High Note: Managing the Medici String Quartet

As one of the top ensembles in classical music, the Medici String Quartet has enjoyed a long and creative collaboration. But it hasn't always been harmonious. HBS professor Robert Austin explains what innovative businesses can learn about managing creative people. Key concepts include:
  • Businesses emphasize technical mastery and the creation of predictable patterns. The Medici String Quartet aimed for more. The goal of each performance was never to render a piece exactly as the composer intended, but to interpret it in fresh and new ways.
  • Financial pressures for the quartet could be intense. Among musicians, it's an old (but good) joke: How do you become a millionaire as a classical musician? Start as a billionaire.
  • Businesses enjoy the notion that innovation happens when everyone is happy and satisfied. As the quartet proved, harmony comes in unexpected ways.
by Martha Lagace

Why would a business school professor want to write a case study about a string quartet? The answer was easy for Robert Austin, a scholar with research expertise in the management of innovation. While attending an academic workshop near Copenhagen, he had the good fortune to meet violinist Paul Robertson, of the acclaimed ensemble Medici String Quartet. It seemed a perfect opportunity to explore the process of creative collaboration, a central theme not just in music but in knowledge-intensive businesses.

The result is "Paul Robertson and the Medici String Quartet," coauthored with Shannon O'Donnell, a research associate at Harvard Business School.

"At the workshop, Paul asked each member of the group to talk about a part of the music that was particularly meaningful and the challenges involved in coordinating the playing of it," Austin says. Robertson has led the ensemble for, give or take, close to 40 years, but this past summer was their final concert tour as a group.

"The Medici String Quartet is one of the very best such ensembles, probably one of the very best ever. One of my favorite research strategies is to find people engaged in activities that I would call near the frontier of human experience. Ordinarily I'd say near the frontier of business experience, but creative collaboration is very much relevant to business and the field of innovation."

Austin is writing a book—the working title is Reliable Innovation—with Lee Devin, a theater professional and professor. Reliable innovation is "a weird concept," Austin admits. "Reliability in business is about things aimed at consistency of outcome. Reliable innovation means something more like a consistent ability to produce valuable inconsistencies."

Austin, a music lover who played saxophone in high school, discussed what he learned from violinist Robertson in this interview with HBS Working Knowledge.

Martha Lagace: What drew you to writing a business case that looks at the world of classical music?

Robert Austin: Paul, in addition to being one of the great violinists ever, is extremely skilled in speaking about what he does. Talking with him at length for the case allowed us to unpack the process of innovation and the process of creative leadership. It was an opportunity to explore the creative collaboration of the quartet and Paul's efforts at creative leadership very close-up. The business researcher in me was looking for parallels with intimate creative collaboration in general.

If you think about it, there aren't too many human collaboration experiences more extreme than a string quartet. This is a group of people who spent decades together rehearsing 6 days a week: 8 or so hours a day of practice together, another 4 to 6 hours of practicing alone, in 3-and-a-half decades of being active as an ensemble (with some membership changes in those years, but not many). They played, according to Paul, some 90-plus pieces of music. These people know each other as if they are family members. One can imagine they know where all the buttons are that can be pushed.

As the case describes, they went through periods of not liking each other very much. Paul told me how other string quartets have been known to rehearse without looking at each other, with their backs facing one another.

So, great human achievement, extreme conditions, intensely collaborative. They weren't just trying to play the notes right. That's what Paul calls technical mastery, but that's not good enough at this level of play; you have to go beyond technical mastery to what Paul calls artistry. There may be a misconception among people who don't play music that the objective is to play exactly as the composer intended. But that's not really what these guys are trying to do. The first step is to get a piece mastered technically so they can play it as written, but then they want to do something interesting and new with it. And so the work of a string quartet playing at this level becomes an entirely new creation, a new version of one of Beethoven's string quartets, for example, unlike anything that has been created from that musical score before.

There are tremendous analogies here to corporate innovation.

Q: The case describes tension between a driving creative passion and the lure of easy work. How did Paul Robertson and the group manage that conflict?

A: The ensemble's dream was to ultimately play the entire Beethoven string quartet cycle. They found themselves avoiding the music because they were terrified. When they finally decided to take it on, they thought it would require a certain amount of time, and believed they had sufficient cash reserves. But the preparation process turned out to take longer, and created financial difficulties for several members of the quartet. Time spent rehearsing was time not spent performing and recording. They did eventually record the entire string quartet cycle on Nimbus.

Folks who are able to play the way these guys play can get lots of gigs and are paid good rates by the hour. So at a certain point in their life as a quartet the players came to appreciate the steadiness of that flow of income.

Paul, as he says in the case, never could understand why they would choose steadiness. I think this is true of other innovators who really have the drive. Steadiness is not what they're about. They know they have to live and fulfill certain obligations to others, but they're also intense experience junkies.

When members started to drift off to work on these piecework deals, they stopped having the kind of preparation experiences that they once had.

Q: What was special about their mode of preparation?

A: In business, preparation means thinking something through and establishing a plan. The execution phase is then managing to the plan.

That's not remotely how the quartet prepared. Early in their career together they, especially Paul, had learned something of great value from Sir Clifford Curzon, a legendary classical pianist. From Curzon they learned to destroy a piece by making a metronome play the wrong tempo; then they tried to play against it. They would come up with ways to make a piece harder to play and would keep adding constraints until they basically couldn't play it anymore. The idea was to rebuild it after they had destroyed it.

This idea, which is visible elsewhere among very high-level innovators, especially in the arts, is that to achieve greatness and really go to a new place, it's important to be able to come to a thing that they have seen hundreds of times before, but experience it as if it were entirely new. And use their tremendous ability to deal with it.

The Medici String Quartet learned to approach every piece extremely comfortably, confidently, competently, able to play the notes; but their experience of it was new in some way, and the newness allowed them to defeat preconceptions so they didn't fall into any rote pattern. They made fresh choices that they were completely prepared to make. If players were truly experiencing the music anew, they wouldn't be confident enough to make skillful choices because they'd still be trying to get the notes right.

When Paul works with young musicians, he pushes them into a zone where they're still competent but not quite grounded. He'll take a sad, slow piece and make them play it up-tempo and happy. And then he'll have them back off. Even for a layperson, even for my ears, you can hear how much better the interactions become.

Q: How does this mode of preparation compare to preparation in business?

A: In a way it's the opposite of planning that happens in business sometimes, which is all about creating patterns we expect.

There are certain situations that require that we innovate because we're in the world of the unexpected. Think of crisis management. It's very important in crisis management not to fall into a comfortable pattern because you may be misperceiving the data. Psychologists talk about the initial hypothesis problem: In a crisis, in your eagerness to get control of the situation, you often grasp at an explanation that is incorrect. Afterward, though, you see only confirming data, not disconfirming data.

That's exactly the kind of rote pattern that the Medici String Quartet's preparation was aimed at avoiding. It was an effort to prevent the formation of hard preconceptions that they would feel compelled to execute against.

Q: Another aspect of collaboration that Robertson discusses in the case is interpersonal harmony. Why was it complicated to get along?

A: In business we have the notion that we can create a healthy innovation dynamic where everybody's happy and everything goes well.

What we see here is not a story like that. We see a story that's full of unresolved tensions and people upset with each other. The music is exceedingly harmonious, but the process of making it could not be described as harmonious. There is something interesting in that. I think partly it is a result of striving for such extreme levels of performance.

As opposed to the reflexes that minimize the variation in processes, one of the truisms of innovation is that innovators create variation because they're striving for novelty. There are a lot of different strategies to create variation. One of them might be some degree of turmoil in the group. Throughout the case, we see Paul trying on different leadership hats. A lot of them don't fit, in his estimation. It's remarkable how much doesn't work given the superb quality of what emerges musically. One of the lessons you could draw from the case is that a really ugly process can produce great results sometimes.

My coauthor in a lot of my work is Lee Devin, a theater professor and theater professional. Of course, theater people have their own ensemble processes. Lee is a little put off by the level of conflict that Paul seems to believe is necessary. The case describes Paul listening to a young quartet and observing, "What a waste of time to have a group that had no conflict! The music would be nothing at all. … They are friendly, the music exquisitely friendly. … It's the scars that make it interesting."

Q: In the beginning of the quartet's life, Robertson was very much the leader. Later he began to yield control, yet the leadership dimension always remained rather fraught with tension. What was that evolution like?

A: One goal of the case is to talk with students about leading creative teams. Paul certainly matured. But what also comes through is, whatever his style of leadership, to whatever degree it might have worked, it didn't always continue to work. He had to constantly recalibrate and rearrange. In the end, he said, "Nothing was working." He also tried to lead while not seeming to lead. No one was fooled by that. At a certain point he was at a loss.

When he came to class as a guest lecturer, he described different models of leadership and the problems with each one. What worked 10 years in didn't work 20 years in. He used the metaphor of tuning: Tuning is a function of the physics of the way scales are put together. You can never play perfectly in tune. So your efforts to play perfectly in tune, however sincere and vehement, always lead to some degree of conflict. In part it means to give in; the harder you try to lead in this kind of ensemble, the more strife you create.

Q: What was it like teaching the case to MBA students?

A: We had a new course in the spring, with about 60 MBA students, called Managing in the Creative Economy. This case was explored over 2 sessions. In the first session we discussed the case, and in the second, Paul talked with students about creative leadership. I think overall it was incredibly important for the students.

One topic in class was the quartet's whole apprenticeship under Sir Clifford Curzon. In a lot of business contexts, because there's so much tacit knowledge involved in innovation, apprenticeship shows up again and again in research. Their apprenticeship under Curzon was very interesting, not least musically. Curzon insisted on proper English manners, including torturous English tea service and proper "breaking of the scone."

What does breaking a scone have to do with anything? It's about preparation. It's about professional ritual, rhythms, and disciplines that underlie the general approach to what they did with the music as well.

If you look at how theater ensembles work, there is a notion at the People's Light & Theatre Company, a highly regarded regional theater in the United States, of "working in present time." When the actors perform, they know the dialogue in the script as much as a musician knows the notes in a score. But they want to arrive at a place in the script feeling the situation entirely new. They want to make somewhat different choices every time they arrive.

It seems really different from business. Often in business, "winning" is what this string quartet would call technical mastery. Technical mastery is good enough in some kinds of business, but probably not in others.

It's underappreciated when you're trying to create something new that you have to do something different to get it to happen.

Q: What connections did the students make to business?

A: One of the characteristics of what we call creative economy firms—design firms, media firms, etc.—which is uncomfortable for many business managers, is that there are often "key creatives." Stefan Sonnenfeld, for instance, is a digital colorist, a kind of artist who didn't exist 10 years ago and is now in great demand. He works for Ascent Media Group. All the directors want to work for him; he's incredibly successful and important to the company. Another key creative works for a major design firm in Europe.

Business school students, I think, have a tendency to say that a firm's employees should be more "customer-oriented." Our design case was about the designers not wanting to show an idea to clients because they weren't proud of its quality, even though the business side of the firm thought it would win the bidding. One MBA student, reasonably for a business context, said, "The key creative should go where the customer is. He should be customer-oriented." Another student asked, "But what if he's not? He's who he is. He's also the most important single person to your business."

When you really analyze it, you don't want the creative person to be more customer-oriented. That's not what he does for a company. He's the source of surprises that the customers might love. If you're really searching for novelty, if that's the true path you're taking to business value creation, then asking for your customers' opinions and desires is not the way to go.

In another case, David Lewis, the chief designer of Bang & Olufsen, said in an interview, "I don't believe in market research because I don't believe the customer knows what he wants. The last thing I'd ever do is ask a customer."

Throughout the course we heard this drumbeat from key creatives, including Paul Robertson. The Medici String Quartet chose its own repertoire. One of the things Paul said in class was, "My career has really been about doing what I wanted to do and what I thought was important, and trying to find people who would think that was something worth paying money for."

Somebody who creates at that level, but has all of these difficult characteristics, is clearly not easy for a manager to manage. If you imagine someone like Paul Robertson working for you as your key software developer, drug researcher, or designer, he would be a handful, to say the least. There are key people in these kinds of businesses, and they are what they are.

One of the managing partners of the design firm told me how he was adamant that smoking was something that happened outside the office. The creative guy, a smoker, reluctantly agreed. Once they got a hurry-up deal from a client. It came in on a Friday afternoon and had to be completed by Sunday night. The only person who could do that was the smoker. The managing partner said, "That weekend he smoked wherever and whenever he wanted."

During the course, we put together a panel called Stewards versus Creators. Managers often have steward mentalities. They try to be responsible in their expenditure of funds, trying not to invest a dollar if it won't earn more than a dollar back. The panel consisted of Bob Frosch, who used to head NASA and R&D for GM; Vicki Sato, who was president of Vertex Pharmaceuticals and is now on the HBS faculty; and Peter Hanke, a conductor. These people have had a lot of experience managing "golden geese."

Managing a golden goose individual is an increasingly common issue. Industrial Revolution thinking tries to get around it by trying to extract expertise from individuals and systematize it; the golden goose doesn't exist because everybody is viewed as just a cog in a machine. But when we talk about innovative performance, we can't talk about systematization in the traditional sense because systematization implies producing consistent outcome. I prefer to believe that innovation is about producing inconsistency of outcome, and valuable inconsistency at that.

As HBS professor Richard Nolan and I wrote earlier this year in the MIT Sloan Management Review, if the steward mentality is obsessed with a breakeven point, a point of diminishing returns, the creator types don't know where that point is and don't care. The idea of "good enough" isn't something they're terribly interested in. As a business, you can't run flat out all the time, but it's important for innovative businesses to have some of that energy inside.

Q: How do commercial concerns mesh with creative authenticity?

A: This issue recurs in our research. Creative people feel that if they go too straight toward commercial interests, they won't even do their best at the commercial interests. I think this is in some ways a function of the way innovation works. You try to create value out of novelty. If you succumb too much to commercial pressures, you may lose your distinctiveness. If you decide to do the easy stuff, like accepting gigs with the commercial recording industry because you can play the notes reliably, ultimately you may find that you've lost your brand specialness.

In business terms, if you're in a margin business and you want to command high margins, if you're known as the only source in the world of what you have to offer, then you have to be very careful about taking the easy jobs, because other people can do those, too. You can make short-term business choices that work against your ability to command high margins in the long run; become known for the wrong kind of work. We see this dilemma again and again. In some ways, people like Paul are key to creating a really rarified brand.

About the Author

Martha Lagace is senior editor of Working Knowledge.