There’s no such thing as a mistake

At the start of jazz great Herbie Hancock’s autobiography, he describes a mid-60s gig with Miles Davis at a Stockholm concert hall. The band’s playing hard, the audience are going wild, the atmosphere’s electric, Miles is about to unleash a devastating solo, when:

‘I play a chord that is just so wrong. I don’t even know where it came from – it’s the wrong chord, in the wrong place, and now it’s hanging out there like a piece of rotten fruit. I think, Oh, shit. It’s as if we’ve all been building this gorgeous house of sound, and I just accidentally put a match to it.’

A sticky workshop moment

That quote came back to me once, when I was getting yelled at during a two day tone of voice training session.

It was for a small group of corporate letter writers, the people who reply to complaints and deal with problem customers. The company’s new tone of voice was meant to revolutionise their writing. Instead, they experienced it as an imposition from above, ignoring some of the real pressures and issues they faced.

And they let me know this in no uncertain terms.

Inspiration from a great

I remembered Herbie Hancock. For a moment I too felt that I’d completely screwed things up. So what happened next? Well fortunately, like Herbie, I had Miles Davis to inspire me:

‘Miles pauses for a fraction of a second, and then he plays some notes that somehow, miraculously, make my chord sound right… What kind of alchemy was this? And then Miles took off from there, unleashing a solo that took the song in a completely new direction. The crowd went crazy.’

As a brilliant improviser, Miles knew how to respond to the moment in just the right way, whatever was happening. Herbie goes on to say:

‘As soon as I played that chord I judged it. In my mind it was the “wrong” chord. But Miles never judged it – he just heard it as a sound that had happened, and he instantly took it on as a challenge, a question of How can I integrate that chord into everything else we’re doing?’

Improvising a new path

So, I took the same approach. I didn’t judge, I integrated. And I realised that it was actually a fantastic moment. Everyone was being absolutely and completely honest with me (if at quite high volume). They were sharing some very important reasons why they weren’t able to write well. And the workshop’s real purpose was to improve their writing.

So we turned the workshop on a dime, diving into the structural and managerial issues the team faced. That let me feed some genuinely transformative points back to senior management. Then we went back to the tone of voice.

Together, Miles, Herbie and the group taught me a very important lesson – Don’t judge, integrate. As long as you can find productive new ways of moving forwards, there’s no such thing as a mistake.

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