The Discordant Element

This evening I went to go see So Percussion perform Music for 18 Musicians by Steve Reich. Long-time readers will remember that I’m a complete nut for Reich’s work, so I was looking forward to seeing it again, especially since the other So Percussion concert I’d been to was enjoyable. Alas, I was incredibly disappointed.

My expectations were clearly too high going in. I’d only seen 18 performed by Steve Reich’s ensemble, a group that has been performing the piece for 30 years, and has it polished to an incredible level of perfection. Their total mastery of the piece and comfort with its rhythms allowed them to move beyond the performance into this whole other space of art and meaning.

Given my recent posts, it’s probably not surprising that my thoughts during the performance tied this back into management. It’s another illustration that no matter how great the plan is, the team must execute for the plan to work. In this case, I know this is a great piece, and I love the ways in which the chords build on themselves and the interplay between the different instruments. And when it’s performed as intended, it’s a spiritual experience for me. But when the same piece is performed short of perfection, it falls apart into a disjointed set of bangings. Execution matters. Experience matters. Deliberate practice matters.

So why did the performance not work for me? A few things I noticed:

  • The tempo was set just a bit fast, and they seemed to do each element the minimum number of times, so everything felt rushed rather than deliberate.
  • The performers were excited, which is normally a good thing, but they overplayed their excitement to the point of hamminess.
  • The sound mixing was off, so that the singers were sometimes inaudible and sometimes overmiked, making it hard for them to stay in tune with each other.
  • The violinist was out of tune – there was one exposed string section, where her A-string was painfully flat, and she kept on playing it and I kept on cringing.
  • The coordination wasn’t as tight, which isn’t surprising since the performers had come together for this one set of performances, but there was some noticeable awkwardness compared to the Reich ensemble.

Nothing major. No one thing that leaped out at me and ruined the performance. It was a combination of little things that didn’t quite fit.

This relates to one of the points I made in my last post, where I stated that a team can be greater than the sum of its parts. And when everything locks into place, the results are amazing. The musical analogy I came up with is the overtone series. When a chord is perfectly in tune, you can actually hear the higher order harmonics audibly. If any element of the chord is just slightly out of tune, the chord will still sound okay, but you lose the spine-tingling harmonics. Listening to a chorus like the Tallis Scholars is great because they nail their chords and all of the overtones just pop out of the texture. There are more notes being heard than are actually being sung.

Something similar happens in a well-functioning team. When everybody is pulling together and perfectly aligned, extra output just appears from the synergistic effects of the team. One plus one plus one somehow equals four. But here’s the downside – like the overtone series, if anything is even slightly out of alignment, you lose all of that bonus.

It’s interesting to me as a student of management because it demonstrates that getting 90% of the way there means nothing. It’s only when all aspects of an organization are aligned 100% does it really take off. This reminds me of Built to Last, where the authors point out that the successful companies have built the core values of the company into every aspect of the company. Doing 90% doesn’t cut it because it raises the expectations and then doesn’t fulfill them. To take a made-up example, a company could put all the elements of an employee empowerment program in place, but if one manager micromanages their employees, it may be even more demotivating than if the company had done nothing.

I think that’s what happened at the performance tonight. It was a solid performance, and most of the audience enjoyed it. But having seen two perfect performances, where I’d seen the synergistic effect of the performers and the piece feeding on each other, this was far short of that experience. And because it was almost good enough, it was almost more frustrating than if it had been just terrible. I wanted to like it. I almost liked it. But I ended up being disappointed.

The take home lesson is contained in the post title. Notice the discordant elements in your company. If something doesn’t align with the company goals, remove it. It might seem minor, but it could be preventing synergistic organization overtones from forming. It’s like Peopleware’s description of how to build a team – first avoid all the ways in which you can prevent a team from forming, avoiding teamicide. It’s also similar to the Broken Windows theory, where fixing the little things makes it easier to fix the big things because all elements of the system are then in alignment.

Of course, the first step to figuring out which elements are discordant is figuring out what the goals are. Until you know where you want to go, you can’t align everything else. But if you know what you want to accomplish, and you remove all the obstacles, even seemingly minor ones, then great things can happen. You’ll hear those overtones pop into existence and the company will achieve greater things than you thought possible.

6 thoughts on “The Discordant Element

  1. Funny – I understand what you’re talking about re: music – where literally, a perfect performance can turn 2 into 3.

    But the thing that struck me was that I ended up thinking about food (maybe ’cause I was eating a sandwich at the time).

    Reminded me of something like the French Laundry, or Morimoto, where they’re able to marshal a number of flavors, and balance them so perfectly that it *tastes* like something new. Where 1+1 = zebra.

    But just like the music example, it relies on *everything* in the dish working together in balance – one thing gets out of whack – too much, too little, and suddenly the fifteen ingredients don’t sum to 15, 1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1=1. All you taste is the *imbalance* – that one ingredient that doesn’t work.

    Which reminds me of my last job, where there was essentially one guy who was incredibly stubborn and petulant. The entire team basically dragged to a stop every time he had a problem, and whatever productivity everyone else brought to the table, none of it mattered, because that one jackass was the overpowering lemongrass of discord.


    But yeah, great post.

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