As part of my MBA program, I took an organizational behaviour course called Managing Diversity. The course covered the challenges of creating a corporate environment that embraces diversity in all of its forms and enable the best employee and corporate performance. For one assignment, the course required students to create a personal philosophy statement to guide them in dealing with diversity issues they may encounter in the first place. The following is the personal diversity philosophy statement I submitted:
My personal diversity philosophy statement is simple, but requires an introduction to give it context. My statement is a quote from legendary jazz trumpet player Clark Terry, who once said the secret to learning to improvise jazz solos could be summed up in three words:
“Imitate. Assimilate. Innovate.”
Improvisation skills allow a jazz soloist to create melodies that fit a particular section of a piece of music. To create a solo that sounds “right”, a soloist must not only play notes that are compatible with the current chord being played by the backing musicians, but also transition smoothly between chord changes in the piece, all while maintaining or augmenting the piece’s rhythmic structure.
A good jazz soloist is not actually a solo player – the soloist is responsible for not only working within the tonal structure of the piece, but acting as a focal point for new rhythmic and tonal ideas that the musicians backing the soloist incorporate as the solo progresses. Hence, there is a strong parallel between a jazz soloist and a manager.
Managing diversity, like jazz improvisation, requires a manager to:
- Imitate: In jazz, a soloist (as well as other members of the band) will first attempt to incorporate other musicians’ alterations to the rhythm and tonality of the piece by imitating the new rhythm or notes played by the other musicians. Similarly, a manager must incorporate ideas from individual members – the first step in being able to incorporate a member’s idea is to be able to accurately repeat the point of view or idea the members have presented.
- Assimilate: In jazz, once the soloist understands what the other musicians are contributing by parroting their rhythm or notes, the soloist needs to consider the next chord changes in the piece. How can they build on these contributions? Similar, a manager must look at the ideas from different team members’ viewpoints and attempt to understand how to formulate a cohesive whole.
- Innovate: In jazz, once a soloist has understood the individual changes each member has contributed, they use the amalgamated changes to build the next section of the solo. Similarly, a manager must take the individual team members’ ideas, their understanding of these individual ideas and viewpoints, and use these to create a plan to move forward to tackle the task at hand.
On the basis of this strong parallel, it seems only appropriate to adopt Clark Terry’s quote as my personal diversity philosophy statement.