Embrace the Mess: An Important Lesson in Creativity

How leaders can shift their mindset and innovate amid unprecedented disruption

Closeup of keys on a piano keyboard

By Paul Tesluk

Paul Tesluk, Dean and Professor, University at Buffalo School of Management

There is no doubt we are going through an incredibly disruptive time—the most disruptive period the world has experienced in decades. While it is certainly easy to identify the challenges we face, it’s also helpful to keep in mind that disruption can be an important source of creativity and a springboard for innovation.

For example, if you are fan of jazz, you are probably familiar with Keith Jarrett, who is perhaps the most accomplished American jazz pianist and composer. On one occasion, Jarrett was to play at the Cologne Opera House—without sheet music or rehearsal, the improvisational style for which he was famous. There was much anticipation. Jarrett, then at the high point of his career, was going to play in front of 1,400 people that evening. The only problem was that the opera house had provided a practice piano instead of concert piano, and there was no time to locate and bring in a replacement. (By the way, for a great description of this example, watch economist Tim Hartford’s excellent TED Talk.)

As was his normal routine, Jarrett arrived at the concert hall just a couple hours before the performance to test the piano and get comfortable with the setup. In fact, while Jarrett made improvisational jazz into an art form, he was also known as an exact and precise performer. That had to have made the situation he found himself in all the more challenging. To his astonishment, he found the practice piano had a harsh, tinny upper register because all the felt had worn away. Some of the notes were sticking, others were out of tune, the pedals didn’t fully work and the small size of the piano couldn’t produce the volume needed to fill the large opera house. In short, he just stepped into a big mess.

Jarrett left the concert hall in frustration. As the daylong pouring rain continued, he sat outside in his car, while Vera Brandes—the concert promoter who managed to convince Jarrett to make the long trip to Germany for this special performance—desperately tried to find a replacement piano. After multiple failed attempts to secure a new piano, Brandes went to Jarrett’s car and stood in the rain, begging him not to cancel the concert. Reluctantly, he agreed to go ahead with the performance.

The concert went on and within moments it became clear that this was something special. As he played, Jarrett avoided the upper registers of the piano by sticking to the middle tones of the keyboard, which gave the piece a soothing, ambient quality. Since the piano was so quiet, he had to set up these rumbling, repetitive riffs in the bass. To give the piece the volume to fill the opera house, Jarrett had to stand and pound down on the keys 

It was an electrifying performance, somehow peaceful and full of energy at the same time. The audience loved it, and to this day, the recording of the Köln Concert is the best-selling piano album and solo jazz album in history—quite a remarkable achievement given that, under the circumstances, one might have predicted the concert would be canceled or at least go down as one of Jarrett’s least remarkable performances. 

How does inheriting a mess lead to such remarkable creativity? Jarrett’s Köln Concert suggests it starts with mindset. Instead of throwing his hands up in the air and quitting, Jarrett made the commitment to give the performance with the tools he had. Second, he leaned into the mess he was handed and used the full range of the piano’s limited musical dimensions to provide a creative and unique performance. Third, both Jarrett’s commitment to go forward with the performance, and the way he used the full range of the practice piano’s capabilities, were only possible because of the confidence Jarrett had in his own ability to successfully improvise.

All of this raises some worthwhile questions for us to examine: 

  1. As we shift from dealing with the immediate circumstances of the COVID-19 world, what is our mindset? Are we committing to make the most of the situation at hand?
  2. Are we fully exploring how we can use the current disruption as a way to accomplish our goals with a different (and likely what might seem a more limited) set of tools? 
  3. What steps are we taking to build our own confidence and that of our teams to take on this challenge?

Paul Tesluk is professor and dean of the University at Buffalo School of Management. He is an expert on leadership, team design and organizational change and effectiveness.

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