I love going to jazz festivals. Listening to good jazz at home is a pleasure, but what’s missing are the vibes during a live performance. And it’s not the same when you listen to a recording of a concert. Everything changes when you are actually there, immersed, experiencing directly with all your senses. I guess it’s similar with other types of music. But what makes the difference between listening to a recording and being at concert even bigger for jazz, is that it is all about improvisation. And then the experience of single concerts versus festivals is also different. With concerts, you immerse yourself for a couple of hours into a world of magic and then go back to the normal world. But with jazz festivals, you relocate to live in a music village for a couple of days. This doesn’t only make it a different experience, but also calls for different kinds of decisions.
Previously, when I learned of a new jazz festival or read the line-up of a familiar one, the way I decided whether to go was simple. I just checked who would be performing. If there were musicians that I liked, but hadn’t watched live, or some that I had, but wanted to see again, then I went. If not, I usually wouldn’t risk it.
Once I chose to go, this brought more things to consider. Jazz festivals usually have many stages, with parallel performances during the day and into the night. Last time I went to the North Sea Jazz Festival, there were over 80 performances in only a few days. So, there is a good chance that some of those you want to watch will clash, and you are forced to choose. And I kept applying the same low-risk strategy for choosing what to watch as I did for deciding if I should go at all.
Then one day, I arrived late to a festival just before two clashing sets were about to begin. I dashed into the closest hall with no clue as to what I would find. And there I experienced what turned out to be the best concert of the whole festival. I hadn’t heard of the group, and if I had read the description beforehand, I would have avoided their performance.
I realized then, that by only choosing concerts with familiar musicians, I was over-exploiting and under-exploring. My strategy was depriving me of learning opportunities and reducing the overall value I got from the festivals.
What happened at that festival changed the way I decide whether to go and which performances to see. Now I not only attend many more concerts of musicians previously unknown to me, but not having a familiar name in the line-up does not determine the decision to buy tickets.
However, when the whole line-up of the festival is completely unknown, then going is all exploration. That’s highly risky. When there are no familiar musicians, I listen to recordings of previous concerts of some of the groups. If I like at least two of them, then I usually go to the festival, and once there, I will still check out a few acts I don’t know. That’s another way to balance exploitation and exploration.
When I am in control, “I restrict the world to what I can imagine or permit”, writes Ranulph Glanville. He gives the example of going to a restaurant with friends. If it’s always him who chooses the restaurant, the group will only go to the restaurants that he knows. They are limited to his taste and knowledge, or rather – as he admits – by his ignorance. Letting go of control by letting others choose, not only expands his knowledge but would often give a better experience for everyone.
Having the wrong strategy when it comes to jazz festivals and restaurants reduces the pleasure, but in these examples, the decisions make such a small impact that they may not show how important this balance is. Yet, we make similar choices all the time. For example, you might decide to invest your time in getting better at what you currently do well while not allocating time to trying out new things. This may put you in a very unpleasant situation in times when there is no more demand for what you are skilled at, or when you need a change but have difficulty choosing because you haven’t tested many alternatives.
Throughout our lives, many of us realize that when making choices, we should have a balance of exploration and exploitation. We should let go of some control and not limit ourselves to what we already know. And that’s an important first step, but it’s not enough. It takes a greater effort to keep this awareness awake. And somehow, it’s also easier at a personal level. How so?
We live our lives and are experiencing every minute of every day. We absorb sounds, tastes, smells, and light and feel the air on our skin. Through evolution we are well equipped to receive a signal when there is even a small problem. We get a scratch and react right away. That’s not the case with organizations. They might be missing a whole limb or – and here the metaphor will fail to produce a feeling of exaggeration – a head, without noticing for years. And even if we have learned how to balance exploitation and exploration in our lives, the chances are we are working in organizations that haven’t. It’s not easy even to imagine what maintaining this balance means for an organization. We can’t really step into the shoes of one. What we can do instead is study this phenomenon a little closer, try to understand it better, and then, armed with a new pair of glasses, make the best of that knowledge while we keep learning from what happens. To understand how the balance between exploration and exploitation works in organizations, we’ll start with the problem of resource allocation, and then move to more complex situations. Continue reading →