I wrote this back in 2013 for the Navy’s Project Athena. Still relevant.

Sometimes people get locked into certain ways of thinking, or look to the same places for inspiration or ideas.  Often the best lessons for your work can come from totally unrelated areas of your life like sports or music. 5-time Grammy winning bassist Victor Wooten tells a story about one of his first studio sessions in Nashville. He was a young, hot-shot bass player with amazing chops.

Victor was recording with the Memphis Horns, and at the end of the session he came out elated. He had nailed the material, and was playing at the top of his game. But much to his chagrin, one of the leaders of the Memphis Horns pulled him aside afterwards and said, “you know Victor, one ear is for you – the other ear is for the band.”

Victor knew exactly what he meant, and took that phrase with him on every gig since then. It doesn’t matter how good you are at what you do. Invariably tasks as accomplished by groups, and if you’re not “listening” to others, your individual skills will not be enough to carry the day. I learned a variation on this directly from Victor when I was attending one of his Bass/Nature camps in Tennessee. Our group was working on improvisation, and while he and Anthony Wellington played a rhythm figure, students, one by one, took turns playing a solo.

When it came time for my turn, I played some of what I thought were my “best licks”, and was largely error-free. At that point Victor stopped, smiled, and said, “you know Todd, you had some really interesting things to say. Unfortunately you weren’t talking about the same subject as Anthony and me.” That hit me like a lightning bolt, and while part of me wanted to find a hole to crawl into and hide, the other part of me “got it.” I was listening to myself with both ears. Point taken. Another thought that I take to every gig.

The beauty of these stories is that the underlying lesson applies everywhere in your life – especially in the workplace. Have you ever sat in a meeting where you were thinking so hard about what you wanted to say (in order to sound smart), that you didn’t really listen to anyone else? (I have). How about being so focused on what you want or need that you don’t hear reasons from others on why you may want to course-correct? These are all symptoms of the underlying problem of keeping both ears for yourself.

I’ll give you a related situation that happened with one of our projects some time back. We were about 2 weeks away from showing a beta version of a game for training dismounted counter-IED concepts. I was the project lead, and my team had been working very hard in order to hit a crazy deadline (3 months from project start to first delivery). We had a play-test and things went reasonably well from a technical perspective. The code was fairly stable and there were no major bugs. But at the end of the play test, I wasn’t happy. The team gathered to debrief and we went around the room with everyone (programmers, QA, artists, management, etc) giving their plusses and minuses. Then it came to me since I get the last word. I knew my team had really pushed and I wanted to give them the kudos they deserved. But sadly, after doing the play test I knew that the game just wasn’t where it needed to be.

Projects often come to these types of situations. And there are different ways to deal with it. I chose my words carefully, and said, “instructional games ideally need to do two things – they have to train and they should be fun. Right now we have a game that is neither.” I could see the blood drain out of the faces of the team. It sucks to work hard and hear that it isn’t good enough. Now some would have just dropped that grenade and walked out of the room, leaving the team to figure out how to fix it. And sometimes you need to do that. But my “ear” for the team told me that if I was going to tear it down, then I needed to lead them to build it back up. So I went up to the white board and we went through what worked, what didn’t, and how we were going to rethink the problem. After an hour of that we had a new plan of attack and the team was energized to crank out the next version.

So along with keeping an “ear for the band,” this episode resonated with another line I learned from Victor – “feel the groove before you play.” There are a number of different ways to run a project, lead a group, or play a song. But every situation has an inherent “groove.” And it can change from day to day even with the same people involved. So before you speak or make a decision, try and find the groove of the room and the group. It is more art than science, but it turns out if you’re doing the listening thing, the groove generally follows.

If this resonated with you (and even if it didn’t), there are more “aha moments” to be found in Victor’s book, “The Music Lesson.” If ever there was a book that was about far more than its title indicated, this is it.