Rock and Roll and Business

Business writers and self-proclaimed gurus are always struggling to come up with a new, exciting and topical metaphor to peddle their often old ideas and to re-invigorate some simplistic model. Leadership is like a:’..................’ (fill in blank with imaginative noun).

Years ago it was suggested that the orchestra and conductor metaphor was a good example of management. It was, in part, an attempt to justify increasing spans of control. Just as a conductor can brilliantly co-ordinate up to 100 musicians (and perhaps even a choir), so a manager could conduct his/her reports. If everyone has a clear set of KPI/objectives that are co-ordinated with everyone else’s (the score), sweet music will result. You could conduct your business affairs in perfect harmony that would move people emotionally and be universally admired.

Some wag speculated about how performance management and pay-for-performance might work best in an orchestra. Should you be paid by the number of notes you play over the concert year? If so, “scrapers” would get a lot more than “bangers” and “blowers.” And, if all the scrapers are essentially doing the same thing, should they not all be paid the same--irrespective of their years of experience and loyalty? What if you played a particularly difficult instrument like the French horn as opposed to the triangle? And what about how to reward those solo bits? Pay everyone the same then, irrespective of what they do?

In a clever and entertaining book entitled Sex, Leadership and Rock ‘n’ Roll, Peter Cook, himself a talented rock musician, wonders if the (popular) music business can teach us anything about business management. Rock ‘n’ Roll is certainly a tough business. For instance, the product and service cycles are very short indeed. The market for the product is very capricious and fluid; it is also global with all those culture issues. Next, the staff in the area tend to be creative (read: bolshy, unreliable and unpredictable). And, of course, the consumers are highly promiscuous in their wants, whims and wishes. Managing a band may be very lucrative, if you have a lot of talent-spotting skill and luck, but very hard work.

Managers in the R’n’R business therefore have to be highly creative and innovative. It is not OK having brilliant ideas that you can’t actually use, or being good at innovating bad ideas. The business is very murky and you have to improve when strategy is unclear and shifting. Most importantly, you have to create lots of capacity for self-organisation in order to allow funky and creative people to do their thing. That is a very difficult balance: giving people enough liberty to engage them fully but not so much that they bunk off.

The R’n’R managers have to have a very good ear for the shifting zeitgeist. They need to tune in all the time to what is going on around them. And they need to do serious playfulness: moving, as Cook says, from “aha” to “haha” and then “cha cha."

In music there is the score, improvisation and the audience, while in business there is structure, creativity and customer context. In this world innovation is the norm: it is all about converting new ideas into purposeful and profitable action.

So the sex bit is about relationships (suppliers, colleagues, customers); the drugs is motivation and energy and the R’n’R is doing the hard work and improving on a continuous basis. And for specific advice: style always overwhelms substance; don’t encourage cult followers; creativity without discipline rarely leads to innovation.

But for Cook there are three relevant musical metaphors. First, the orchestra where there is central leadership, where the group matters and everybody has their score. Players have to perform the role accurately and group performance is paramount. There are soloists and some structure with sub-leaders like the first violin or the head of the wind section (chief blower), but the conductor is clearly the CEO. This is the world of all those solid 20th century bureaucracies.

Then there is the R’n’R business of distributed leadership; where both the group and the individual matter and where people have scores but are allowed to improvise. The individual is as important as the band. This is the 21st century.

Lastly there is freeform jazz with “self-organising leadership,” organic structures and where there are no scores--the edge of chaos. Too frightening to contemplate this model, perhaps.

And just as we have stereotypes about professions and sections of organisations (HR are OCD; marketing are hedonists; engineers have all had a charisma by-pass) so R’n’R bands have their stereotypes: the morose and depressive bassist, the mad-as-a-loon drummer, the narcissistic singer.

Many management metaphors are difficult to understand and sometimes are stretched beyond their application. And, because they often relate to experiences not all of us have had (e.g. military metaphors) they can be less relevant to our daily working lives. But few people in Western, global, first-world organisations have not been exposed to popular music or the concept of the orchestra, and this is what makes the music metaphor so compelling and relevant to 21st century management

About the Author

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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