by Cochran

Bach and The Art of Design Thinking


As a musician, I get this question often: “Who is your favorite composer?”

Without hesitation, my answer, for as long as I can remember, has been and forever will be, the great German Baroque composer, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). For me, there are many reasons why.

Bach’s music moves me like no other. Though challenging to play, his music is filled with pure joy. Understanding the music of Bach is a lifelong pursuit. Never static, each time I hear or play a work by Bach, I hear something new. Bach’s complex layers are constantly revealing themselves to the focused listener or student. My list could go on and on.

In addition to all of these attributes that I attach to Bach, I am convinced that Bach embraced principles of design thinking throughout his musical career. For instance:

Bach combined the analytical with the intuitive. He coupled research (listening and learning from others) with his amazing intuition, moving things forward by imagining new possibilities. Bach was a master at synthesizing past, present and future into nearly everything he wrote. Even his staunchly well-loved B Minor Mass is now believed by many to have been somewhat of an exercise that Bach used to convey his latest musical discoveries.

Bach employed iterative prototyping. Bach would often reuse his own earlier compositions, revising and improving them. He regularly created three or four versions of a single cantata movement. Referred to as parody in the classical music realm, Bach would re-work a movement from a harpsichord concerto into a cantata movement or parody a minuet from a Brandenburg Concerto in a chorale.

Bach took inspiration from a broad range of experiences and cultures. As a young man of only 20, Bach supposedly walked more than 200 miles from Arnstadt to Lübeck to hear the older, well-established organist and composer, Dietrich Buxtehude, play. Surely, ideas generated by this experience worked themselves into his music. Bach incorporated a variety of music styles from throughout Europe into his works. For example, Bach composed each of the four movements in his Partita for Unaccompanied Flute in a popular dance style of the day with German, Italian, French and English styles all represented.

Bach co-created with others. Bach knew he couldn’t go it alone. He regularly looked to others for inspiration and new ideas. One of his most frequent collaborators was the librettist, Picander. Together, they created a large volume of cantatas and other works including, most notably, the St. Matthew Passion.

Bach regularly embraced constraint as a source of creativity. Probably the most famous example of this is The Musical Offering, inarguably one of Bach’s most striking works. In 1747, upon a visit to the palace of King Frederick the Great of Prussia, the aging Bach was challenged to improvise on a difficult theme given to him by the king, himself a formidable composer. On the spot, Bach improvised a complex fugue at the keyboard. Within two months following his visit, Bach completed The Musical Offering, based entirely on Frederick’s theme. The piece was immediately printed and presented with a dedication to the king.

Bach wrote music for the people. He composed music for the enjoyment of the listener. In Bach’s words, music was “for the recreation of the mind…” Bach’s music can sound simple and elegant, yet beneath the surface exists a highly detailed system of counterpoint and fugue. In addition to his responsibilities as church organist and Kapellmeister (chapel master), Bach directed a Collegium Musicum off and on during his tenure in Leipzig. Actually founded by Telemann, this group of amateur and semi-professional musicians met for informal music making at the coffee-house of Gottfried Zimmermann. Through these performances, Bach was able to hone his skills in writing for a secular audience while giving the people of Leipzig exposure to music outside of the typical church setting. Read A Rollicking Bach Time Is Had By All in today’s New York Times for a modern-day reference to these coffee-house performances.

When we think of early examples of design thinkers, the first person often cited is inventor, Thomas Edison. Yet more than a century before Edison was born, Bach composed a set of 15 keyboard pieces in two contrapuntal parts and termed them inventions. I’m convinced that we can all learn more about design thinking by studying Bach and  listening to anything from his large output of work, be it his cantatas, oratorios, solo partitas, concertos and yes, his inventions.

Let me know what names you’d add to a list of early design thinkers.

December 4, 2012 Posted by | Bach, creativity, design, design thinking, empathy, Innovation, music, prototyping | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Lessons From a Night at the Opera: Think Like a Customer

On a recent trip to Paris, I decided to take in an opera performance at the Palais Garnier. I’ve enjoyed many opera performances throughout my lifetime, including two in Paris, but this was to be my first at the Garnier, the opulent Beaux-Arts masterpiece designed by Charles Garnier as part of the great reconstruction of Paris during the Second Empire of Napoleon III.

English: The Palais Garnier, also known as the...

In advance, I noted that a French Baroque opera, Hippolyte et Aricie by Jean-Philippe Rameau was programmed one evening during my stay. I had always wanted to attend a live performance of a Rameau opera.

My expectations were high.

The curtain was to be at 7:30pm. I decided to swing by the box office midday to purchase a ticket. I was traveling alone, so I thought there was a good chance that a single ticket was still available. I exited the Metro at the Opera stop and the view of the Palais Garnier nearly took my breath away. After climbing the steps past hundreds of seated spectators who were enjoying an outdoor rock concert (go figure!), I entered the grand lobby. Again, the beauty took my breath away!

I stopped at the information desk to inquire about ticket availability for that evening. Although the box office was closed for lunch (silly me — I was in France, after all!), the gracious, articulate woman at the desk assured me that I would have no problem purchasing a ticket at the door, one hour before the curtain.

Some may have regarded this as a wasted trip. For me, however, the stop only whetted my appetite further for an evening filled with music, dance and beauty. Anticipation is a lovely thing.

After an afternoon of walking, sightseeing and visiting a friend, I returned to the Garnier just as the box office was opening for the evening. The line was long.

When I finally reached the ticket window, I asked to purchase one ticket. Although the performance was nearly sold out, I intuitively knew that I had a good chance of securing a single seat.

The box office representative’s first question to me (in perfect English, by the way) was, “Would you prefer a really lousy seat or a really great seat?” What a question!

My answer? “I would like to purchase a seat with an unobstructed view, s’il vous plais.”

So, I was told that there was one “great” seat left. It was in a box on the mezzanine level. All of the other seats in that box were taken. The price was more than I had ever paid for a musical performance of any kind, anywhere in my entire life!

After pondering a few moments and despite the painful conversion from Euros to dollars, I said, “d‘accord” and handed over my credit card.

My expectations climbed higher.

The Large Staircase of The Garnier Opera, in P...

After enjoying an aperitif at the brasserie across the street, I walked back to the Garnier, ticket in hand. I climbed the stairs to the entry doors. I savored that grand entryway for the third time that day, then took the curving staircase up to the mezzanine level. My night at Opera Garnier had finally begun.

The young usher showed me to the box where my seat was located. There were eight movable seats in the box, seven of which were already taken. My seat was actually a backless stool at the rear of the box.

I wanted to settle in and read the program book I had purchased on my way in, but I found my seat very uncomfortable. In addition, no matter how I tried to rearrange its placement, I was unable to get more than just a sliver of a view of the stage. The stage was very close, but the tall patrons in front of me were obstructing my view. I tried moving my stool all the way to one side of the back of the box only to find that my view was then fully obstructed by the wall of the box.

Then the overture began. As a musician myself, I enjoy the opportunity to watch the musicians in a pit orchestra. I could see none of them. I could just barely make out the fact that the conductor was a woman.

When the curtain opened and the action began, my disappointment mounted. I could see only about a quarter of the actual stage. When the action was toward the wings, I could see nothing. Furthermore, I could see none of the projected supertitles.

So, I could not watch the musicians. I could see a quarter of the action and none of the translations. I tried to sit back, close my eyes and just listen to the music, but I wanted to savor the entire spectacle that evening. I wanted to understand the story that was unfolding on stage. I wanted to see the expressions on the faces of the singers. I expected no less than the complete opera experience!

As the first act ensued, my dissatisfaction escalated. I literally spent most of that first act deciding whether to leave and go back to my hotel room, unfulfilled and unhappy only two days into my vacation. What I decided, instead, was to find the usher who had seated me, communicate my dissatisfaction and ask for a refund.

I quietly left the box. There was the usher who had seated me. I started with, “I am unhappy with my seat.” She said that she couldn’t help me. The hall was completely sold out. I asked if the box office was still open and she said, “No, but they wouldn’t help you anyway. No refunds. No exchanges.”

Next, I walked down to that gorgeous entry lobby. I’m sure I was frowning. A young man approached me. He may have been the house manager. He asked me what the problem was. I said that although I had never left an opera performance early in my entire life, I was so unhappy with my seat that I found it impossible to enjoy the performance. He looked at my ticket stub and said, “This is one of the best seats in the house.” Obviously, my expectations were higher than his.

He then had me follow him back up to the mezzanine level. He said that he was going to take a look at my seat and see what could be done to improve upon my experience.

Just as we got there, a man and a woman left one of the center boxes. The manager asked me to wait a moment while he went to appease the other couple. A discussion followed; I could not hear the conversation. The couple then left the hall completely. I wondered what their complaint had been.

The house manager then had me follow him to the center box where there were now two empty seats in the front row. I took one. The other one remained empty the entire evening.

My experience was now so different! No obstructions. No need to crane my neck. I had a clear view of the entire stage, the orchestra and the supertitles. I was able to quickly get back to the story line of the opera and salvage the entire evening!

After the final curtain (and multiple curtain calls by the incredible cast), I exited the box and walked down those lovely stairs once again. I spotted the house manager and thanked him for saving my evening. As it turned out, the wife of the other couple had felt ill and she and her husband decided to forfeit their tickets and go home. With an otherwise sold out hall, the house manager quickly seized the opportunity to, as he put it, “make a good memory of Paris for me.”

In retrospect, I wonder:

Were my expectations set too high? By me and/or the box office staff?

Had the box office representative ever sat in the house and witnessed a performance?

For that matter, had the ushers and house manager ever done so?

Was I a victim of price gouging?

What was the cost of the seat I actually sat in?

I cannot help but feel that there are several lessons here:

Lesson #1: Be careful when setting expectations for your customers.

Lesson #2: Remember to “Think like a customer.” Make sure you and your staff periodically experience the purchasing process from start to finish. And, don’t stop there. Take yourself through the entire user experience once in a while.

Lesson #3: Train and empower your employees to make wise customer service decisions on their own.

What do you think? What were other learning moments from my night at the opera?

July 28, 2012 Posted by | customer service, empathy, Marketing, setting expectations, user experience | 1 Comment

Learning to Unmeasure

I hereby proclaim 2012 the year that we learn to unmeasure.

Measurement is really about the past. When we analyze, or measure anything, we’re using the past as the benchmark. How backwards.

Try as we might, we can’t truly measure success. We may think we can. We may attain a certain level of confidence, knowing we’ve reached a prescribed goal. But, truly successful people are smart enough to focus on the future, rather than the past. They use each new success as a launching pad for their next challenge and subsequent success.

Happiness is another unmeasurable. Happiness is intangible and fleeting. It seemingly comes and goes throughout our lives. The wisest among us learn to amortize happiness over the course of life, rather than gauging happiness on a day-to-day basis. Happiness is an art.

Art. Now, there’s an unmeasurable. Art looks, feels and sounds different every time we interact with it. Music and art critics attempt to use words to convey the value of any musical composition, piece of art or literary work, but most of those critics will admit that words are a poor measurement tool. Art is, after all, about feeling, both for the artist and the viewer, listener or consumer of that art. And, how can we measure feelings?

On the business side, is it really possible to measure brand loyalty? Or return on social investment (ROSI)? We can attempt to, but these are almost as elusive to measure as happiness and feelings. And, by the way, brand loyalty and ROSI each include a certain amount of happiness (or unhappiness) and other feelings at their core.

And, what about employee engagement? Do we really need fancy tools to measure that? Engaged employees do positively affect a company’s bottom line (now, that’s a measurement). But, perhaps, employee engagement should be regarded more as a philosophy, rather than something to be measured. When we begin to measure something, we’re then compelled to analyze it to the point that we lose the human element. And, employees want to be treated as humans, not numbers.

That which gets measured matters? Or that which matters is worth measuring?

I say neither. Thankfully, the most important things in life and in business cannot truly be measured. We should all practice the art of unmeasuring once in a while. By doing so, we’ll give ourselves the opportunity to become better listeners, better observers, better friends and better leaders.

What are your thoughts? What are some areas in your personal and/or business life where you can take an unmeasurement approach?

January 8, 2012 Posted by | brand loyalty, design thinking, empathy, employee engagement, happiness, measurement, return on social investment | , | 1 Comment