Friday, October 30, 2009

Energy in; energy out

OK, be prepared for Dante's 6th inner ring of metaphor Hell.

I broke down and took a by-gawd Dobro lesson this week. I figure it's time to get serious about my music so I paid this guy $100 for a three-hour Vulcan mind-meld of Musical Theory 101. Never touched my guitar. (He got interrupted, though, so I did get to play his $5000 Dobro for about 20 minutes while he handled a domestic emergency.)

So I go home with his two-sided yellow legal page on which he had scribbled the sacred code that explained the chromatic scale, all of the keys, and the how to construct every major, minor, and dominant chord. I was overwhelmed and stunned. Had I just gotten the deal of a lifetime or did I just flush five Andrew Jacksons down the toilet?

The next day I pick up my Dobro and start experimenting with the different patterns of the chromatic scale notes on the fretboard and playing around with the chord construction schemes he had taught me. It got interesting when I started playing around with a G9, one of the dominants. It was a different sound and I started putting a bit of a riff around it and pretty soon was playing a jaunty little latin-sounding thing I ended up calling "Tijuana Roller Coaster" because it had an unbalanced feel caused by the G9 and then resolved nicely to a slide up into the 1st inversion of the root chord (C) with a pause and then a final C note on the bass-most string.

OK, a little of that intro is just me showing off the new stuff I learned--but heck, I paid a hundred bucks to be able to write that paragraph, and it's my blog so humor me.

But it reminded me of the importance of grounding the energy out of a system. I used to be an electronics technician, and one of the electrical components we dealt with was the capacitor. A capacitor stores energy, and after you take one out of a circuit it can still give you a bit of a shock if you don't short the two terminals and get rid of the charge. If it has a big charge stored, you might have to do that a couple of times.

I've noticed that a lot of music does a similar thing. Notice how many symphonies end with a big chord that the orchestra repeats a couple of times? Ta Dah!.. dah...dah. Well, it's like the symphony has the musicians and the audience all worked up and the composer is trying to ground them at the end. Leave them someplace comfortable. And as much as I hate the practice of rock musicians trashing their instruments and amps at the end of a performance, I understand that they are trying to ground all of that energy so the performance leaves them and the audience back at sea level and not soaring up in the clouds.

So my slide to the root chord was to ground the listener, get him or her back to a safe place. But a 1st inversion chord is still a tad unsettling. A root chord is like having three singers harmonizing with the notes do, mi, sol, respectively. The first inversion would have them sing mi, sol, do with do being sung as the highest note. Still safe and stable, just a wee bit top heavy because the root note is on top instead of at the bottom. So that's why I throw in the root C on the bass-most string at the end, sort of like the second touching of the capacitor to fully discharge the energy. It kind of simulates what happens when a roller coaster stops; it leaves you leaning slightly forward in your seat from your forward momentum for a second, and then you settle back comfortably into the seat. Ta dah! ...dah.

Working with teams has a similar requirement, every now and then you have to ground the energy and bring everybody back into a safe comfort zone. Steven Wright has the line, "You know how you feel when you're leaning back in a chair and then you start to tip backwards? I feel that way all the time." Team work involves a lot of energy as new questions disrupt old, comfortable theories, agendas collide, etc. Periodically you need to ground the team--nobody wants to feel like they're tipping backwards in the chair all the time.

So how do you ground team energy?

In music we emphasize root chords and root notes. Playing in the key of C? End on C, E, G. Safe, predictable, comfortable. Working on a team? Get back to basic assumptions around which the team members can feel safe and comfortable. Weekly summaries are great grounders. Here's what we did this week and what we learned. Chronological descriptions of what happened or what happens are great grounders. Can we all agree that we saw A happen and then B? This is one of the reasons usability tests are great team builders, the team has equal access to the same data: what they saw the users do. As a test facilitator, when teams would start getting edgy over a point and I wanted to ground them, I would get consensus on the sequence of events. "Did the user click Add first or did he type the variable name first?" Direct observations are a safe common ground around which a team can safely discuss and agree on basics.

Other grounders are getting team members to agree again on the high level goals of the project or restating the criteria by which we accept or reject design decisions. C, E, G.

But... There is always a big but...sometimes you need to put energy into the team. The whole reason I like Tijuana Roller Coaster is that it starts on a G9, the musical equivalent to leaning back in your chair right at the tipping point. You energize a team by pulling them out of their safe, comfortable places. As you could well imagine, there are good ways to do this and bad.

When dealing with conflicts (the ultimate energizers), avoid dis-chord, i.e., out and out wrong notes being put together. Emphasize constructive tension. (A G9 introduces constructive tension into a song in the key of C.) Look at the differences in these statements in terms of dis-chord vs constructive tension:
  • You're wrong.
  • I disagree with you.
  • I have a different perspective.
The last one is the rhetorical equivalent to a G9. It gets the tune going and you sure can't leave it there, but it's a pleasant enough tension. The first statement is fingernails on a chalk board.

Enough. The point I wanted to explore is the creative management of energy, when to infuse it and when to dissipate it. I can't wait to see what my next Dobro lesson brings.


Margaret said...

I like your application of a musical theory metaphor to team management. It illuminates the concepts of creative and destructive tension, and grounding the built-up energy very succinctly.

Warren said...

You said you were going to tie this into User Experience somehow and you did a fine job, if I may say so my own self. Nice job, Mikey. You'll be after Jerry Douglas before long -- I can't wait for the next lesson!

Larry said...

I'd say that your hundred bucks was well spent, Mike. Thanks for sharing what you learned.