Tzimtzum for Organizations:
How I Learned Everything I Really Needed to Know About Collaboration from a Group of Teenaged Jazz Prodigies

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January 6, 2010
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Shawn Landres

I spent two summers, before 11th grade and 12th grade, at the National Music Camp in Interlochen, Mich., studying jazz piano and composition. Eventually, I became a solid, if unremarkable number-two pianist in the number-one jazz orchestra (there were two). Still, in my own head, I produced virtuoso flights of fancy, and occasionally I was able to condense the music I could hear in my imagination into notes and bars on a page. I tried writing full arrangements, with instructions for every instrument, but they just didn’t work, so I stuck to my strengths: new melodies and creative chord progressions. Midway through the summer, my friends in the elite jazz sextet agreed to try out what I’d written. I was tempted to supervise: After all, this was my musical vision. But that wasn’t the way it worked with jazz. “Give us the chart,” they told me. “We’ll take it from here.”

~

Tzimtzum, contraction, often implies withdrawal, pulling back, retreat. At a historic period of economic crisis — one that has touched even this journal — it is easy to imagine tzimtzum as an act of self-preserving constriction, a kind of defensive organizational belt-tightening. But in the Lurianic tradition, it has a generative meaning, opening up a space where creation is possible. In this sense, it has direct applications to organizational life.

Some years ago, leadership expert Ronald Heifetz developed the metaphor “getting on the balcony” — seeking the broader, long-term perspective on an organization’s work. Getting on the balcony isn’t just a way to evaluate an organization’s program effectiveness; it is also an opportunity to view that organization in the broader context of the ecosystem within which it operates. It means recognizing limits, seeking interdependencies, and understanding that no organization can achieve all its goals by itself.

Listening and letting go are the essence of organizational tzimtzum. Though tzimtzum comes in many forms, I’ll concentrate on three levels: outsourcing, coordination, and co-creation. Each represents a different type of relationship.

Outsourcing sits at the conceptual periphery of tzimtzum. Essentially, it means contracting with an independent entity to do something one cannot or prefers not to do. An outsourced business function or component generally is a means to an end, subsidiary to a larger process or product. Though it is managed independently, the ultimate output is defined and controlled by the contracting organization. Still, the decision to outsource does mean recognizing that someone else can do the work faster, better, more cheaply, or with greater impact.

Coordination comes closer to a model of tzimtzum insofar as it involves the acknowledgement that one organization is neither in control of the game nor indeed the only player. Coordination works among peer organizations where parallel rather than unilateral action might be more effective. In the corporate world, coordination is difficult, because it can result in collusion or market-fixing; in the nonprofit world, coordination can help reduce duplication, thereby freeing up needed resources. That said, the efficiencies that coordination can produce are not in and of themselves generative. Although economies of scale save significant overhead, they typically do not actually transform outcomes.

Co-creation* comes closest as a model of organizational tzimtzum, as partners actively make space for one another to contribute to the broader aim of achieving common goals. This requires the recognition that there are multiple paths to a shared vision, that no single organizational path is the only possible one, and that no single organization can be everything to everyone. Far from indicating weakness or ineffectiveness, organizational tzimtzum can leverage significant power. But that power lies in the field itself, not in any one actor within it. Inherent in this kind of tzimtzum is the recognition that organizations are vehicles, vessels with which to carry out a mission. Success means going beyond any individual organizational activity to realize a common vision.

~

On the evening of the last jazz recital of my second summer at music camp, the rickety wooden concert hall was packed. As the concert drew to a close, I heard the sextet’s rhythm section start to vamp out a pattern. A trumpet riffed over it, and then the whole horn section burst into my — no, our — composition. I’d given them 32 bars: a few chords and a simple melody. No matter what I heard in the solitude of my own head, no matter how much I might have liked to plan out the entire performance, the truth is that bringing the music to life was up to them. And it was nothing like what I’d imagined; it was so much better. And the ovation we shared — musicians and composer, partners in creation — was one of the happiest moments of the summer. Listening, and letting go, was all it took.

* I am grateful to Shifra Bronznick for reminding me of the qualitative difference between coordinated efficiencies and transformative collaborations.

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Shawn Landres, a member of the Sh’ma Advisory Committee, is co-founder and CEO of Jumpstart, an incubator, catalyst, think tank, and advocate for sustainable Jewish innovation. In 2009, the Forward recognized him as one of its Forward 50 leaders, an annual list of those who are making a difference in the American Jewish community.

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