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What the creative collaboration on the music of Cowboy Bebop can teach us about Agile Practices

In this post I talk about what the collaboration between the producers of Cowboy Bebop and Japanese composer Yoko Kanno for creating the music of show can teach us about Agile Practices.

If you are trying find something bing watch on Netflix, you’ve probably been recommended Cowboy Bebop, especially if you have anime aficionado friends. I’m not going to so much about the series, other than is based one of the most popular japanese anime series of all time and you should probably watch it!

What I want to talk about what the creative process and the collaboration between series producers and Japanese composer Yoko Kanno for creating the music of the show can teach us about Agile Practices.

Yoko Kanno + The Music of Cowboy Bebop

3, 2, 1… Let’s jam! Dive deep into the music of Cowboy Bebop, featuring an interview with (and performances by) composer/anime legend/sonic genius herself, Yoko Kanno.

Collaboration and Trust instead of “Writing Down Every Note”

The music the Netflix show — based on the music of the original Cowboy Bebop series — is credited to Yoko Kanno and The Seatbelts, the ensemble Kanno enlisted to perform the music of show. Made up of musicians from Japan, New York and Paris, the group performed acoustic ballads, blues, bossa nova, country, electronic, funk, hard rock, hip-hop, jazz, samba and other genres. Although an instrumental big band, The Seatbelts occasionally featured singers such as Mai Yamane, Soichiro Otsuka, Steve Conte, and Gabriela Robin (a pseudonym for Kanno).

This short featurette about the music of Cowboy Bebop, Kanno talks about how easy her job was to have the SeatBelts to help her:

What made things different this time was that the same musicians named Seatbelts from 20 years ago were willing to help me. I feel as if I known them all my life. They could take a single melody line and elaborate it into something really cool. They are jazz musicians. All I need to do was covey the ambiance, and they would come up with amazing results. It was much easier than the times I had to write down every note.

Yoko Kanno

I’m a musician myself, and I realize that Jazz is not everyone’s cup of tea. But here is what one needs to know about Jazz that helps dispel some myths around creativity, constraints and improvisation:

  • The “illusion” of effortless performance — being “in the flow” — in music (as of ease of use and simplicity in design) rests on the mastery of the craft: practicing you scales, chord progressions, theoretical understanding of melody and harmony, etc. Such mastery comes from an incredible amount of practice.
  • A band can perform at the highest levels — beyond what is written on the page — when team members can connect beyond words: they understand each other’s weaknesses and strengths and know what makes their peers “tick”, which requires a lot of trust.

Scrum teams usually don’t execute on notes written on a piece of music, but musical analogy I think still stands: one of the agile principles is Communication over Documentation. Teams don’t have to wait for every detail (or “notes written on the page”) to be  to get the collaboration started! With some scrums teams, I try to practice what I call Progressive-Disclosure documentation approach, which is work out with the team what is the minimal amount of information they need with which can they confidently proceed with their work: if the team trust you (and you trust them), they know then can always reach out to you with more questions without making you the bottleneck.

I wrote a few pieces about how trust is a prerequisite for the Psychological Safety that unlocks the team potential (especially with regards to ownership and commitment), so I’m not surprised that Kanno mentions how they know each other for a long time as factor for the success of the collaboration.

Conflict arises in every team, but psychological safety makes it possible to channel that energy into productive interaction, that is, constructive disagreement, and an open exchange of ideas, and learning from different points of view.

Edmondson, A. C., The fearless organization (2018).
top view photo of people discussing
Learn more about how to help improve strategic collaboration while working on Distributed, Remote or Global Teams in Strategic Collaboration in Distribute or Remote Environments (Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com)

Shared Vision enables Collaboration

Kanno also talks about how hard it is for her to compose when she doesn’t share the vision with the show creators:

I think I’m quick at coming up with songs. But when I don’t know what the crew wants, I can’t write a single note. The directors, editors, or producers would tell me what each scene meant. Once I understand the significance of each scene, I can write a piece of music right away.

Yoko Kanno

I’ve mentioned in several posts now the importance of shared understanding and vision to help teams align. And here is another example of how communicating vision and purpose.

A clear and meaningful vision of the future to which a business is aspiring will help to engage people and unlock energy and commitment. It also guides actions and decisions at all levels of the organization and helps to promote consistency of purpose so that everyone works towards the same goal.

Kourdi, J., Business Strategy: A guide to effective decision-making (2015)
beach bench boardwalk bridge
Learn more about creating product vision in The Importance of Vision (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

Bonus Material

Yoko Kanno + Seatbelts reunite to perform Tank! — the phenomenal title sequence and theme song of Cowboy Bebop for the live action series. Intros don’t get much better than this. OK. 3, 2, 1… Let’s jam!

If you not into Jazz, you can still watch the opening credits for its visual beauty: while it was shot-by-shot inspired in the original anime series, I think new credits draw heavily from Saul Bass works, although I might be probably connecting the dots due to Bass’ long time collaboration with Duke Ellington. Check it out:

Sources

By Itamar Medeiros

Originally from Brazil, Itamar Medeiros currently lives in Germany, where he works as Director of Design Strategy at SAP.

Working in the Information Technology industry since 1998, Itamar has helped truly global companies in several countries (Argentina, Brazil, China, Czech Republic, Germany, India, Mexico, The Netherlands, Poland, The United Arab Emirates, United States, Hong Kong) create great user experience through advocating Design and Innovation principles.

During his 7 years in China, he promoted the User Experience Design discipline as User Experience Manager at Autodesk and Local Coordinator of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA) in Shanghai.

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