Three discoveries last night

Last night, I went to see a concert, a string quartet.

I knew none of the works on the programme, but it was a quartet of international stature, and live classical music is something I like, so I was delighted to have been invited.

We enter the hall, and the musicians come in. Its all evening dresses, dark suits and antique instruments. So far, so good, I thought.

They start playing. An original, world premiere original composition.

It is modern. It is chaos. It is terrible.

Except, it isn’t so terrible, once you begin to listen. There is order, but it is hidden away under the discords. There is harmony, but it isn’t the harmony you expect, so you don’t hear it.

In particular, there is extraordinary skill in the musicians. The whole thing sounds like a mess, but every bow is going the same direction. The timing of each note is perfect. The silences between the notes precise.

In short, though I didn’t like the composition one bit, the artistry with which it was executed was flawless.

I was so impressed.

And then I realised something.

My reaction to this music is probably little different to the reaction that conservatives have when confronted by corporate innovators.

Their minds, trained for years in accepting things in a certain way, find the new stuff modern. Chaotic. Terrible.

And, because they’ve not had much practice in accepting new things, it is probably unrealistic to imagine they’ll see the competence and artistry that underlies decent innovation execution.

I know, because my brain was off for about half the performance because I disliked the content. Interval came and went before I pushed myself into seeing beyond.

At the end, I left wondering why I hadn’t realised all this before.

Non-innovators never see beyond the content. So they never know what it took to create it, or what the bigger design may be.

Leaving the hall, I got to listen to some of the audience. Most of them were waxing lyrical about the magic of the performance. I didn’t think it was so magic, myself, but then something else dawned on me: the audience was almost entirely comprised of musical intelligencia.  Highly educated, completely familiar with the modern style, probably musicians themselves.

They admired not only the technical competence of the musicians but the composition as well.

I was left wondering if you had to be a musican to appreciate this kind of music.

I conclude you probably do, and the same is likely true for innovators too.

Only innovators care about innovators for their content as well as their execution.

One final reveleation came to me in the taxi home. I probably wouln’t choose to listen to such a concert again. Though I admired what I saw, it just wasn’t my cup of tea.

Despite everything, despite caring deeply about doing new stuff professionally, given the chance, I’d revert back to the old stuff I’ve always gone to see.

I have no doubt that conservatives, when forced into innovative behaviours, are the same. Take the innovators away, and the old stuff comes right back.

Amazing what you learn on a night out.

10 Responses to“Three discoveries last night”

  1. Yusuf C
    July 12, 2011 at 9:59 am #

    This is the first of your posts I’ve read. Interesting.

    I’ve worked on a couple of ‘innovative’ products and services, and I agree that the users (consumers, buyers, users) almost need to want to see the value and benefits before the ‘ah-ha’ moment kicks in. It also takes a lot of energy on the part of the innovators to keep pushing until their ideas become understood and appreciated.

    Looking forward to your next one.

    • James Gardner
      July 12, 2011 at 2:07 pm #

      Thank you very much for writing! it does seem as if we have similar experiences with this particular topic. For me, discovering I wasn’t as innovative as I thought when confronted by stuff that was actually pretty innovative was pretty eye-opening.

  2. July 12, 2011 at 1:01 pm #

    nice set of reflections James

    • James Gardner
      July 12, 2011 at 2:08 pm #


  3. Sean Kain
    July 13, 2011 at 8:48 am #

    James – sounds like you shared an experience that the first listeners of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring had. I learnt about this from a Radiolab podcast At 28:40 they describe the physics of sound and then at 31:40 they relate this to the reaction of the first performance of that piece, but also how over time people became accustomed to it. Talks very much about how becoming accustomed to something makes us feel comfortable with it. Worth listening to.

    • James Gardner
      July 13, 2011 at 11:17 am #

      You know, it is interesting you bring that up: I was thinking during the performance I might start a riot too!

  4. July 13, 2011 at 8:37 pm #

    James, lovely piece of writing and is similar to something that I have experienced recently myself.

    I was in London with a few hours spare, and took a trip to the Tate Modern. I wanted to go to see some art to give my creativity a boost.

    I saw that they were exhibiting Miro, something that I had heard of but not sure why. At first glance, Miros’ work appeared random, and not discript. However, as I got more into the exhibition, I started experience stirrings that led me to understand the Genius that had been at work.

    This surreal art was inspiring, and really was ‘out of the box’.

    I was wondering when I left how many other things we look at in life with the same initial misunderstandings that we do not give a chance to develop to experience the true genius that really is there and is trying to show itself.

    • James Gardner
      July 14, 2011 at 6:36 am #

      Ah the Tate Modern! That is indeed a good metaphor for the challenge facing the corporate innovator. I’ve been there myself, and left dissatisfied. You have prompted me to go back.

  5. July 13, 2011 at 8:51 pm #

    Great post – reminds me that, as consumers, we are largely creatures of habit. Check my post about AC DC out and compare it with my post on Prince. In the rock world, AC DC give the audience what they want whereas Prince challenges them to accept the unexpected. This has consequences for followership imho:

    AC DC on sticking to the knitting

    Prince on innovation

    Peter Cook

    Author ‘Sex, Leadership and Rock’n’Roll’ and ‘Best Practice Creativity’


  1. How Can We Break Out of Our Thinking Ruts? « Innovation Leadership Network - July 13, 2011

    […] building? It might be. Jeffrey’s post is building on another excellent post by James Gardner, thinking about innovation in classical music. He watched a string quartet perform a modern composition, which initially he didn’t like. […]

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