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Friday, September 14, 2007

The Symphony-Business Analogy

As one of the top ensembles in classical music, the Medici String Quartet has enjoyed a long and creative collaboration. But it hasn't always been harmonious.

Harvard Business School professor Robert Austin explains what innovative businesses can learn about managing creative people.

Key concepts covered:

  • Businesses emphasize technical mastery and the creation of predictable patterns. The Medici String Quartet aimed for more. The goal of each performance was never to render a piece exactly as the composer intended, but to interpret it in fresh and new ways.
  • Financial pressures for the quartet could be intense. Among musicians, it's an old (but good) joke: How do you become a millionaire as a classical musician? Start as a billionaire.
  • Businesses enjoy the notion that innovation happens when everyone is happy and satisfied. As the quartet proved, harmony comes in unexpected ways.

BOTTOMLINE: The challenge of executing strategy sneaks up on us. In some ways, when we first start a business, there’s a kind of simplicity. It’s sort of like an individual whistling a simple tune he’s made up in his own head. As the business grows bigger and more complex, however, this person’s simple tune gradually transforms into a “symphony,” requiring an orchestra to play it and a conductor to lead it.

Unfortunately, many of us are caught trying harder and harder to “whistle a symphony” when we should really be building an orchestra.

An orchestra is a complex system made up of many different parts, all of which have to be aligned so their tempo, mix and volume all synchronize around the composer’s music and the conductor’s leadership. A business is an even more complex system. Continuing the analogy of a symphony, in Disciplines I and II we’ve written the composition we want to play (goals statement). Discipline IV—Work the Plan (coming up in the next chapter) focuses on actually playing the music. However, the purpose of this chapter’s Discipline (Discipline III—Align Systems) is to make sure we have the right “types” and number of instruments, the right musicians, the correct floor layout, sound systems, electrical services, music stands and
copies of the music before rehearsal starts.

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