The power of an unresolved chord

In New York, I attended a concert, “Concerto per violini: 18th-century Italian virtuosi“, performed by members of Early Music New York (EM/NY).

At the end of the event, EM/NY announced the retirement from public performance of Frederick Renz, the storied conductor and early music expert who directs the organisation. They also announced that plans for future performances by EM/NY were as yet unclear.

The program notes for the event reminded us that, while most people think of concertos as works for solo instruments accompanied by an orchestra, the original definition of the term in the Baroque era, was “a work for musicians playing together.”

Such were the works performed at the EM/NY event, including pieces by Vivaldi, Arcangello Corelli, Pietro Locatelli, and Francesco Geminiani.

There’s a tension within the very name “concerto”: not just the way in which the term has evolved musically, but between the literal Italian meaning “gathering” or “accord” and the Latin derivation “concertare”, which denotes confrontation or battle. There are so many ways we can come together, in collaboration, competition, or opposition – sometimes “either/or”, sometimes “both/and”.

I was reminded of a workshop series which I ran for an organisation facing a challenging strategic situation, thick with uncertainty. Together, we built scenarios to explore how these uncertainties might play out in ways beyond their expectations, assumptions, hopes, or fears.

Those scenarios were then presented to the organisation’s board during an away day. Board members were introduced to the scenario planning approach, worked with the scenario material created by the organisation’s staff and other stakeholders, and then engaged in strategic conversation: what did these scenarios mean for the organisation? How could they inform the decisions which needed to be made?

For myself and my co-facilitators, one of the challenges was resisting the board’s desire to move too swiftly from scenarios to strategy, and onwards to a final decision. The urge was strong to act, to commit, to come to reassuring agreement rather than to “stay with the trouble”, as Donna Haraway puts it, and fully think through the situation and its implications.

It would have been easy to herd the board towards the superficial satisfaction of an easy decision: a sense, at the close of the day, that everything had been resolved and neatly tied up. But what was needed was more like what the poet Keats called “negative capability”: the ability to stay with “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”.

Board members had to surrender the certainties they had accumulated about what was going on for the organisation. They had to relinquish the hold of past experience and consider how the future might play out. They had to think beyond the data which had been gathered, because the data itself had been acquired and analysed within the existing frame of reference, unsuited to the conditions of uncertainty which now surrounded them. They needed to think about how their organisation’s environment might change, and what that might mean, not just for what they needed to do – but who they needed to become.

Rather than believe that foresightful strategy was a matter of a single away day, a six-hour jaunt to the imagined future concluding with a swift decision about which moves to make, it was necessary to think like a potter at the wheel, shaping the spinning clay. As Henry Mintzberg put it in a famous 1987 article comparing strategy to pottery and other crafts,

At work, the potter sits before a lump of clay on the wheel. Her mind is on the clay, but she is also aware of sitting between her past experiences and her future prospects. She knows exactly what has and has not worked for her in the past. She has an intimate knowledge of her work, her capabilities, and her markets. As a craftsman, she senses rather than analyzes these things; her knowledge is “tacit.” All these things are working in her mind as her hands are working the clay. The product that emerges on the wheel is likely to be in the tradition of her past work, but she may break away and embark on a new direction. Even so, the past is no less present, projecting itself into the future.

In my metaphor, managers are craftsmen and strategy is their clay. Like the potter, they sit between a past of corporate capabilities and a future of market opportunities. And if they are truly craftsmen, they bring to their work an equally intimate knowledge of the materials at hand. That is the essence of crafting strategy.

At the workshop I was running with colleagues, we had to think about the gathering rather like a concerto – a coming together which might involve collaboration as well as competition, difference and disagreement as well as unity, where tension could be as productive for the members of the board as it is for the violinist, who depends on it for their stringed instrument to make its sounds.

We also had to help attendees see that the real work of strategy was to identify the salient issues emerging from the fog of uncertainty and allow those issues to play on their minds: not paralysed by endless analysis, but resisting the fantasy that a single half-thought swipe of the potter’s hand would be enough to shape the clay favourably once and for all.

As Richard Rumelt argues, the heart of strategy can be a matter of identifying a problem on which the organisation will need to work and keep working until it is resolved. This will not be achieved in a single instant, and the solution itself may need to evolve over time. The uncomfortable feeling of an unresolved chord, still playing on the mind when a neat conclusion was denied, can be a greater spur to effective and decisive action than the false satisfaction of everything being apparently laid to rest.

Frederick Renz’s final public performance as director of EM/NY was powerful and poignant. The program he had selected with typical erudition spanned generations of Italian early music. He was suitably fêted by his colleagues and the audience when the surprise announcement of his retirement was made.

Yet the event also ended with the awkward twang of an unresolved chord. A question of “what next?” which continued to play on the mind: why does EM/NY not have a plan for future events? What should its next move be? What effect has the pandemic had on the organisation and the foundation which funds it? What might its future hold, and how might that future inform its next move?

Such tensions and concerns, properly attended to, can guide us towards wisdom as we come together and decide, in our dissonance and difference, in our harmony and common cause, on what needs to be done in turbulent times.

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