Why technology teams are like bands

I find that music is a great analogy for technology development. 

People often talk about the commonalities between business and sport, or business and war. But, to me, music really resonates. 

For example, I spend a lot of time in the lab with my team during the product development phase. We go over every part, often in agonizing detail. And sometimes we get on a roll and everything seems to fall into place. It’s kind of like a jam session: we’re taking a rough idea, working out the details, trying new things, and eventually, when we think we have it right, we ‘record’ the design and start producing a prototype.

In business and in music, practice is the key to continuous improvement. 

In music, practice means rehearsing songs and honing your skills with the instruments you play. But it also means researching your fans to better align your sound with what they want to hear.

In high volume manufacturing, it means working to improve production systems. In other words, experimenting with new ways to reach the result you want to achieve. There’s a great W.D. Deming quote that perfectly captures what I’m trying to say:

 “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets”. 

So unless you change your system, you’re going to get the same results every time.

A guitar player might decide to practice by playing a song again and again until they master it. But it’s possible to do the same thing over and over for years without improving your results. 

Doing something repeatedly is not the same as practicing.

A better way to practice is to dissect the song and isolate the most technically challenging parts. Then slow down and spend more time on the minute details. It’s painstaking, sure, but it’s the best way to improve.

The same strategy works for production lines. You look for the bottlenecks and hone in on how things could be improved. There’s no question it’s tough to do, because most of the time we’re in production mode: we’re performing for our customers (our audience) to produce the best products possible. But if that’s our only focus – if we forget to practice – we’ll quickly hit a plateau.

Bands need to perform AND practice to be successful in the long run. If you don’t perform, you’ll soon be forgotten. And if you don’t practice, you’ll soon be out of style. It’s the same in business. You need to maintain certain performance levels while working toward continuous improvement.

Another Deming quote comes to mind:

 “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”

When I need a reminder of this, I think of myself as a band manager/producer. How can I make sure we, as a team, produce the best products we possibly can for our customers? The key is to find the right combination of performance and practice. 

Cheers, Steve

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