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Article Published: 04 Apr 2017

Learning Curves: A Conversation with David McIntosh

David McIntosh
David McIntosh (photo: Douglas R. Langdon)

David McIntosh is the founder and president of Creative Business Breakthroughs LLC, working with executives and their organizations at the intersection of innovation and effectiveness. He served on the board of directors of OPERA America from 2001 to 2007, the final two years as treasurer. Here he talks with Marc A. Scorca, OPERA America’s president and CEO, about how organizations — opera companies included — learn and innovate.

SCORCA: The world of opera is constantly changing, which means that the people in our field have to develop a lot of flexibility and a real capacity for learning. So, my first question to you is how do people — and organizations — learn?

McINTOSH: People like to think that you learn from your mistakes, but more often we learn from our successes. We do the same things again and again because they worked the first time.

We may also learn from our enormous failures. Mark Twain said, “A cat that sits down on a hot stove lid will never sit down on a hot stove lid again,” but the cat may not understand why she doesn’t go on the stove again. Often organizations or corporations have problems doing something, but they don’t even realize what’s going on psychologically.

It seems to me that’s just natural — we tend to be so caught up in the affairs of the day that we don’t take time to reflect. There’s both incremental learning — learning how to do something a little bit better than you’ve been doing it — and learning how to do something completely new. These come from different sources. Learning to do something a little bit better takes concentration, takes focused attention. We’ve all heard that you should practice something for 10,000 hours before you’re really good at it. But just practicing for 10,000 hours doesn’t make a difference: It has to be focused practicing — listening to what you’re doing and trying to get better. Just sitting at the piano for 10,000 hours can make for unhappy parents and unsuccessful pianists. You need a conscious approach to improvement, and that’s hard for people; that’s hard for organizations.

Sometimes learning comes from ideas that stimulate your thinking. Where do you search for new ideas?

When you look at advances in any particular field — science, biology, computer science, art — they often come from people coming from outside of the field. I think there’s no substitute for learning from people face to face. The people who are best at learning look at the broadest range of people — not just the ones you work with or socialize with, but people who are doing interesting things in all sorts of disciplines and pursuits. I think we’ve gotten really bad at mingling, on a serious level, with other people doing other things — at sitting down to dinner with a heart surgeon or a schoolteacher or a policeman and finding out what is interesting in their jobs. How are they doing things differently than they did five years ago? There’s an enormous amount of learning that you can have in that conversation, but you have to be real and be present, and you have to value the person you’re listening to.

How do you learn from other people? And how do you determine whom to learn from?

I’ll give you two examples of people I’ve learned from. One is the principal at my children’s middle school, who was brilliant at what he did. I realized I could learn an awful lot from him, not just about HR issues, but crisis management and vision and leadership and collaboration. A completely different case: The early- morning barista at my local Starbucks is somewhat developmentally impaired, but she is the heart and soul of the store. When you go in, she is happy to see you, she recognizes you. When she asks your name, she makes a little joke that she’s forgotten it. In fact, she’s never going to learn it, but the way she interacts with her customers is something that I can learn from and I can emulate. Finding people you can admire, especially if they’re doing things different from what you do for a living — that’s where you can have advances in your learning.

But sometimes, instead of other people, don’t you learn from the flow of new ideas?

Well, if we think that innovation is a matter of seeing new ideas and getting on the bandwagon, we’re going to miss out on most of the innovation. In some sense, there aren’t really all that many new ideas; there are new successes. But everything is really just recombination. The ideas may be new in one domain, but they’re old hat in another. We aren’t looking for an idea that has appeared Venus-like on the half shell; we’re looking for ideas that are new to us.

I’d like to translate this to the lives of overworked opera company leaders. How do people put these practices into place in the context of lives that are commandeered by other demands? Again and again, the urgent overtakes the important! You should always step back and say, “Am I doing more than I need to? Do I need to be involved, or are my fingers in too many pots?” Your time might be better spent cultivating the connectors in your life — the people who spend time finding out what’s going on right now. “What’s the news? What’s the buzz that I need to be aware of?”

In the context of an opera company, those people could be board members; they could be major donors who are leaders of industry in their own realms; they could be staff members who have a penchant for reading and staying in touch with things. Right. Here’s a lesson I learned traveling: The first time I ever visited Turkey, I bought a Moleskine notebook and kept a journal — not a record of places I had been or meals I had eaten, but instead of what surprised me, the things that opened my eyes a little bit. A great conversation starter with the people you’re using as your filtering system is to ask, “What happened this year in your company — or in your job or your city — that really surprised you?” And looking for those surprises can trigger your ability to see them in your own domain.

When we do research reports, we’ve often found that some people have trouble taking action in response to the findings. Not everyone can convert research into action; not everyone can read a research report and realize, “We have to redo our subscription brochure because we aren’t conveying the message we should be conveying.” I’d like to push back a bit. This is not a solo sport. It’s not incumbent on a single person to look at the data and come up with the conclusion. I even disagree with the idea of best practices. There is virtually no domain with a single right way of doing things. The situations are always different; the people are always different; the background is different; the objectives are different; the capabilities are different. The question is always “What’s right for us?” with the critical word being “us.” You need to work with other people to go through the process of recognizing that something is going on, gathering the data, doing the analysis and coming up with alternatives. The “great man” notion that someone can look at the data and see the future and map out what needs to be done through sheer intellectual or charismatic willpower — that’s bogus. The way people make things happen is through other people.

That certainly speaks to a style of leadership that is collegial, team-based, intergenerational and diverse. I’m glad you said “intergenerational” because I think we should learn from our elders and learn from our children. The default case for most people is learning from the leaders, learning from those who are most successful right now. Okay, there’s something to be said for that, but you’ve left out the other two parts of this picture. There’s a great idea I ran into in a book, Unleashing the Killer App — look to see what the unencumbered, what the newcomers, are doing. In my own life, my children had to teach me to never leave phone messages. They don’t need to hear: “Benjamin, it’s your father. Wanted to see how you are, give me a phone call.” No, they just need to see on their phone that Dad called at 8:03 p.m. They grew up in a different world, and they had to train me. Learning from our elders is equally valuable but really very different, because in many ways they’ve already faced the new problems that we’re facing.

How do you introduce new ideas into an organizational culture? In many instances, those who are leading opera companies have grown up in a kind of orthodox practice of opera, which makes change difficult to embrace internally. What have you discovered in your work as a consultant with companies about how organizations best absorb new ideas and then put them into practice?

Organizational change happens, as a rule, when it has to. More often than not, organizations change reactively instead of proactively. I don’t want to say that’s good or bad: It’s just human nature. What pushes organizations to innovate are changes in what their competitors are doing, what their customers are looking for or what the costs of doing certain things are. Those are all reactions to changes external to the organization, but they’re still really good reasons for making changes. Bringing that into the opera world, if our customers are not used to buying subscriptions and are doing everything spur-of-the-moment in 20-minute increments on their cellphones, we need to say, “If this is how customers are behaving, what do we want to do?”  If competitors are doing things — if they’re changing their seasons, if they’re bringing acrobats in —  and if we’re losing business to them, or if there are changes in the cost structure — what used to be less expensive is now prohibitive, or occasionally vice-versa — that should lead to a type of innovation. Jane Jacobs wrote in The Economy of Cities about how innovation happens when people are doing some type of work to expand their footprint, often horizontally. The Dodge brothers in Detroit originally were making transmissions before they extended it and got into motors, and then eventually complete automobiles. Or Sony in Japan was making vacuum tubes before they got into radios and bigger systems. That really is a perfectly normal and healthy type of innovation, and it’s very different from the blue-sky “Oh, I have a vision and I’m going to change the world,” which is a dangerous strategy. People should be innovating from their strengths. But you have to be honest and say that change is not necessarily good for everybody. There are two ways you can get everybody on board. One is out of collective desperation, where you say, “Unless we do this, we’ll go out of business and our children will starve.” More often you get it through alignment — when you can get people to buy into a shared vision. But to buy into that vision, people can’t just hear words: They have to see evidence.

Jared Diamond in his book Collapse says that fragile societies are more likely to continue doing what they’ve always been doing than to risk innovation, even though they know it will lead to eventual failure, because if the innovation fails, they will perish even sooner. I’ve sometimes thought of struggling opera companies as fragile societies where a failed experiment can result in the failure of the company faster than if the company just kept on doing the same thing.

Companies with no resources are more risk-averse, more likely to keep doing what they’re doing. When you look at failed civilizations over time, like Mohenjo-daro in the Indus Valley, often they succumbed to ecological disasters that were slow-moving, so they couldn’t see how they were going to get out of it. And maybe this sounds like us with global warming and rising sea levels. Slow death is really all too common, isn’t it? So how do you avoid slow death? By always growing, always expanding; that’s one way. A second way is to have a process where you step back every now and then and say, “This can’t go on forever.” Herbert Stein, the economist, had a great saying: “If something can’t go on forever, it won’t.” This is sort of true about economic money supply, exchange rates, things like that. But this is true of companies, as well. It’s like the horse who says, “I will work harder.” No — saying “I will work harder” does not solve the problem.

What you’re saying is that stepping back, reflecting, thinking incrementally, looking for evidence of small successes and learning from them — all of those are steps toward achieving change. Another thing on my list is time frame. What’s the time frame of innovation, of change, of success?

It doesn’t need to be 12 months; it might really be an innovation cycle of five years. But that requires consensus; that requires buy-in. If you’re making changes that will take four years to pan out and you’re working for people who are judging on a quarter-to-quarter basis, it’ll end badly. You need to align expectations and time frames, and both sides have to agree. A disconnect between management and board can cause all of this to end in tears.

When I’ve worked with opera companies to talk about multiyear arcs for change strategies, I try to make sure that their goals are not all immediate. When you work to build an audience within a new community, sometimes the first couple of years have to be dedicated to building relationships within that community you want to woo. There is no immediate ROI on relationship- building, which is something people who want to see quarterly or annual progress need to understand. Can we edit this interview so that I said that instead of you? I agree 100 percent. People on boards often have experience with long-term business success and have seen long-term investments pay off. The trick is setting a project up so that it becomes a credible long-term investment. On the financial side, it means making sure you’re not running out of dollars as you’re in the midst of the strategy, but on the non-financial side, it means having measurable objectives so that the people can say, “Yes, we’re on a plan.” Take Snapchat, which went public at the beginning of March. They lost hundreds of millions of dollars last year, but they exceeded expectations. By managing expectations of how much they were going to make, what their cash flow was going to be, how quickly they’re acquiring customers and what the retention was going to be — they didn’t have to have a profit to take the company public. Similarly, the companies that we work with don’t necessarily have to be showing improvement in the financial situation as long as they’re not going to go bankrupt. Real innovation takes time and the budget to get from here to there. And, to use the only football metaphor you’ll ever hear me use, it looks more like a careful ground game than a go-for-broke Hail Mary pass. Real innovation is a team sport, and the bigger the team of collaborators you can draw on, the better your chances of scoring.

This article was published in the Spring 2017 issue of Opera America Magazine.