Harmony Parts


This evening, some of the cousins came back to the house after dinner. We had been talking all day, but the instruments eventually came out and we started working out what songs we could play for the memorial service on Saturday. The daughter of the cousin who passed away a few years ago accepted the challenge of playing the banjo, and later the mandolin. Her uncle did the same, and eventually we ran out of instruments. So tomorrow, we may visit some local pawn shops to pick up an extra guitar or another mandolin, so we have something for all of us to play at the graveside on Saturday.

Somewhere along the way, I described how I instinctively find the harmony parts whenever I hear music. I never sing along with anyone. I always find the third above or fourth below and sing that instead. It makes the music more interesting and somehow bigger. Probably some acoustic thing with resonant frequencies or harmonics or overtones.

And that was when I remembered how I used to feel at work, when people would come up with ideas that we were trying to implement on our team. I almost always had insights that no one else would understand, because I was “hearing” the harmony parts in what we were trying to do. The process we were adopting was obvious to me; I might have been doing it for years. Doing it by myself was routine. But if other people wanted to adopt what I had been doing, because someone else had told us it was the way we should work, then that freed me up to do things no one was doing. I could “sing” harmony parts and make the overall experience better for everyone, and the results of our efforts more elegant and robust.

For some reason, no one “got” the point I was making. It wasn’t until this evening that I came to realize what they had been missing. It was the musical connection our family has, something that was part of the room this evening when we really got going. Musicians, especially those that play by ear and know how to improvise, understand the structure of various genres and can work within those frameworks. I don’t know jazz or blues, but I know that the progressions are predictable. Improvisation within the framework is possible because everyone follows the same routines. People can build on what another member of the ensemble just did, and restate their solo in a different way on a different instrument. What would it be like if business teams were like jazz combos?

That’s what I intend to find out. But first, I need the people who want to play on my stage to learn some basic rules about how our process is going to work. Once we all have enough of the basic disciplines we all need to practice, I think we might be able to make music the likes of which the world has rarely seen. It won’t actually be music, but people will connect with it in ways we cannot imagine at this point.

When there are enough of us to have regular jam sessions with these combos, we might be able to consider the occasional orchestra performance. I can almost hear what it would be like for 20 or 30 disciplined “musicians” to show up in a virtual practice space to see what they could do together. A group that large could tackle things none of us would be able to tackle on our own, no matter how good our teams. Some of us could take on initial planning of the practice while the others do a quick survey of what instruments (talents) we have available. Another subset could evaluate the problems we have to pick from, and analyze which ones we could tackle in the time we have allocated. In hours, we could come up with a strategy, break the problem up into pieces and reorganize ourselves to actually do the work. By the end of a day, we might have solved a business problem for a client who had been stuck for weeks or months, and gone beyond the solution they asked for into territory that lay beyond the answer they wanted.

I’ve seen pieces of an environment like this in a classroom back in 2003. I’ve played with the idea on paper for even longer. There are parts of the best software development processes that would make this very disciplined but also incredibly innovative, effective and successful.

But how do I explain this vision to people? What I see as the place to start is beyond impossible for nearly everyone I know. I have to retreat back to a point that I don’t just find boring. I have to retreat to a place that makes me worry about the future of our world.

And as soon as I admit that out loud to myself, or write it down, I remember my method can deal with every instance of impossibility we will encounter along the way. If the place I want to start appears impossible to someone, I just reset my starting point to a place where their version of the right thing to do is step 1, and their version of impossible is step 7. Once we work out how to go from 1 to 7, they are on track for bigger things. As long as I can take the time to back up far enough for them to agree that something is the right thing to do, we can start moving forward. If people around them don’t understand, we can back up to their step 1 and start from there.

In music, this might be called a canon, because parts repeat over and over staggered slightly from each other. I think a mathematical term is more appropriate, but I’m not going to use it here. I’ll save that revelation for later.

Just think of the harmony that would happen if people could improvise within frameworks that were all around us but unseen. Then let me know what you want to do to help. This would be so much more fun if I weren’t doing it alone.

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