Provocative Competence

In organizations there is a great emphasis on maintaining control. Yet there is often a need for novel responses. We have to orient to the future and facilitate the unfolding of the future in the present moment, and we often have to do it with others. Conceptually this can be hard to think about. Frank Barrett is helpful. He writes of “provocative competence” — the ability to interrupt habit patterns, and he gives us an illustration from jazz musicians.

“Many veteran jazz musicians practice provocative competence; they make deliberate efforts to create disruptions and incremental re-orientations. This commitment often leads players to attempt to outwit their learned habits by putting themselves in unfamiliar musical situations that demand novel responses.  Saxaphonist John Coltrane is well known for deliberately playing songs in difficult and unfamiliar keys because “it made [him] think” while he was playing and he could not rely on his fingers to play the notes automatically.  Herbi Hancock recalls that Miles Davis was very suspicious of musicians in his quartet playing repetitive patterns so he forbade them to practice.  In an effort to spur the band to approach familiar tunes from a novel perspective, Davis would sometimes call tunes in different keys, or call tunes that the band had not rehearsed.  This would be done in concert, before a live audience.  “I pay you to do your practicing on the band stand,” Hancock recalls Davis’ commitment to “Keeping the music fresh and moving” by avoiding comfortable routines.  “Do you know why I don’t play ballads anymore?” Jarrett recalled Davis telling him.  “Because I like to play ballads so much (Carr, 1992, p. 53).” [Barrett, 1998, p. 609]


Who do I know who has ever demonstrated provocative competence?

When is provocative competence needed in our organization?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?



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