Experts As Musicians

Think how a sublime classical concert or an extraordinary gig by your favourite band makes you feel, the melodies and harmonies, the interplay and drive. No matter how skilled the individual musicians are, it’s the collaboration that creates the magic.
Experts As Musicians

The power of collaboration can be found in almost every area of human achievement - from sophisticated projects like the International Space Station, to relatively simple, yet no less important endeavours, such as a charity 5k run. You see its value in everything from business innovation and product development, to famine relief and initiatives to tackle climate change.

A particularly striking example is The Crick Institute in London. This world renowned research centre is dedicated to understanding the fundamental biology behind health and disease. In 2016, the Institute moved into a new state-of-the-art building which brings together 1,500 scientists and support staff, working together across disciplines, making it the largest biomedical research facility under one roof in Europe. It explicitly recognises and is the physical embodiment of the fundamental power of, and value added by, close collaboration.

Given the abundance of evidence, why would any business whose life blood is the value created from the intellectual capital of its experts, not work to leverage this to its fullest potential? 

Think of these experts as musicians from our earlier example and the moderator of a particular discussion or project as the band leader, stage manager or conductor. Would they leave the individuals to their own devices? No.

In fact, we can extend the analogy. When it comes to any project, just like a musical performance, it needs the space to breathe in order to develop and thrive. One individual may open a discussion, which initiates a series of phases, iterations and consolidations, not unlike the creation of many of the great pieces of music.

And what about rhythm? Every project (or piece of music) has a certain rhythm to it, depending upon its mission, its demands and the experts (or musicians) involved. This rhythm should elevate any individual performances while always respecting the work as a whole. There should be a reason for each participant’s involvement, too. Every player should add value to the process and sit out when not required.

Musicians also need a nurturing environment for optimal results. Working on a shared vision with a common goal shouldn’t involve battling against background noise, struggling to make themselves heard. The same is true of any set of experts working with their network. Too often experts are working from non-proprietary, even incompatible, platforms on the same project. This is clearly not fit for purpose and produces inefficient and suboptimal results.  In its own field, The Crick Institute has sought to address this issue with its new headquarters.

Then there is the final composition - or finished project - itself. The music is made up of a series of notes, of course, whatever the chosen rhythm.  But as Miles Davis famously put it, “It’s not the notes you play. It’s the notes you DON’T play.” This holds true for idea-generation in most fields of human endeavour. Where is the focus? What is the goal? How do we begin and end? What we choose to leave out is as important as what we include. The power is in the edit.

In summary, the music analogy is a useful device as we think about experts operating within a collaborative environment. It is vital to ensure that their physical - or virtual - space is conducive to truly effective collaboration. There will always be a place for exceptional solo performances, but there is no substitute for a dynamic team, producing exceptional results far exceeding the sum of its individual parts.

As the African proverb wisely put it: “If you wish to go fast, go alone. If you wish to go far, go together.”

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Go to the profile of Scott Jones
over 3 years ago

Many thanks to Steve Thompson,  my collaborator on this piece!