A Maestro’s Inspiration About Change


Payson Hall isn’t a big fan of contemporary classical music, but a recent conversation with a world-class composer generated insights about both his resistance to new music and, more broadly, people’s resistance to change.

Apart from a few piano lessons forty-five years ago, I don’t know much about music creation, but my friend Michael, a composer, is patient with me. We get together every year or so and discuss philosophy, politics, and music. When I expressed interest in the blues some years back, he took me to a record store and loaded me up with twenty essential albums that made for an amazing introduction and tutorial on the genre. Since I met him, Michael has become a noted composer of contemporary classical music, also known as “new music.” People commission his pieces and play them all over the world.

I have relatively wide-ranging and eclectic musical tastes, but I mostly haven’t gotten new music. A couple of years ago, Michael patiently took me on a guided tour of twentieth-century avant-garde composers—Bartok, Webern, and others. Though I still mostly don’t get it (I tried), I did find insights into some of what these composers were exploring. I can’t say I enjoy it, but I can appreciate it.

On a recent visit, we discussed how people tend to approach music they are unfamiliar with. Michael described something he called a “deficit model.” He said: “People quickly determine, ‘This isn’t giving me what I want,’ without examining what the intent might be or taking the time to search for what is there that might be interesting.” He pointed out that people often act as if exploring something new were a zero-sum game—that finding something appealing in the new thing somehow diminishes the things they already like.

I got fewer insights into new music during this conversation than I did about people’s resistance to change.

It is easy to poke fun at others when they resist change—you know, “them,” “those users,” “those stubborn developers,” “those customers,” “those luddite employees.” Truth be told, most of us are a bit resistant to change, particularly if we are comfortable with the way things are now. Think of the last time someone suggested you switch to a new email program, development environment, testing methodology, or browser when you were happy with the one you already had. Suddenly you were one of the resistant people.

This is completely understandable from an efficiency standpoint. There are a lot of things in the world to be explored—more than we could ever master in a lifetime. Every time we change, even to something better, there is a learning curve we must climb and a price to be paid in inefficiency. (Someone please explain this to the software company that makes my word processor and changes the controls with every new release). As a consequence, we naturally are skeptical of changes if what we are doing now seems “good enough.”

People tend to approach a new system, tool, method, or technology (or music genre) using the deficit model Michael described, looking first at the ways it doesn’t give them what they want. Those of you in the change-management business (that would be most of you, if you think about it) might pause to contemplate this as you develop strategies to work through resistance when that is desirable or necessary.

Here are some things to consider:

  1. Don’t push too hard. No one likes to be pushed, and some people will resist even harder just because you are pushing. If Michael were a fanatic, it would strain our relationship and probably mean we couldn’t talk about music.
  2. Point out the advantages of the new thing without denigrating the old. Remember that the old thing was shiny and new at one point. There is no reason to be disrespectful or dismissive of people’s loyalty or comfort with the status quo.
  3. Give people time and freedom to experiment and explore. I must confess that it is awkward having a good friend whose life’s work and fame is about creating music I don’t much care for. But, Michael has given me low-key opportunities to find things to appreciate with some notable successes.
  4. Discuss the small victories. My son recently gave me tickets to a concert that included a Shostakovich concerto for cello and orchestra. While I can’t say I enjoyed the music, I was able to appreciate the passion of the solo cellist and the incredible range of sounds she got from her instrument. (I think Michael found that encouraging.)

At my current rate of progress, it may be another twenty years before I truly enjoy some of my friend’s more contemporary music, but his patience and low-key attitude haven’t scared me off yet, and I continue to explore. From a change-management perspective, that is progress.

User Comments

1 comment
Mark Cole's picture

Instead of having you load up with 20 cellophane wrapped CDs (that you might not even enjoy) why didn't he push you to just stream the music from a cloud on the internet? There might be advantages to doing it this way - less cost, less broken fingernails. Ofcourse you should have time and freedom to explore that there may be better and cheaper way to listen to music, so I will stay low-key.:)

June 29, 2011 - 3:59pm

About the author

AgileConnection is a TechWell community.

Through conferences, training, consulting, and online resources, TechWell helps you develop and deliver great software every day.