Not too long ago, I was listening to an album of piano Preludes written by the late Nineteenth Century composer Alexander Scriabin (1872 – 1915). I adore his piano music – which is very idiomatic to the instrument – and I include several of the pieces in my own repertoire. I found myself marveling anew at his mastery of counterpoint, a skill shared with several of his compatriots among the Late Russian Romantic composers. As I floated in that musical Jacuzzi, I began to muse on not only the importance of core skills in one’s professional life but also upon the discipline of counterpoint as an analogy for multi-dimensional awareness.
Counterpoint is a core discipline in music, particularly in classical music. Counterpoint is the relationship between musical lines in a composition that are generally independent rhythmically and melodically, but interdependent harmonically. Counterpoint may have reached its height during the era of the high Baroque at the hands of such practitioners as Johann Sebastian Bach. There is a great deal of…well…math involved in counterpoint, especially in forms such as the fugue. Even today it is considered a fundamental skill for all classically trained musicians, not just composers. It is said that Beethoven could not write a fugue to save his life. “Nonsense,” say I. And the art of the fugue (and counterpoint) has persisted into the Twenty-first Century. So, why should we care in the Business Intelligence and decision support world?
I return to my original Jacuzzi-induced revelation; counterpoint is an analogy for multi-dimensional awareness. Imagine my delight when I first contemplated this connection and opened up my freshman counterpoint book (Counterpoint 2nd Edition, by Kent Wheeler Kennan, ©1972 by Prentice-Hall, Inc.). Turning to the author’s Preface, this is what I found: “The chief objective of counterpoint study…is to awaken or sharpen in the student a feeling for the contrapuntal element that is present to some degree in virtually all music; to make him sensitive to the forces of opposition and agreement, tension and relaxation, direction, climax, and the like, that operate whenever two or more voices are sounded simultaneously.”
“Holy epiphany, Batman!” In that first half paragraph of his book, Professor Kennan not only captured the essence of my point, but also managed to take it to the next level. He wrote those words in 1959 and certainly intended them only within the context of musical study. Nonetheless, I did not even have to squint to recognize just about every business meeting I have ever attended, or every project I have been engaged in during my career. The “forces of opposition and agreement, tension and relaxation, direction, and climax” describe perfectly the human interactions in these extra-musical situations. Further, we rarely act or make decisions alone (two or more voices sounded simultaneously). In fact, the situations in which we are but a single voice are scarce. Our lives are not monody. That would be…well, medieval.
Our musical analogy persists. As human beings, we are all the richer for the multiplicity of voices, the diversity of viewpoint. The inspiration for a new product (or poem) coming from a single individual mind is a beautiful thing, not unlike a single unaccompanied voice raised in song. But most often, new ideas, directions, or enterprises are incubated within groups of human beings with each individual contributing a unique set of beliefs, viewpoints, anxieties, and needs. The result can be a symphony or cacophony. This is where counterpoint comes into play. This is why the sensitivity to these forces of opposition and agreement and so forth become a core skill in working with groups of people.
Let us examine the most basic dynamics of a business meeting. This could be a regular staff meeting, a group visioning session, or a simple meeting between two business people. The one element essential to all of these meetings is an agenda. The agenda brings structure to the engagement, and sets expectations as to role and outcome. Musicians do the same thing. The classical musician may play from a score or at least have learned the music from a score. But even jazz or rock musicians jamming together have basic chord progressions to structure their collaboration. A meeting without an agenda is a prescription for noise.
While the agenda provides structure, this should not be mistaken for rigidity. It is there only as a guide. Just as one member of a jazz trio may depart from the progression to perform a spontaneous riff (knowing that he will return to the structure of the progression when he is finished), so the meeting may be allowed to digress for an appropriate reason, only to return to the agreed upon structure once the tangent resolves.
The agenda is indispensable, to be certain, but it is not enough to ensure success. Meetings work best when there is a leader who is sensitive to the dynamics in the room and can guide the voices appropriately. This means making certain that everyone gets heard, not just the louder voices. This means establishing rules for maintaining personal respect, which also means leading by example. This means being able to anticipate where a voice is headed and being prepared to manage the resulting dissonance. Over time, the participants in the meetings may also become sensitive to these forces.
Recently, I had the opportunity to lead a shared visioning project for a client. The CEO knew that dissonance existed between several of his departments, and he could not move forward effectively until this was changed. He also recognized that he did not understand the nature of the discord. The visioning process brought together representatives of all the stakeholder departments and culminated in a full day retreat. The CEO himself participated, along with a member of the Board.
We began with some trust and team building exercises in the morning, and then articulated a shared identity based on values and purpose. The bulk of the day centered on identifying and incubating opportunities for improvement. These were the big rocs with which the organization needed to wrestle. (It is essential, by the way, to interject a fair amount of whimsy into such proceedings.) As the afternoon wore on, I had everyone working in small, rapidly changing teams. This was forcing each participant to work outside of his or her comfort silo and to adjust on the fly to new interpersonal variables (forces of opposition and agreement, tension and relaxation, direction, climax). Barriers were coming down all over the place and the entire group had modulated to a new key in the manner of their interactions. Even so, something still was wrong.
The CEO broke away from his team and came over to me with his eyes wide open as if a light bulb had just come on. “Steve,” he said, “there is a lot bubbling under the surface here.” I nodded. I had been aware of it all along, having been working with his teams for months, but the boss needed to hear it for himself. In spite of the new key in which everyone in the room was working, the original drone remained – still in the old key – and the dissonance was palpable.
I do not have an end to that story yet. In fact, it has only just begun. The level of communication and collaboration has already improved and the initiatives that the participants forged during the retreat will bring greater value to come. The CEO now has the means to address the underlying discord although that process will require time as well. It all comes down to that awareness, that sensitivity to the interpersonal forces that exist between all human beings like so many voices in a symphony. Counterpoint.
We rarely listen to music as so many discrete musical lines. Rather, we listen to it as a whole, and so should it be in our interactions with our fellow human beings. We understand and recognize the forces underneath while reveling in the unified palate of sound. It is the unity of all the voices coming together that produces harmony be it music or ideas. It is the Jacuzzi out of which that one voice rises with a new theme that finds its way into these words.
Do you always prepare agendas for your meetings? How do you guide the voices of opposition and agreement on your teams?