I’ve always been drawn to activities that stress team interaction over individual achievement. Maybe that’s why application development appeals to me. Success relies on integration of diverse skill sets and perspectives. Project failure often results from failure of one or more specialists to fully integrate into the team. Projects exceed expectations often because individuals subsume skills and achievements in support of team efforts. Maybe that’s why Adrian Cho’s “Jazz Process” piqued my interest.

The Jazz Process, recently featured at DrDobbs and National Public Radio, is a carefully researched and well-presented “framework for improving collaboration, innovation and agility inspired by the way in which jazz musicians deliver strong, innovative performances.” Mr. Cho, with deep roots in both jazz and application development, presents a method applicable for app dev teams to work together the way jazz musicians do to “deliver on-time, high-quality performances that will attract and retain customers and do it all in real-time under continuous scrutiny.” He groups 14 principles into four categories on how teams can effectively work, collaborate, execute, and innovate together, bringing honed skills, “big ears”, trust, and commitment to deliver successful outcomes.

I’m eagerly awaiting the book, but in the meantime the website provides a growing description of the method. When I’ve raised points that I thought might be missing Mr. Cho has responded eloquently to the contrary (here).

These are some of the Jazz Process concepts that I particularly like:

  • The importance of developing a technical base. It is equally important for both jazz players and developers to build serious technical chops.
  • The need for humility. Mr. Cho quotes Vijay Govindarajan, who wrote: “The more humble you are, the more you know what you don’t know; you seek to learn”.
  • Tolerance, and sometimes celebration, of mistakes, where Mr. Cho cites Miles Davis’s famous retort “There are no mistakes, only opportunities”.
  • Respect of history. As we gain new tools and methods we in app development seem to discard the old ones as outmoded. Jazz players remember, venerate, and often paraphrase past masters and styles.
  • The importance of the shared experience. Excellent jazz bands and excellent development teams alike are aware of and cultivate the gestalt in the performance space or organization in which they are working.

Only time will tell if the Jazz Process catches on. I hope it does, but there will be a few obstacles to overcome. In spite of notable exceptions like MMW, after decades of use as background music jazz has long since lost its pop culture cachet(I say this as a dedicated jazz hound). Think about “The Girl From Ipanema,” used ironically in many film elevator scenes, and Bart Simpson’s exclamation “…jazz sucks!” In spite of the depth and insight of Mr. Cho’s analogy, for some IT pros it will be “too cute.”

Another potential difficulty is that the project team doesn’t make music or anything else easily perceptible in real time. For jazz players the music and the demeanor of the audience provide tangible, immediate metrics of team health. For business teams, timely awareness and cultivation of team interaction requires “soft skills” that perhaps not everyone on the team shares, like perceiving a co-worker’s reaction to an idea by his or her facial expression or tone of voice. But just because the bar is a little higher for app dev teams, there's no reason it can’t or shouldn’t be cleared. The Jazz Process in should make it easier by providing an analogy helping developers conceptualize the value of teamwork skills.

The Jazz Process has a lot going for it, and it certainly will improve quality and productivity if it motivates the soft skill improvements that it will require. And then everybody’ll be boppin’.