'Big Ears': The Importance of Team Awareness in Software Development

Adrian Cho
In the artistic world, jazz musicians are some of the most agile, innovative and collaborative performers. What enables their success? Celebrated jazz pianist, composer and bandleader, Duke Ellington, said, "The most important thing I look for in a musician is whether he knows how to listen." If one jazz musician remarks that another jazz musician has "big ears," it's a compliment that means the person is constantly aware, ready to respond to change and open to exchanging ideas.

In a software development team, just as in a jazz band, contributors act as individuals and interact with others in continuous cycles of execution. The Observe-Orient-Decision-Act (OODA) cycle of execution was defined by maverick U.S. Air Force fighter pilot Colonel John Boyd, one of the first instructors at the Fighter Weapons School where he wrote the curriculum on dogfight tactics. In business, Boyd's theories have been lauded by leading management thinkers such as Tom Peters. Whether by design or by accident, many other cycles of decision and action bear similarity to the OODA Loop. Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA), also known as the Deming Cycle, Shewhart Cycle or Deming Wheel, is one such example.

In the OODA loop, the initial and most important step is to observe in order to gain awareness of changes in the environment. In many disciplines, the source of that awareness is seeing; for musicians, it is listening; for software developers, it is the software tools they use each and every day. Regardless of the source, observing is about acquiring all data relevant to decision making.

Individual Awareness

Individual awareness is critically important to practitioners in any discipline. Without it, individual practitioners can't perform well by themselves. Individual awareness comes from observing one's own actions. Jazz musicians listen to their own sound production to ensure that what emanates from their instrument matches what they hear in their head. Software developers observe the result of tools that build software, the results of testing, whether automated or manual, and when necessary, they employ specialized tools such as debuggers to gain greater insight into the behavior of code.

Team Awareness

Team awareness is critically important to collaborative efforts. Without it, individuals limit their performance in a group. Team awareness comes from observing collaborators. Jazz musicians listen not just to themselves but to what other musicians are doing and what the group as a whole sounds like. As the great jazz pianist Oscar Peterson said, "It's the group sound that's important, even when you're playing a solo. You not only have to know your own instrument, you must know the others and how to back them up at all times. That's jazz." To gain team awareness, software developers need tools that allow them to observe what their team is doing and how it is progressing towards its goals. In IBM's Rational Team Concert, views such as Team Dashboard, Team Organization and Team Artifacts provide this kind of data. Tools that facilitate team awareness are especially important for teams that are not geographically co-located. To avoid costly conflicts and collisions, tools must help developers contribute simultaneously and integrate their collective contributions.

Situational Awareness

Situational awareness is critically important to operations within an organization, ecosystem, environment or greater community. This applies to virtually all teams, for no one operates in a vacuum. Without situational awareness, teams may fail to deliver products or services that can attract and retain audiences or they may fail to account for and respond to the actions of competitors.


Jazz musicians are highly attuned to what is happening in their performance space and to the reactions of their audience. Audiences at jazz performances help tighten the feedback loop by providing authentic, timely feedback to the musicians with smiles of appreciation, nodding heads, tapping feet and snapping fingers. Sometimes they even shout out their appreciation. They applaud when a musician finishes an improvised solo - and then they applaud the entire band at the end of the piece.

Software developers should aim to tighten the feedback loop just as jazz musicians do by inviting honest and regular feedback on their work at all stages and incorporating that feedback into subsequent builds. In this respect, tools that facilitate feedback from consumers are essential. These include systems that track enhancement requests and defects.

Awareness Is Everything

High-performance execution demands awareness gained through keen observation. Whether performing jazz or developing software, each discipline employs teams of talented practitioners who must continuously integrate their individual contributions while adjusting to an ever-changing environment. Highly effective individuals are valued for their ability to allocate a sizable portion of their personal bandwidth to team and situational awareness, not just individual performance. In doing so, they can help deliver superior group performances by working closely with collaborators, while at the same time responding effectively to consumers' needs and competitive threats.
 



Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Sep 29, 2011 9:09 PM Anonymous Anonymous  says:
Given that our eyes and ears never stop growing, does this mean all old people could become jazz musicians? Reply
Oct 1, 2011 10:25 PM Adrian Cho (author) Adrian Cho (author)  says: in response to Anonymous
Ha! I'd say most of the best jazz musicians are older people! Reply

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