Keeping the tempo

At the age of 43, jazz drummer Carl Størmer finally learned to lead with his left hand.  When he was a child growing up in Oslo, Norway, he was taught to fight his instincts and drum right-handed, but now he knows that such discipline held him back.

Størmer is an accomplished jazz musician and entrepreneur whose Boston- and Oslo-based consulting firm, JazzCode AS, helps organizations glean valuable insights from the principles of jazz.  As in jazz, he urges his clients to lead with what comes naturally, to improvise as the context unfolds and to be well prepared.

“The measure of success is the quality of your interaction in the moment,” Størmer says.  “Presence is the most important factor.”

Presence is the frame of mind that enables creative action in unpredictable circumstances.  Størmer came to understand this philosophy most deeply, not as a jazz musician or the head of a start-up, but as the father of two premature infants—his daughters, Hannah and Sidsel, now 18 and 14 years old. 

Each of them weighed barely a pound at birth.  Størmer and his wife, Ane, watched over their tiny daughters in the neonatal intensive care unit for 10- and 12-hour days over the course of many long months, never knowing what their next move would be.  During this time Størmer learned that in order to keep moving he had to make decisions even without perfect information.

They discovered that a total immersion in this moment is what makes it possible to move on to the next one, and the next one.  And they experienced this reality once again four years ago when Ane suffered a massive stroke that changed their lives. 

Personally and professionally, Størmer has lived a truth that his wife hit upon after her stroke: control is for beginners.  It’s an illusion—a remnant of a past age that rejected the unconventional in favor of uniformity, certainty.

But now we live in an era of complex interactions, Størmer notes.  The outsourcing of mass production means that our workforce is left with the more complicated tasks of running an organization.  The ability to solve unfamiliar problems depends not on the limited value of training and preparation but on flexibility and adaptability.  A bit of jazz.

Work today demands presence, a readiness to jump in when the moment opens up, a sense of timing, and a give-and-take that shifts with every note.  As Størmer points out, we can’t always plan ahead, make decisions early, apply professional judgment, and know that if “x” happens, we will do “y.”  But, he says, we can prepare in order to release the mental capacity needed to be present.

“Even an unskilled person can do that successfully, and that’s why we use scripts,” he says.  “If you work as a fireman or a jazz musician or a psychiatrist or a lawyer or a consultant, it’s much harder.  Organizations try to force this model of planning and rules based behavior, and  you can try to apply that model, but it’s going to break down.” 

In the current organizational ecosystem, the rules are losing their former essential quality.  Solutions develop under time pressures and through collaborative efforts with experts across a variety of specialties.   The ability to have a high quality conversation is crucial.

“The faster the context is developing and the less predictable it is, the more important it becomes for you to be present, to observe what you think might be the most relevant contribution at the moment,” he says.

Størmer encourages managers to trust more and control less—to give people the liberty to be present in their own way.  “You never tell musicians how to hold their instruments,” he says.  “You tell them what you want them to play.”   He advocates increasing mastery through simplification – tempo, scope, and by letting people solve their task using the method best suited for them.  It makes little sense to be processed focused if you are only doing something once. 

In life, as in jazz, we can never lose the tempo, Størmer says: “Real time happens second by second, but if you perfect things too long, you lose momentum.  Being alive means that you have to trade perfection for forward momentum.”

“Life is expiring options all the time,” he says. “Take options as they appear in real time, and turn them into something that will prevent everything from stopping.”