I am fascinated by signs, language and what can come out of it. Take a musical score and compare it with the music played with the help of that score. Did you realise that before the invention of the phonograph, gramophone, tape recorder, record player, cd player, mp3-player and streaming services, music was shared via signs on a paper – a score?
The most complicated musical score can sound very easy. Or a score that is looking innocent on paper can be a tremendously complex and loud experience. So signs and the meaning of symbols can give us different experiences when dealing with a collection of characters that make up something more significant. Like a tone, a melody in a symphony of signs and sounds. A letter in a word in an essay.
Suppose you like to play with letters and words and change the characters’ order to make something new. In that case, there is a lot of fun and sometimes an Epiphany that the very same letters, shuffled in different ways, can bring up totally different meanings. Everyone who likes to play Scrabble or Wordfeud knows what I mean.
Here are some examples where the very same letters reshuffled have very different meanings. However, from a material point of view they are the same: DOG is GOD, HOW is WHO, DYSLEXIA is SEX DAILY, SIGN is SING and SILENT is LISTEN. There is also music in this approach. Because musicians are doing the same when playing with tones to come up with ever-changing new variations.
So if you understand the difference between one single letter, let’s say the difference between an A and an O, visually it is just a little change, but the meaning can be enormous. This comes into play with an adaptation of Scrabble: the boardgame Upwords. In Upwords it is possible to stack a letter on top of other letters already on the gameboard; to change the meaning and get extra points.
Let’s take the word ‘adapt‘. The Cambridge Dictionary says: to adjust to different conditions or uses; to change to meet different situations; to change your ideas or behaviour to make them suitable for a new situation. Think about an adapter. It does not change your iPhone but makes your headphone still workable because Apple ditched the headphone jack. So we are used to adapting every day, making slight changes in the same system to keep it working, without making progress into something new.
Now let’s trade the letter A for the letter O and look at the word ‘adopt‘. Cambridge Dictionary says: to accept or start to use something new; to start behaving in a particular way, especially by choice. So this is something different it is not shaping the given, but adding something new. Seeing something in a different light and switching the meaning from one direction to another. It is like the history of sound recording. We jumped from the acoustic to the electric, magnetic, and (finally?) digital era.
There is a more profound lesson in this, and I would like to offer this as a possible direction for the new year. If you can’t adapt, adopt!
Be aware of the small signs, the little changes in the system, the little gestures, the details that could shift us from just adapting to adopting. Something new or unheard, something that already was there but overseen. Something that makes real sense.
I wish you have many epiphanies in 2021 with a positive impact on the planet, our society and for yourself.
Are we asking the right question? How might we change the world? The unanswered question template might help.
When I worked in the Design Thinking Center in Amsterdam as Chief Design Officer, I started my introduction often with: There is good news. Everybody is talking about design thinking. We have the momentum to change the world with a mind- and toolset that comes from a different craft and uses it for another – from design to business. And there is bad news. Everybody is talking about design thinking, which means that there are knowledge, opinions, assumptions, experiences and many ways to explain and think about what design thinking might be.
Doing Design Thinking right
For the new and unexperienced it is a workshop, a brainstorm, sticky note ideation, a sprint, a quick fix, a solution to come up with the next disruptive cool thing. For practitioners, it is a mindset, that incorporates thinking and doing and – like any craft – a minimum time to learn, use and repeat it. In its essence, there must be at least proper research, experimentation, iterative prototyping and iterative piloting which rolls into implementation – and then improvement.
So it is not a surprise that we can read about why design thinking fails, and in the same thread why design thinking is the way to go, it just has to be done right. The same goes for other business approaches like Agile, Scrum, Kanban and Lean and Lean UX. All of them are out there in businesses all over the globe with variable experiences – and sometimes frustrations.
Can an analogy help?
The discussion of using different methodologies and applying them in parts (for the good or bad) is comparable with the world of music. Is it Rock, is it Pop, is it Jazz, is it Dance or just something we don’t know yet? Every Noise at Once lists 4,897 – what they call – genre-shaped distinctions.
Besides, there are millions of bands that try to find their style with the combination of all the above. And they will take whatever it is to use it for their purpose or taste.
And precisely this is what organisations are trying to do when they shop around in methodology land without knowing how these methods work and where they link with each other. Letting all the different influences appreciate their values and join them in meaningful collaboration for a common goal is the utmost responsibility of the leadership. Then the audience might recognise the style and can appreciate the performance.
But how to start?
Start with asking the right questions
I believe that we don’t change the world by asking questions that we can solve in a single sprint. Our questions should be shaped in the way that they guide us towards more insights and to connect short term and long term thinking. There is a lot of worth in asking the right question. For example, if you start a project with ‘How can we’ it is clear that we assume that we can solve the problem. This means in just using the word ‘can’ we focus on the solution and not on the challenge. This leads to short term fixing and assumptions based on what we think we know. Assumption based projects can be costly and always have pressure at the end of the project. They come with a lot of ad hoc changes and quick fixes to bring it to a shippable version.
It is much better to use the formula How might we. There are many versions of the How Might We question, some call it ‘problem statement’ (Nielsen Norman Group) or ‘design challenge’ (IDEO design kit), ‘user point of view’ or just ‘beautiful question’.
The unanswered question as a guide
We all know that most client assignments start with a problem or a solution in mind. To tackle the problem or just fix the solution is the main focus. So the biggest challenge for meaningful collaborations is to check if the assumption on the situation or solution is right. And also see if the research and the insights of the research are evenly distributed in the organisation or just the ‘crazy idea of the most extrovert’. That’s why it is essential to mutually agree on what is what I suggest to call it: the unanswered question.
A ‘problem statement’ or ‘design challenge’ to my ears sound too much solution- or product-service-oriented and often stimulate short-term quick fix sprint thinking.
That’s why I prefer to call it the unanswered question; it gives the company more space to explore what exactly is going on. It also helps to connect short term and long term thinking in understanding if an iteration, innovation or transformation is needed.
The unanswered question by Charles Ives
Let’s get some musical inspiration. The unanswered question is a short orchestral piece composed by Charles E. Ives. I invite you to listen to the song and try to think about an unanswered question of your own.
A short description of the piece: the orchestration of the work is in three musical sections. It starts with the ‘silence of the druids’ – who know, see and hear nothing. The strings represent it without tempo or dynamic changes. Then the trumpet states ‘the perennial question of existence’ in the same tone of voice several times. The flutes or woodwinds try to answer the question and become gradually more active, faster and louder.
For all the music freaks out there is here is an analysis of the unanswered question and more info about the composer Charles Ives who worked most of his life selling insurances.
The unanswered Question template
I enclosed the how might we formula into an unanswered question template with short instructions and also a Spotify link to scan with your mobile to use the music as an inspiration and explanation in the workshop.
‘How’ stands for ‘we don’t know the answer yet’, ‘might’ for ‘we even don’t know if it is possible’ and ‘we’ stands for ‘this is a group effort and needs meaningful collaboration’.
On the right side of the template, you find the six cues of music thinking. The different parts of the template correspond with one or more of the six cues.
The first part – given the fact – connects the cues JAMMIN’, EMPATHY and PERSONALITY. This means that there must be facts that give input to the SCORE that guides AGILITY and Jammin’.
And finally, everything should lead to a REMIX. And while the ensemble is performing the audience is listening and we start the first iteration.
Unanswered question storming
Try an ‘Unanswered Question Storming’ of about 50 variations of the formula above. You can print the template in A4 and ask the participants to write as many unanswered questions as possible. Start with listening to the unanswered question by Charles Ives. Get a feel what the words mean and how they send us in specific directions.
I am sure there will be one that is worth exploring.
If you have the right questions it is easy to connect all the tools and methodologies that help to realise at least the first iteration of a possible solution.
The Dutch cooperative Faebric is specialised in collaborative transformation and the music thinking approach.
When the dutch railway’s asked them to design and lead the integration of the commercial organisation with the IT department they choose to do this with the music thinking approach and instruments in mind. The whole collaborative transformation incorporated 500 employees and involved e.g. the workers’ council and six collaborators from Faebric with capabilities like organisational design, leadership coaching, HR tech, service design thinking, design management, agile kanban, lego serious play, commercial and data strategy.
How to start with music thinking?
At the beginning of the project, a work team was established, and duo’s were built to establish a team feel down to the smallest entity. Half of the group members were elected by the organisation and the other half appointed by the leadership. Collaborators from outside the organisation were added along the way to scale up with additional expertise. The decision to start in duos was a crucial one and led to focus on flexibility, sharability and accountability. The group members were also encouraged to work in different constellations from duo to bigger ensembles in stand-ups, demos, and retrospectives.
How to use the Jam Cards
In one of the first meetings, the Jam Cards were used in a serendipity lab workshop to explore and ‘sense the field of change’ and to finally come to design challenges that would connect ‘the unanswered question’ of the new organisation. This was also done in the style of a design challenge.
The Jam Cards were used in many ways. For example, in onboarding and offboarding of new team members, with the question of What card summarises the experience while working on the project?
Or when the prototyping teams of new organisational entities were established every member – with the use of one of the jam cards – could make a wish for the new organisation. These rituals helped to make the wishes more explicit, bring complicated things down to a single card and create a shared meaningful moment with the group.
Dynamics in the collaborative transformation
The phases of the music thinking framework are Listen, Tune, Play and Perform. There are many ways how these phases interact and overlap each other. Here the analogy of music comes into play. The different typicalities of a musical style, e.g. the classical music style with its step-by-step approach is very different from the jazz style where all phases overlap. Or in the Rock genre, the PLAY phase (in green) represents among other things the prototyping activities.
From a management consulting perspective, the dynamics of the music thinking framework show the visualisation of the two weekly organisation sprints. They reveal the different dynamics of the design phase.
This helped to establish that not every sprint is equal, that every two-week-sprint can have a particular dynamic and that the dynamic of its own is whether good or bad, but just different.
Other Music Thinking Instruments
The six cues were the starting point to connect instruments with interactions. The SCORE cue and the REMIX cue were the basis to iterate from the organisational design via prototyping to first operation.
Later the four perspectives of listening by Otto Scharmer (Theory U) were trained and exercised with an online self-assessment tool, to keep track of the changes in the listening style.
Every leadership session started with – then in corona time and everybody locked at home – a meditation ritual, e.g. a sonic meditation including singing bowl sounds.
In addition to the mentioned instruments above the music thinking framework poster was always at hand to explain the connections and get inspiration from different tools.
A variety of playlists complemented the music thinking approach. They were used as a discussion starter and to capture the collective knowledge of how the team is listening.
About Faebric cooperative
We are Fæbric; we facilitate change by collaboration and design. We help leaders, teams and organisations to interpret and to act upon the signs of the time. We do this through collaborative transformation. We offer our expertise in leadership, strategy, design and technology, to deliver value by approaching challenges and solutions in new ways. With a strong understanding of collaboration, learning and engagement, we facilitate you to perform your potential.
Did you ever ask yourself, how could I pass my knowledge and my experience to someone else? In the current speed of innovations and agility, it is quite a challenge to transfer knowledge. Making an online course is not for everyone, and telling what you are doing is not sufficient for real knowledge transfer. Here is another approach that I can recommend.
When the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007) had a break on a beach in Italy, in 1963, he composed a new piece called “Plus-Minus”. It was a piece of music of a totally uncommon kind. Instead of just notes for musicians to play, “Plus-Minus” contains a completely new graphical notation. The notation was never used afterwards, not by him, not by anyone else: a unique one-time composition. At a closer look, it turns out to be even more unique.
“Plus-Minus” is the result of a retrospective. Stockhausen must have asked himself, at that time in 1963 at the beach of Palermo, looking back to the 42 compositions he had made since 1950: how do I compose, what are the structures I use, and how could I have others make new compositions based on the same structures? In other words, what are the structures of my own musical thinking?
A set of instructions meant to make a score
Plus-Minus is not only a different notation, it is not even a regular music composition. Plus-Minus is a set of instructions meant to make a score. It is a meta-composition: it is a score for a composer to make up his own composition based on the instructions by Stockhausen. A unique piece of art in the post-war period that inspired many.
I have always found this an inspiring idea. It is a designer’s idea, not only valuable for composers and musicians but for every kind of designer, be it art, engineering or organisation design. It is a way of reflecting on one’s own way of working and make it reproducible for others. Everyone could ask herself: what are the structures of my own thinking, and how can I express them in such a way that everyone else could make her own version out of it?
Expressing these structures in a meta-language can be challenging.
Meta-languages must conform to two principles
Meta-languages must address a non-meta-language that can be understood by the target group. Stockhausen e.g. refers to music notes, his target group being musicians. A meta-language for IT programmers should refer to computer language concepts, a meta-language for information architects should be information concepts, a meta-language for furniture designers should be furniture constructions.
Meta-languages must define ranges of freedom for deliberately chosen aspects. Stockhausen refers to a “musical sound” in Plus-Minus and leaves the decision of what sound (musical instrument) this should be completely free. The structure, however, of how these sounds are repeated during the piece are dictated more strictly.
Meta-languages are quite common in IT, where programmers and architects define “domain languages”. Meta-languages could be applied in a much broader context, however. Also, UX designers, service designers and information architects could define their own meta-language.
A beautiful advantage
Defining your meta-language is a form of reflection with a beautiful advantage: it enables others to use your thinking structures in their design. You need some practice, but it is a very effective way of transferring your deeper knowledge and experience to others.
‘Is it possible to see things with different eyes‘ is the central question of the conference with a focus on empathy. And that’s why all actors (there are no ‘speakers’) are bringing very personal perspectives to share with the participants from all over the world. The MC of the two days was Author, educator, speaker, community builder, consultant, comedian and friend Adam Stjohn Lawrence.
Among others, we learned from Esther Thole about slime mould and how these organisms recognize each other’s signals, process them and respond. Stefan Van Der Stigchel talked about the importance of taking breaks and our unwillingness to take time for ourselves without a ‘square device’. That’s why he gave us the opportunity of 20 minutes of mind-wandering. Kalwant Bhopal led us through a provoking journey about empathy, identity, intersectionality and ‘white privilege’. With these perspectives plus a lot of interactions during the lunchtime and the buddy moments, the participants of the conference were off to the breakout sessions.
The Breakout Session
Xenia and I were invited to do a music thinking breakout session. The objective was to engage half of the conference (about 70 people) in a breakout workshop, let them learn and reflect about the things they heard and make a performance all together after the last actor to end the day with a big bang.
We stretched the conference theme with the music thinking interpretation of ‘with different eyes’ to ‘with different ears‘. After two minutes of silence, we let the participants think about what the sounds of empathy could be and engaged them in duos to discuss what empathy really sounds like. Then we asked them to transform this finding in something that they could reproduce with their voice, body percussion or something else.
The duos then shared their sounds in a sextet formation and made a musical score of this pattern. Parallel the prompters were instructed how we would do some kind of conducting theses scores and how we could bring this all together at the end of the day one. Look at the beautiful scores the teams made.
Here is an excerpt of the performance, made with a steady ‘backstage camera’.
After the performance together with the whole conference, there was a lot of energy in the room.
Besides talking about what exactly the sound of empathy might be, there were also discussions about ‘what is a musical score or composition’, ‘what is interpretation’ and ‘what is improvisation’, ‘how can you scale small groups into bigger groups’ and ‘what is the difference between initiating, conducting and prompting’.
The one-hour breakout was organised with the four steps listen, tune, play and perform of the Music Thinking Framework and we touched four of the six cues: EMPATHY, SCORE, AGILITY, and REMIX.
Learn how to use music thinking for organisational change and to bridge agile, branding, service design and branding.
The training will follow the basic line of our workshop: Meaningful collaboration with music thinking and therefore will explain in little theory and also with some exercises on how to use music thinking in an organisation.
For the third time, we will facilitate a Music Thinking breakout session during the Design Thinking Conference in Amsterdam. This time we call our session The Sounds of Empathy.
Like previous years, the conference has the subtitle ‘through different eyes‘ and the focus on empathy. Instead of definitions, tools and showcases, the conference focuses on inspirations to question oneself, debates getting further, perspectives outside the comfort zones, all in togetherness and positivism, and with a bit of lightness.
The Sounds of Empathy
During the breakout session, we will touch all six cues of the Music Thinking Framework, starting with the Empathy cue. Empathy is the cue to change. It starts with listening. In the workshop, we go on a quest to find sounds of empathy. We share the sounds, make a short interactive composition and perform it at – and together with – the conference.
In May we did one-day music thinking workshop for a very energised team of about 22 communication experts in a great venue in the black forest of Germany.
We started the day with some Music In You exercise by letting the participants write down and cluster their favourite songs + artists. These songs are also put together in a Spotify Playlist.
After a short introduction to Music Thinking and the Music Thinking Framework, we continued with an individual Serendipity Lab exercise with the Jam Cards.
The findings from the results were first discussed in duos. Then as a next step, the discussion was brought further and iterated upon in quartets. Each quartet was based around one of the six cues of Music Thinking.
After the lunch break, we did a Paper Creativity Session to introduce the participants to the concept of leadership and followership. They practised the basics of creativity interaction: listen, guide and support.
We used A4 paper as an instrument to make the interaction inclusive. Did you ever play on an A4?
Eventually it was time to get back to the quartets and to REMIX all the gained knowledge. We closed the day with 1 minute performances by each quartet.
A lot of smiling faces and an energised team afterwards: What a great energetic Music Thinking workshop in a beautiful environment!
Find the right approach for bridging service design with branding, agile, service design and organisational change
We offer you a custom-made programme designed around your particular objectives. We will guide you through service design and the music thinking framework. We can advise you how to bridge silos in your organisation and combine service design with branding, agile and organisational change.
In April we did half-day music thinking workshop for an international think tank that stands for ‘brands with a conscience’. The idea was to generate new ideas for the celebration of their 20th anniversary in 2020. The approach was ‘from serendipity lab to idea rap’. First, get inspired by the jam cards and the six triggers that are on each card. At the end the participants made a rap version of their idea pitch.
First, they diverged using the Serendipity Lab approach. After that, they worked in duos’ and quartets to create a long list of ideas. Then, instead of just presenting the ideas, the members acted like a music group and wrote the lyrics in co-creation and then performed a short Rap to give the ideas more spontaneity and emotions.
Here is a short video that shows the whole process from serendipity lab to idea rap.
How to scan Spotify codes? Spotify Codes offer a brand new way for users to share and discover the amazing content on Spotify. It’s as easy as taking a picture.
As you might have noticed, one of the triggers of the Jam Cards has such a Spotify code on the bottom left corner. With a short click, you are transferred to Spotify and the song will play right away. Great for workshops and other interactions.
How to play the sonic trigger of a Music Thinking Jam Card:
Open the Spotify app on your phone or tablet
Go to ‘search’.
Click on the ‘camera icon’ on the right side of the ‘search field’ at the top of the screen.
Scan the code.
Listen and enjoy.
Tip: Close your eyes and use headphones.
Give it a try it even works from the screen. Here is a picture with a Spotify code to try with your phone.
Like what you have read above?
This is only one of the 44 cards. Get your own card set and use them in workshops or creative interactions. With the multiple triggers and many ways to combine the cards, there are inspirations for all kinds of usage.
Buy the Jam Cards via your local bookstore (worldwide) and have a nice chat with the people there and try the cards right away. Yes, or just buy them at Amazon.com, Amazon.de, BIS Publishers,Bol.com and all the other online stores.