Jimmy Baikovicius from Montevideo, Uruguay [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

Last Friday evening I attended Winter Jazz Fest, an annual New York City tradition that sees hundreds of performers playing a dozen or more venues over a few nights each January. I made it to 5 concerts at 5 separate venues in the Village before finally hailing a cab and heading back to Brooklyn at 1AM on Saturday morning. All of the acts I saw were memorable. Some of them were amazing performers. Some played incredible music. I would likely go out of my way to see one or two of them perform again, and dare I say it, I may even (gasp) BUY an album or two. However, by far, the most remarkable act I saw that night was The Legal Innovation Project.

Of course, that was not actually their name, but T-LIP, as I have come to call them, played a brand of technical speed jazz reminiscent of a frenetic Spyro Gyra on Quaaludes. It’s not my favorite style of music and I don’t know that I would have enjoyed simply listening to their session, but watching the interaction between the musicians on stage was Epic Theater beyond anything Brecht ever achieved and would have justified the cost of the festival ticket on its own.

The drummer and the bassist were mostly heads-down, steadily plowing forward, seemingly unconcerned with (or possibly unaware of) anyone else on the stage. The pianist intermittently slapped at keys, his eyes darting back and forth over sheet music laid flat across the open Steinway. Two soloists, unfortunately out front and facing the audience, stared intently at music stands in front of them. They would occasionally half-turn and give each other furtive glances of confusion. Every once in a while, one would raise an instrument and blow a few tentative notes that appeared to have no relation to the chords or beat being laid down by the rhythm section.

One might have assumed this was simply some experimental ‘hesitation’ jazz, except for the fact that the final member of the band appeared to know what should have been happening and was visibly perturbed that the noise she was hearing bore little resemblance to what she clearly expected. She glared at the pianist as he fumbled through one section, then stomped out a countdown for one of the soloists to enter, only to sing along to his part when he failed to catch the thread.

It’s not that these were bad musicians. On the contrary, in the rare moments that they were given freedom to improvise, they each came to life with soaring solos, technical wizardry, and looks of genuine relief, only to stumble back into their painful game of “wait, where do I…how… is that a…oh, damn!” once their 32 bars of freedom came to an end.

The first piece ended and the leader introduced the band explaining that the first song had been one of her original compositions.

All became clear.

I have written intricate and technically difficult music before, and I have seen musicians struggle to make sense of their part within the cacophony of noise that invariably rises from the first rehearsal. During their first piece, I saw the same looks of terror and frustration on the faces of several band members, as well as on more than a few in the audience.

I assume they had not had much, if any, rehearsal time. Not an unusual occurrence in a festival setting and generally not an issue with professional jazz musicians. In fact, 2 of the other acts I saw that night announced from the stage that they had members sitting-in who had never played with them before. Neither of those acts were playing ‘jazz standards’ and yet, if they hadn’t called out the newbies, I would have never known.

T-LIP, was the anomaly: a band of capable, talented, and professional musicians struggling to play together well. And it wasn’t just that one song. The entire set was similarly uncomfortable, with the composer growing increasingly exasperated by the ‘incompetence’ of her team members. 

Somewhere, halfway through the set, I suddenly realized I’d seen this all before. And thus, The Legal Innovation Project jazz ensemble got their name in my mind.

They were trying to do something incredibly complex, with too little time to prepare, while being driven by a leader who may have all of the elements in her head, but had failed to communicate those elements to other team members adequately. I was seeing the politics of law firm innovation playing out on a small stage, in the back of a dark club in Greenwich Village.

I think there are some lessons in here for law firm innovators:

Don’t rush – That is not to say never work quickly, but don’t promise to meet impossible deadlines and then break your team trying to achieve them. The rush to meet too-short, arbitrary deadlines leads to poor decision-making, insufficient feedback gathering and analysis, and ultimately, leads you to create a poor experience for your team and for your lawyers and clients.

Simplify – This is hard for both composers and lawyers to understand. Complexity is often the enemy of experience. A complex piece of music, well performed, can be rewarding for artists and audiences alike. However, to achieve those rewards requires a great deal of time, study, and if there are multiple musicians playing, clear and concise real-time communication. In innovation, complexity adds time and money to every project, and makes an eventual product harder to use, take longer to learn, and generally creates a worse experience for the end user.  At every step of a project ask yourself and your team, “How could we possibly simplify this?”, and then be ruthless about cutting complexity.

No auteurs – Innovation, like jazz, is a collaborative and creative art form. If your project is created to realize the singular and unique vision of a high-powered, brilliant individual, do yourself a favor and just kill it now. It is highly unlikely that they will be happy with whatever you create and almost certainly no one else will like it either. You will end up with an expensive, complex, technological solution, that took much longer to implement than expected, does not improve on the current process, and that no one will ever use.

Build your innovation team like a good jazz ensemble –  Get talented players (team members) and give them good instruments (technology). Give them clean lead sheets (direction) and encourage a little improvisation. When a composer (lawyer) comes along with a new piece (project), put it in front of your team and let them play with it. Let them explore it, tear it apart, rework and simplify it. Let them identify how it could best be performed by your group (implemented in your firm) and how soon. Don’t rush it into performance (deliver) before it’s ready, but also don’t spend too long writing out every single note, rest, and chord before you begin to play some music (prototype it early).

Finally, The Legal Innovation Project jazz ensemble was missing something else that every other band I saw that night had in excess… joy. It’s easy when we’re dealing with the politics, high expectations, and generally poor communication that is common in law firms to forget that innovation is actually fun. But, like T-LIP, if we’re not having any fun, our audience probably isn’t either.