Roy Hargrove, a popular jazz jammer, at work on his horn. Photo courtesy of Eddy Westveer via Flickr.

Roy Hargrove, a popular jazz jammer, at work on his horn. Photo courtesy of Eddy Westveer via Flickr.

This is the second post in a series on the tragedy of the commons and what it means for the arts sector.

Four talented young musicians step on stage at a West Village jazz jam. Each faces competing pressures: helping make the band sound tight and showing off her own skills. With this information, and a little bit of formal logic, we could conclude that this situation is hopeless (as we did in the previous piece of this series). Each member of the band faces a pair of incentives that together push her to overplay–meaning simply, as in Pitfalls, playing for a longer period of time than would normally be appropriate for the given tune–and make the music worse. Jazz jams from New York to LA are plagued by this fate, but many avoid it. Some, like the one at Fat Cat in New York City, host some of the best music around.

In order to achieve their goals, arts funders often need the organizations they support to work together. Many of these on-the-ground organizations face a set of incentives similar to the jazz musicians. Yet in the real world, successful collaboration is not unusual for arts organizations or jazz artists.

Why are some shared goals realized when incentives appear to be aligned against them? Doctoral degrees, book deals, and Nobel prizes have been awarded for attempts at answering this question. People and the institutions we make up are difficult to understand. Though there does not yet appear to be a consensus on a single set of factors that generate solutions, simplified versions of the theories posited by diverse academics like Elinor Ostrom, Robert Axelrod, Robert Sugden, Antonio Demasio, George Lakoff, and Daniel Kahnemen from economics, political science, psychology, cognitive science, linguistics, anthropology, and mathematics can help funders move toward a fuller toolkit of productive impact strategies.

Jazz Jams That Listeners Can Enjoy

Looking at how a jazz jam works and how the members avoid failure helps us better understand which strategies foundations should be choosing. A jazz quartet that plays well together could draw on one or a combination of the following scenarios:

Cooperative Strategies: Jazz jams can be quite draining. A series of bad experiences can scar a player for life. Only the musicians who get a lot out of playing stick around to teach jazz to the next round of youngsters. Teachers have learned through experience that they are happiest when they get to play extra time and when no one else overplays. They also learn that pretty much everyone feels the same way. Since it is unlikely that they will run into a lot of players that feel differently, they need to develop a strategy that can work for them throughout the years and keep them energized to go onto the next jam.  Over time, musicians start to develop a simple plan: 1) the first time you play with a new group, don’t overplay. 2) If your bandmates overplay, you can overplay next time as payback. 3) If they don’t overplay, reward them by going along the next time and not overplaying. Cooperation is the best possible option for the group as a whole, so this simple strategy is able to gain momentum over time and become the dominant approach. The four musicians who show up at the West Village jazz jam have all been trained well and know this strategy. If they follow it, the players and the audience will leave happy enough to return another night.

Psychological: It is not often that jazz musicians are accused of being abnormally rational. Each player’s approach to the music is organic, complex, and deeply emotional. Even in everyday life, aside from the creative and culturally cooperative setting of the jazz jam, recent research suggests that no one always acts completely rationally. Our West Village jazz musicians are no different. Each of the players has interests and goals. These incentives can be understood by analyzing the individual musicians’ situations as if they were happiness-maximizing robots. The problem is that players in this group also have brains and bodies, and those don’t always work like a computer.

As the trumpet player reaches the stage, a lot is going through her mind. 98% of it is subconscious. Her fellow musicians start to play. Before she has even picked up her instrument, she hears the chord changes and watches the guitarist strike his instrument. Her brain mirrors this; her mind’s fingers are playing all of those chords. Though she is only observing, her neurons are quietly firing, providing her a subconscious empathic connection to her bandmate. She begins to play and comes to a decision point: should she overplay or play along with everyone else? Her decision draws on a number of simple rules for mental processing. One, called framing, tells her to use the information she has, as it is presented, to make the decision. She was just telling her friend how one of the players earlier in the night was a “ball hog.” The metaphor she used equates “overplaying” and “being a ball hog” and sets the frame for her: jazz is a team sport in which each member should sacrifice for the goals of the team. Using this framing, she decides to pass the ball to her teammate.

Social Context: Jazz musicians are members of social networks outside of just the jazz jam community. The social norms jazz musicians learn outside of jazz—whether in their homes, schools, or places of work or worship—matter inside jazz. When the bass player takes the stage, he is behaving in a way he finds appropriate given his upbringing and social context. Though he feels the urge to take off his shirt—it is hot after all—he probably won’t. He has learned that in this society, when you’re at an upscale music venue, you don’t take off your clothes even if you’re overheated. The same logic applies to his decision not to overplay. His society has conditioned him to appreciate teamwork and cooperation as important virtues. He decides to limit his playing to one turn over the chord changes, because he knows doing otherwise would be seen as inappropriate in his society.

Rules: There’s a sign on the wall of our imaginary West Village jazz haunt: UNLESS YOU’RE CHARLIE PARKER, KEEP IT UNDER 2 CHORUSES! As new players arrive, the doorman makes sure to point out the sign and let them know that they’ll have to pay a fine if they break the rule. When these fresh-faced jazz jammers reach the stage, overplaying doesn’t cross their mind. They know they have to play by the rules and do their best within their time limit.

Unspoken Rules: A young alto sax player walks into a bar on Frenchmen Street hosting a jazz jam. He sits down to watch a few songs and sees that certain players are getting kicked off stage, while others are allowed to stay on stage tune after tune. He notices the difference between the two types of players: the ones who get pushed off are overplaying, and the ones who get to stay are team players. A few songs later, he gets called to the stage. When he gets the chance to overplay, he decides against it because, even though the rule is unspoken, he knows that there will be costs to overplaying.

The Rules that Set the Rules: At the beginning of every jazz jam it hosts, a club in Harlem asks every non-playing person in attendance to vote on the rules for the night. Those in attendance raise their hands and voices in support of a reasonable limit on how long solos can be. They decide that musicians who break the rules can’t play the rest of the night; they’re the customers after all. The rules as determined by the audience constrain the freedom of the musicians to play what they want, but they do so in the interest of everyone there.

A Well-Intentioned Intervention at Our Dreamed-Up Jazz Jam

As one further complication, we could add to our hypothetical jazz jam the existence of an organizer. The person responsible for bringing the whole event about could use her power to influence where the jam is held, what the rules are, and who is allowed in. She could also draw on cognitive scientific, psychological, and game theoretic evidence that using the right language and setting the right context for the jam could change the outcomes. By facilitating the jam with this awareness, she could ensure the jammers work together to the benefit of all involved.

Funding Successful Cooperation

Foundations often use grant-making as a way to structure the incentives available for achieving their goals. Often times, the goals require collaboration among organizations they are funding and other organizations with a similar purpose. Foundations can be more successful if they learn how collaboration works and integrate this knowledge into their grant-making strategies. The simplified jazz jam situations I previously laid out provide a window into how organizations and people come to cooperate.

Foundations that select organizations for funding by assessing marginal costs against marginal social benefits may incentivize organizations to work against shared goals (see The Pitfalls of Shared Goals). Providing grants on this basis carries an implicit theory: the value organizations create together is worth no more than the value they create on their own. The alternative belief, that the value organizations create through collaboration is greater than that which they provide alone, suggests a broader range of strategies.

The Collective Impact approach, as described by John Kania and Mark Kramer in an article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, is an important first step toward solutions. Kania and Kramer suggest that foundations should set a shared agenda, develop a common measurement system, work with organizations to help them fit into their highest-impact role, encourage cross-organization communication, and fund an institution to manage this process. These suggestions draw on the idea that, by changing the rules that make the rules and increasing the visibility of an organization’s failure to contribute to the shared goals, foundations can get closer to achieving their desired outcomes. Each of these suggestions is valid, but other strategies exist as well.

Foundations and other funders of the arts could turn to the varied explanations (above) of why people work together to define strategies that fit their unique needs. Take, for example, a funder seeking to increase the diversity of art making in their community. The funder may choose to fund an organization working to provide performance spaces for women and a separate organization working on offering music classes to underserved communities. Each of these organizations are important, but by emphasizing the individual impact they have on their focus, e.g., how many people became instrumentally proficient per dollar, the funder misses the opportunity to promote shared goals. Instead, the funder could attempt to reframe the work each organization does by offering combined team trainings with all of its grantees in attendance. It could set a standard that any organization which appears to not be working in concert with other organizations is barred from funding for a certain number of years. It could offer trainings on cooperative strategies, like the tit-for-tat strategy explained above, such that the organizations they fund would self-enforce cooperation. And it could even change the language it uses in the grant-making process to ensure that it helps organization leaders think of their organizations as one piece of a bigger puzzle.

In reality, many foundations do this sort of thing every day without knowing it. They consider long-term objectives and make decisions based on audacious goals rather than just near-term impact. They bring diverse coalitions together to discuss shared goals. While a short-run cost-benefit analysis may not see the value in time spent at a bar with other organizations in the community, the cooperative model we’ve been discussing makes sense of its importance.

The strategies foundations and other funders develop are particular to their mission. By understanding how collaboration works in a simple setting, funders can tweak their social impact strategies on the big stage to be more aligned with the evidence on how we reach shared goals.


For more on these topics, check out:

  • LauraX

    Hi there, I would like to know in your opinion, what’s the biggest difference between Cooperative Strategies and Rules, as I am wondering in your example, the simple plan you mentioned in Cooperative Strategies section can be part of the bigger realm of Rules, and Rules may include both rules from the organizer as well as from the Jazz Haunt.

    Looking forward to your reply. Many thanks in advance!

    • Dan Thompson

      Interesting question! I think of rules as the parameters that define what someone can do. These are either set by a group people working together (think democracy), an individual (think dictatorship), or something in between. I understand strategies as the ways people act to maximize their happiness given a set of rules. The cooperative strategies argument is attempting to boil down the work of game theorist Robert Axelrod who found that when people repeatedly play games like the one I’m talking about in the article, people can find ways to cooperate even though all the rules are aligned against them. Of course, if they could change the rules, that would be a good thing too. Does that answer your question?

      • LauraX

        Thank you very much for the reply, and yes, your explanation does help a lot for me to further understand these two arguments. So I would think Cooperative Strategies as a way that people build up through a relatively longer period of time through various practices, negotiation and discussion with other team members, meanwhile Rules are set up more likely by an one-sided dominant role. Am I right?

        Also, I am very looking forward to your third part of this series!

  • Dan Thompson

    An example might help clarify things: You and I play a game of rock-paper-scissors. We both know the rules. To win, we try to work within the bounds of the rules. Our approach to winning is called our strategy. Does that help clarify the difference a bit?

    • LauraX

      Many thanks for the reply! Yes I am clear on this point now!