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Everything I Know about Management I Learned as an Orchestra Conductor

There’s been an oft-repeated observation that there’s a high incidence of classically trained musicians in the software industry. I’ve seen this myself; it’s not hard to identify enough people for a jam session or chamber ensemble in any association meeting here in Silicon Valley.

I had the good fortune to be trained in orchestral conducting at Stanford University under Andor Toth and his senior students back when I was looking for interesting non-mainstream courses to round out my degree program. Even before then, I’d spent years organizing and enjoying string quartets with friends, since I was an early teen.

As a result of that training, I was invited to organize a Taiwanese children’s orchestra in 1980, which led to an opportunity to direct the Preparatory group of Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra, a role I much enjoyed for an entire decade. That led to summer concerts at Jordan Middle School with the alumni PACO members returning from college and elsewhere. We also went several times to the Ashland Shakespeare Festival to perform every last week in June, in addition to special appearances at SF Legion of Honor, etc.

What’s my point? It’s this:

Everything I know about management I learned as an orchestra conductor. Yes, pretty much.

Perhaps you’d think these worlds are so different as to be ridiculous. But where else do I – in real time – not only perform my responsibilities as a member of the group, but also must be so aware as to know everything else that’s going on around you, to a degree that adjustments must be made even before you’re conscious of them. Accelerating the pace, slowing down, letting someone else lead, bringing out the supporting cast, making small adjustments, communicating with eye contact and small gestures, attuned to the themes and desires of everyone, and creating a unified whole that is the synergy of all, and beyond the sum of the parts. This all became “muscle memory”, after a while.

Unlike sports where the goal is competitive, music creates and focuses on the synergies and qualities of the end product, not the glory of individuals or even the goup.

Along the way, a conductor deals with people, their differences, their strengths, their needs, their different sensitivies and communication styles, (their parents, too!). The conductor must get to the essence with few words and gestures, always keeping everyone on the same beat (not just the same page).

I submit these are all skills that serve managers well. Project teams have very much the same dynamics. An appreciation for the similarities can allow each of us to tap that musical history and past that lies in many of us, and bring that forth, so that rather than working with specs, we create something akin to music, akin to art.

Create something beautiful.

Sam Hahn

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About the Author

Since graduating from Stanford University, Sam has spent over 2 decades in just about every aspect of coding, research, product definition, customer understanding, system architecture, data modeling, team building, strategy formulation, corporate startups, executive management, private equity placement, and entrepreneur mentoring. In some of these positions, he has also been responsible for product management and sales as well. Sam was the first at TRW (and possibly elsewhere) to architect systems that integrated relational database management systems, hypertext, vector and raster-based cartography, elevation data, multiple sources of intelligence data (yes this must be vague!), image processing, document management, character recognition, text indexing, search, and reasoning systems as early as the mid-80's. Sam was responsible for 4 development teams at Siebel Systems (web engine, handheld, eService, and Sales.com) in his 7 years there. As one of the core architects at Siebel, Sam oversaw research in presentation technology initiatives, including metadata-driven portal frameworks. Sam was co-founder, VP of Engineering, and CTO of DocuMagix (now part of eFax.com), and has also held VPE positions at Sales.com and Purisma. Sam is a partner at Sand Hill Angels, and now advises entrepreneurs in startup strategies and companies on effective application of Chasm and Agile thinking and practices. Attempting to live an enlightened life, he is too often tempted by sushi, Cambodian food, and white mochas with soy, only somewhat balanced by his enjoyment of tai chi. Please agree, disagree, laud, personally or professionally engage Sam via S@mHahn.com
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3 Responses to “Everything I Know about Management I Learned as an Orchestra Conductor”

  1. Awesome post Sam! I do not have much of a musical background, but even I can see the perfect parallel between a conductor and project manager. I started thinking about how the sheet music represents the project plan and is different for the various elements, and how each team member brings their own unique flair and personality.

    Is there already a book written using the orchestra conductor as a metaphor for the project manager? If there isn’t, you should write it!

    Josh Nankivel
    http://www.PMStudent.com

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this blog! Benjamin Zander, author of “The Art of Possiblity”, wrote a whole book on how his work as a conductor helped him learn more about leadership. As a consultant, I conduct a lot of workshops on leadership, teamwork and communication. One of my favorite quotes is “The conductor in an orchestra makes no sound.” There are many powerful metaphors for leadership, communication and teamwork in the world of music. I have been using drumming and rhythm circles to help global teams explore and understand these metaphors. Thanks for a terrific blog, Sam! – Kimberly Wiefling, Author, a href=”http://www.amazon.com/o/ASIN/1600050514/”>Scrappy Project Management

  3. Rather: The sounds the conductor makes is all in PREPARATION for performance. Once performance begins, the conductor communicates nonverbally, but crucially!!

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