occurs.

Shared Leadership and followership

Teams, bands, schools, and businesses require teamwork. But they also requires leadership. At times, someone needs to step up, get an activity done, be the face of change or action, or simply take responsibility when things go wrong.

Typically, one person is in the role of leader and is ultimately responsible, like the principal of a school, or the Tommy Dorsey of the Tommy Dorsey Band. However, in a shared leadership model, multiple people take turns doing the work of leadership.

Barrett calls this overlap “taking turns soloing and supporting,” describing “followership as a noble calling.” Being on a professional team together creates a “mutuality structure” which means intentionally letting other people take the lead periodically, building skills and raising up new voices.

The collective intelligence a group gains from interacting intentionally with each other helps them develop specific skills that lead to optimal performance:

  • Individual social sensitivity: a deep attunement to others something like empathy,
  • Turn-taking: sharing the lead role to disrupt routine or cliché ideas,
  • Group social sensitivity: wider empathy among ALL members of the group promotes improved performance

In forming his band, Duke Ellington singled out distinctive voices. Instead of hiring a proficient band that would help his own arrangements stand out, he sought out multiple musicians with unique styles and approaches. They helped him develop a sound that defined an entire era of music.

Barrett calls this skill, “leadership as provocative competence.” Authority and influence are very different attributes. Ellington could have created a band that did not challenge him.

However, great leaders are confident in their ability to influence others, even when the others are also experts. Your effectiveness as a leader is determined almost entirely by your influence. Importantly, your influence is not determine by your position in the group. Influential leaders can lead from anywhere within an organization.

Of course, this is a theme that comes up time and again when musicians write about leadership. In their book The Art of Possibility, Ben and Rosalind Zander called this Rule #6: Lead from any chair.

Part of our job in an organization is to provoke others to do their job better, and with an eye toward making the final product the best it can be. Every person in a group contributes to this. Every person can do their job well, with distinction.

This leader sees the ability in others and brings it out of them. Sometimes this means bringing out the best in people above you in the organizational chart.

Develop an improvisor’s toolkit

Barrett says, “The same CEOs who so value creativity go to great effort to create the impression that improvisation does not happen in organizations.” Many leaders try to put everything in the handbook or training manuals to keep the work standard throughout the organization.

That is clearly not the path to cultivating creativity. Instead Barrett proposes an “Improvisor’s Toolkit” for those who are serious about causing creativity.

First, you should approach leadership tasks as experiments. This lets leaders take chances and have some latitude to exert their personality and views on the position.

For instance, one year at my school we designed professional development by asking teachers two questions on the same survey. We asked, essentially:

  • “What aspect of teaching do you feel you could teach to others?”
  • “What area do you feel you need to learn more about to become a better teacher?”

By looking at the responses from over 30 teachers, we developed 4 different professional development courses. Each course was taught by a different person in the school. In the end, everyone felt they grew in the area where they needed to grow. We rewarded risk-taking and vulnerability, and had a much more successful professional development than when we hired an outside trainer.

And now, three different teachers had new leadership experience.

Second, you can prepare for serendipity by deliberately breaking a routine. Instead of hoping that things will go wrong and you will learn from it, why not deliberately break something?

We did this at our school by doing away with the low-level consequences that we were giving for tardiness. On a hunch, we broke the pattern of punishing kids for being tardy. We saved ourselves hours of time, reduced conflict with students, and the tardiness rate did not change.

Third, let it be known that you value and welcome the word “yes” to trying new things. We can expand the vocabulary of yes the same way jazz musicians expand the vocabulary within a song. “No” is glamorous when it protects us from change and deviating from a known way of behaving. But where is the learning in that?

Fourth, be intentional about giving everyone in the organization a chance to try things out. Give everyone a chance to solo, to lead. Expanding everyone’s skill set sends the message that you value every voice. If you knew where your next great idea was coming from, you’d already have it, right?

Finally, Barrett says we need to jam. Ultimately we need to get involved in our business and move things forward. It is in the action of our work that we learn, grow, and perform.

Say yes to the mess

In Yes to the Mess Frank J. Barrett details the ways that a high-functioning organization can parallel, and can learn from, a high-performing jazz band. They can do this by unlearning what they think they know, and developing an enhanced set of strengths and skills. Together you can embrace errors as a chance for learning, and take chances within given parameters.

As a family, business, or nonprofit, you can learn about each other by jamming and hanging out. This helps you become experts at how to perform highly with one another. This is enhanced by taking turns as leaders and intentionally building others up into leadership capacity.

In a recent poll, over 60% of CEOs said that the one quality they valued above all others is creativity.

Do you value creativity? Are you actively promoting it?

If so, say “yes” to the mess and start jamming.

Originally published at on April 25, 2021.

Freelance writer/editor | Published educator: Angels and Superheroes | Prevent gun violence | Top Rated 100% Upwork | | he/his

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