Life Lessons in Management
from Making Music

Inspired by Jason Fried's column on Inc Magazine: Why I Run a Flat Company

My first symphony I performed with Hampshire County Youth Orchestra, I was 14, the underdog and playing the top trumpet part. You know, those absolutely epic bits you hear on recordings and soundtracks that put your hairs on end. Incredible.

The great thing was I got to play alongside older kids, auditioning for music college and whatnot. There’s no better way to learn how to play your instrument, how to work in a team and nurture those key leadership skills than trying to keep up with the best. Now, aged 17, as principal trumpet I insist on the same ideas; everyone swaps around playing the top parts, even the youngest guys. Everyone’s treated an equal.

The “step-up” from county level is national level. A trumpeting friend of mine made it through the levels of auditions and got in. Assigned a position in the pecking order, that position dictates what parts you’re playing for that year, until the top guy is too old for the “youth orchestra”. Discipline is everything, and the results are outstanding, technically at least.

But is that really what making music is all about?

Yes, its absolutely slick in-time, in-tune and sounds like a CD recording in real life. But it isn't performance, not at least as I define it.

A performance is an two-way interaction, where both the performers and audience just really care about the event. Its intimate, and YouTube can’t match it, hence why the whole live events industry can and will continue to thrive. But you can’t make music in a straight jacket, with your primary mission is competing for the top spot. It’s like the “vertical ambition” Jason talks about. When making music, or running a business, its destructive.

Your organization is your section, your orchestra; and the audience are you’re customers. Selling is the intimate connection of buyer and seller about something they really care about. I suppose corporates forget that...

Layers of hierarchy get in the way of this intimacy; suddenly the priority isn’t connecting with customers, but about getting that promotion and other metrics that just don’t matter.

But still, Jason’s ideas only have so much mileage. In Rework, he asks “why grow?” - 37signals is still a small company. But when you get larger companies, you need some kind of management structure (formal or not). A company of hundred or so employees - a step up from the 26-strong team under Fried - has many synergies to an orchestra.

An orchestra does have section leaders; besides performing the solos (someones got to), handing out parts and at least providing a point of liason for the conductor. But like in Jason’s article, we all swap around roles at Hampshire so different people are leading, playing the top parts and responsibilities are shared.

Yes, there is still a clear conductor and leader, who doesn’t make any sound but a conductor can’t micromange/play one-hundred parts simultaneously... in fact, when our conductor *really* wants us to make music, he just stops conducting. And music happens.

Final Thought

Benjamin Zander is conductor of Boston Philharmonic, as well as an author and speaker on leadership. He sums up the ideas in the book he co-authored ‘The Art of Possibility’ in his brilliantly entertaining TED talk. He acknoledges how ridiculous it is that his picture goes on the CDs, despite him not making music himself. Here’s his perspective.

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