The Annesci quartet, a metaphorical string orchestra to understand management

Thanks to Thierry Picq for this precious article !

The Annesci quartet, a metaphorical string orchestra to understand management

By, Thierry Picq
Director, early maker development, EMLYON

Just like any other artistic or sport activity, music provides an attractive analogy to cast a new eye on team work and management. Management literature and consultants described “the detour pedagogy”. When discovering the Annesci quartet, Miguel, an entrepreneur, perfectly depicted the mirror effect between music and managerial practices:
“06:10 PM. I’m late, sit on one of the few available chairs left, on the front row. Before me, four musicians are playing; I’m only half-listening while re-reading the invitation card: “Be bold and emotional in management!”. As the Director of a small service company myself, I am always looking for new sources for unique perspectives. A friend of mine had recommended this show, so despite a crowded agenda, I followed my friend’s advice. But arduous negotiations with a client, a next-day issue to be wrapped-up and 30 minutes of traffic jams had all made my brain less permeable to music. Just as I was about to finally get rid of the day’s mental load, the concert came to an end!
The violinist started to speak, explaining that the quartet is a demanding musical ensemble aiming at perfect harmony. He then proceeded to offer to enter the secret world of behind the scene rehearsals, and to play the role of the conductor. The simulation was captivating. Musicians started playing the same music sample over and over again, each time emphasizing an imperfection. The quartet performance started getting boring, cacophonous even. I personally know nothing about music, but it stroke me how the sum of individual instruments did not naturally turn into a harmonious collective sound. Could it be that our clients spotted our inside dissonances just as acutely? Progressively, the quartet started showing us what needed to be done to play correctly: listening, empathy, role distribution, assuming individual responsibility, collective support etc. All the necessary ingredients for team building were discussed. I am no musician, but the difference in sound quality was incredible when some of or all these ingredients came about. “Did we reach perfection?” the violinist then asked. The audience hesitated. “Not yet”, did it seem to say, if they were now technically good, emotions were still lacking, that extra touch of soul we dig deep inside to make a difference. The same part was played again by the quartet, and this time, the result was outstanding! It felt like I could almost touch the substance of the music. I asked myself, at the end of the day, was the return to the individual the ultimate team work?
I was deep in my introspection when, in order to discuss the subject of leadership, the quartet asked for a volunteer to play the role of the conductor. After much hesitation, someone stood up and started flailing his arms about like a conductor. And soon enough, the quartet tagged along and followed the movements. “It’s like driving a race-car”, said one of the volunteers. Another exclaimed: “we are conducting the quartet as much as the quartet is conducting us”. The leader and his troops drawn by the same dynamics, feeding on each-others…there it was, a nice business metaphor! I was surprised by the great variety of attitudes. Some took a step back, others stood at the center of the quartet, very up-front or more flexible… “Why mimic a model which isn’t ours?” asked the musicians, “this exercise, in a situation where you have no control over the content, allows you to go back to your individual know-hows, to the quality of your relational presence, to the bond of trust we have to establish between us all.” As for me, in my company, was I to let go more often, without systematically interfering or imposing methods? Was I to change from “one-man-band” to “conductor”?
The quartet ended with a ten-minute mini-concert. I had never listened to music so intently. Beyond music, I could picture my collaborators, passing on information fluidly, making decisions and taking actions in full harmony.”
“The violins of management”, Annesci quartet (TEDx Annecy, 2017).
Trained by leading musicians, the Annesci quartet comes from an atypical background marked by a will to multiply encounters and learning sources. This thirst for discovery has led them to play in schools, prisons, not to mention businesses, and progressively, the musicians built a new approach based on how to illustrate team work through the kaleidoscope of their musical experience. Their performance, a source of inspiration for Miguel, highlights a two-fold founding law of the individual-collective dialectic relationship inherent to any collective performance whatsoever, be it artistic, sporting or organizational.
More than just a sum of individualities …
String quartets are most certainly one of the most demanding configurations in the world of classical music. In an orchestra, it is the overall cohesiveness which prevails, individuals have to disappear in favor of the collective playing. In a quartet, it all comes down to creating cohesiveness between four musicians who still have to play as soloists, and with no conductor at that! The perfect balance between unity and diversity!
To achieve such cohesiveness, the first step is to build the bridge between individual skills and collective performance. When performing, the quartet, along with the audience, reassembles such key ingredients to turn this situation where four musicians, all excellent soloists, are confronted with how to create synergy and make the whole better than the sum of its parts.
That’s the fundamental issue any team, in any circumstances, has to deal with. The quartet’s demonstration is based on nothing but showing the concrete mechanisms at stake when it comes to bonding, to creating interdependencies and strong complementarities between musicians. By playing the same music sample over and over again, each time highlighting another imperfection, they demonstrate how the notion of ensemble progressively gain intensity as each individual agrees to articulate his individual talent with that of the others. That’s when the quartet goes from being four instruments with four strings to being a single instrument with 16 strings under the command of the group’s mastery!
A necessary risky business for individuals
Nevertheless, team work is only a step, a marker on the road to excellence. If pushed too far, the risk is that collective playing will annihilate individual singularities. At the end of the mock rehearsal, the audience intuitively felt that even though all the right elements for team work were in place, the artistic result was still not satisfying.
Musicians then switched to the second part of their demonstration, the return to individuals. A strong team is not just a well-oiled machinery in which individuals blend in. It is also a space where, in return for their contribution to the group, individuals must grow as persons. While carefully observing the-afore mentioned collective rules, each musician is re-centered on his individual capacity of giving the best he can and expressing his singularity. However, this phase is heavily felt on a personal level, and tends to undermine artists. Some theater artists talk about “being bare naked” in front of an audience to illustrate this individual risk taking.
Sharing emotions
Within the framework of business life, protecting yourself behind the collective rules of the game may often seem more comfortable than freely assuming your full intellectual, emotional and relational potential, and making the most of it. Yet, the best performance reservoirs are indeed hidden inside the ability of individuals to retrieve their authenticity, regardless of the way it is measured (emotions, energy, creativity etc.).
As a universal means of expression, music has its way of making you feel simple or complex situations and to print them out in your memory by appealing to “emotional resonance”.
An in company performance of the Annesci quartet may be used as a trigger, a catalyzer, a corner stone, or all three together. Regardless, it does require to be integrated to a global project to make it meaningful: turning it into intelligence – and why not do so using music – all staff members united around one shared vision, one project in turn subjected to “the demands of shared feelings”. If music can help you find a vision, management must define the relevant project. This is where music and management can tune into harmony.

Thierry Picq