Chamber music helps define effective value creation methodologies

“More people should play chamber music, even if they don’t play very well. They could learn a lot for their lives as human, social beings. It greatly helps to have a common goal. And the goal in our profession is so dominant, so interesting, and so varied that it’s worthwhile making the effort.”    Members of the Alban Berg string quartet


My History and Perspective on Value Creation

  • Inspiration

At fifteen years of age, I played the violin professionally in the R.I. Philharmonic Orchestra. During that period of my life, I discovered the joy of playing chamber music. That experience has always been my inspiration for what value creation and innovation in universities and businesses should be like: small teams, each person with unique roles, all aligned around a mission everyone is passionate about, and where the enormous amount of work required is worth it to all involved because the rewards are so great.

I believe that the mental models I developed as a musician are responsible for many of the unique properties of the value creation methodology we have developed and why it works so well.  Indeed, I believe that playing music in a group is excellent training for life.

The definition of innovation is the delivery of new customer value in the marketplace with a sustainable business model.  Value creation is the process of developing innovations.  These two definitions apply to both technological and business innovation as well as music and the arts.

In the description below, not every concept is a perfect match.  Nevertheless, although the words are often different, the melody is the same.

  • A major pivot

As a teenager, I realized that music standards are absolute, and I would be better off following my second love, science.  For me at that age, it was a remarkably prescient decision.

I studied physics and went on to get a Ph.D.  After graduate school, I worked for ten years at RCA Laboratories in Princeton, N.J., and then G.E. after it acquired RCA.  After several years G.E. sold the RCA Laboratories to SRI International, headquartered in Silicon Valley.

At the time, SRI was a thousand-person technical services company that developed new products and services, primarily for global companies and governments.  Like many mid-level managers in large companies, I developed advanced technologies but I had never learned how to systematically create new customer value, which was now my responsibility at SRI.

  • Just Learn

My great friend, Norman Winarsky, was the first to tell me about our sale to SRI, and I asked him what our colleagues thought.  He said they believed it would be great.  I suggested it would be a bit different because until five minutes ago, our jobs were to spend millions of dollars a year, and now it was to earn millions.

And then Norman said the words that changed our lives, “Curt, this is just like everything we have ever done; we just have to learn.”  Since Norman is one of the smartest people I have ever known, his optimism counted a great deal at that moment.

  • Pizza and Coke

“We just have to earn.” And that is what we did.  Every other Monday night from 5 PM to 9 PM, with Norman and our superb team of about fifteen technical colleagues, we would gather over pizza and Coke.  Each of us would describe our projects and share something we had learned about our new business.  We had no money to spend, and we were not officially blessed by senior management.  It was actually the opposite.  The V.P. of marketing at the time told me he didn’t believe in what we were doing, so we would not get any support from his team.  I thanked him for being so direct and clear.

  • Nothing Worked

For more than 18 months, we had zero success, which was a shock.  When I was an RCA manager developing what would have been the world’s first Internet company with partners like Citicorp and Nynex, everyone wanted to talk to me.  Now no one did.  I had meetings with managers at other companies that were five minutes long.  It was both confounding and crushing.  I had little to offer.

Our team studied and tried to apply lessons from all the popular books, such as “In Search of Excellence,” and none helped.  They were either about how a CEO did something remarkable or advice that was either too complicated or not actionable. Super intelligent, creative people will not put up with ego-centric, bureaucratic systems.

Mostly these books were about the what to do and not the how to do it. We needed to know how and after trying and failing repeatedly we realized that inventing the how was the task at hand.  How to systematically create value for unmet opportunities of importance to others?

  • Progress

Our team learned, figured out basic value creation concepts and processes, and started to grow.  We developed concise frameworks and concepts to help our teams more effectively get the answers needed.  And our Monday night meetings became what we eventually called “Value Creation Forums”, where new teams could learn and improve fast.  We started growing and, bit by bit, we brought into our group other parts of the company that were in trouble.

In 1998 I became SRI’s CEO.  When I got to SRI in Silicon Valley, it had been in decline for twenty years and was approaching bankruptcy.  The land was being sold, the buildings were in disrepair, and the staff was discouraged and hostile toward senior management.  Who could blame them after twenty years of decline?

  • Famous

SRI had an illustrious history in Silicon Valley.  It created electronic banking (e.g., those funny numbers on your checks), received the first Internet transmission, and invented the foundations for personal computing, including the computer mouse.  The presentation of those concepts is the greatest demonstration of new computer ideas ever.  It is called, “The Mother of all demos.”

Given its endless technical opportunities, enviable talent, and location in the heart of Silicon Valley, it should have been a time of abundance for SRI; not the world of scarcity that was its current mindset. But SRI’s business model had become obsolete, more like a university with little to no collaboration, and it had no effective value creation process.

I was optimistic about our future because I was sure that the value creation methods we had developed in Princeton could turn around SRI in Silicon Valley.  We started training staff in value creation using the methods I describe below and in the Top-10 Businessweek book I co-wrote with Bill Wilmot, called Innovation.  When I left in 2014, we had grown SRI by over 300% and were systematically creating one major innovation after another, such as HDTV and Siri, which was bought personally from us by Steve Jobs.

  • Value creation workshops

I had started SRI’s HDTV program and, as part of that, had developed many friendships at the BBC in London.  One day I got a call from a BBC executive who told me they had just completed a world-wide study on the different value-creation methodologies being used. They had concluded that our approach was the best, and they wondered if we would share it with them.  The BBC is an exciting place with fascinating people, so I said yes.

It turned out to be a fantastic experience.  Over 100 BBC managers and executives eventually came to SRI, and they were, by far, the most fun, clever, irreverent, and scatological group that has taken the workshop. Because of that success, we decided to offer the workshop to other partners as a way to form close friendships and to better understand different markets.

  • Post SRI

After I left SRI in 2014, I became professors at Northeastern University and Worcester Polytechnic Institute.  I continued, with my partner Len Polizzotto, who had previously worked with me at SRI, to study ways to improve our value creation methodology.  I wanted to understand why our methodology worked so well and others too often did not.

  • Active Learning

Since SRI, I now have a better understanding of why our methodology was so successful.  The short answer is active learning, the educational science for how we learn and improve the best and the fastest.

Active learning consists of repeatedly doing the task, getting real-time feedback, working in small teams, using multiple representations to represent concepts, focusing on the big ideas, using the right tools and frameworks, engaging with teachers, practitioners, and mentors, assessing performance, and working in a complete system.  The principles of active learning apply to music and many other non technical activities, such as almost all educational programs, healthcare, circus acts, dance and ballet, movies, stunt actors, the military and police, and other team activities, like crew, soccer, and basketball.

When I was introduced to the lead for the online, experiential value creation program we are building at Northeastern University, Sarah Callan, I asked her about her background.  She said she stared her career as a professional trapeze performer.  I immediately said to myself, I bet she understands teamwork, hard work, constant practice and iteration, and listening to others for understanding.  She does.

From Northeastern University we currently have on Coursera an introduction to our program called, Innovation for Impact: The Carlson Polizzotto value creation method.  In 2021 with Northeastern we will have the full workshop we have developed since SRI based on active learning. I wrote a Harvard Business Review article in 2020 about our method called Innovation for Impact: Value creation as an active learning process.

The Issue: Poor Innovative Performance

  • Poor Performance

We have held workshops with over 500 teams in major companies, startups, government agencies, and universities.  With the exception of some superb people who created major innovations, most of the results we see are poor.  Ph.D.’s from the world’s best schools do not know the definitions for invention, innovation, value creation, customer value, and the value proposition.  That is, they are unfamiliar with the basic definitions that define one of their major responsibilities.

One result, that I still find stunning, is that no team has been able to compellingly and quantitatively describe their project’s value proposition when first asked.  At the end of a workshop, we discover that only about 25% of the proposed initiatives would provide any value if completed.  In addition, almost all pivot or change direction after just two days.  They make these conclusions; we simply give them a framework for them to conclude these things.  Very few companies, like when I was working for RCA and GE, teach their employees the fundamentals of value creation.

University R&D is often worse, especially on large interdisciplinary programs, because the teams do not have shared language and concepts for value creation and team members do not collaborate intensely enough.  I am convinced that large university R&D programs could be improved by 2 to 10 times by using the most fundamental value creation methods.

We also learned that none of the Ph.D.’s who came to SRI, even from the world’s most famous universities, knew how to create value.  It is not taught so we had to train them.  Some programs, like the design school at Stanford are helpful but they are still limited in their effectiveness.  Most entrepreneurial programs do not fully address the issue because entrepreneurship is an outcome.  Value creation is the essential precursor to entrepreneurship, and it is what is missing.

The String Quartet as a Model for Active Learning

  • An analogy

Playing music in a string quartet is a compelling example of using active learning principles.  It allows us to better understand the creative challenges and rewards in other fields, such as technological innovation.  At the end, I will note analogous elements from our value creation methodology and what is missing from almost all other value creation methodologies.

  • Important mission

A string quartet consists of a 1st violin, 2nd violin, viola, and cello.  After Hyden proved the potential of this combination, all great composers wrote string quartets, and many pieces are masterpieces.  Beethoven’s late quartets are among the most significant works in all of art.  Playing them is a profoundly gratifying experience but also a humbling challenge.

In addition to their prodigious technical challenges, professional quartets will often play Beethoven’s quartets over a lifetime and never feel satisfied that they have fully expressed Beethoven’s intent.  Part of their enduring magnificence is that the ideal performance is perpetually elusive.

The strong glue that holds quartets together and makes such intense collaboration possible is the enormous reward of making music in that form.  A quartet is large enough to create a rich, complex musical experience but small enough to allow a precise, integrated performance.

Musicians agree that when a group comes together while playing a great music piece, the emotional rewards are extraordinary.  It consumes all of the player’s physical and intellectual resources.   The quartet can enter a state of “flow,” which psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi describes as a state of complete immersion when people are totally involved and focused on what they are doing.  Time becomes irrelevant.

Because achieving flow requires complete alignment from all four players, they must find a point where their playing has absolute authenticity – the full integration of both mind and body.  Without agreeing on the importance of their work and realizing the joys it produces, mastering the challenges a quartet must face would be overwhelming.

  • Intense practice

To be a world-class professional musician typically takes 10 to 20 years of intense study, far exceeding the 10,000 hours Malcolm Gladwell suggested it takes to be an expert.  Yo-Yo Ma, the world’s leading cellist, practices 10,000 hours every five years.

Those years of study are augmented by individual lessons every week or two and at music camps, masterclasses, and other events where chamber and orchestral music are studied.  The best students usually go to music schools, such as Julliard and Curtis, where for 3 to 6 years, the student’s primary focus is on music theory, ensemble performance, and instrumental excellence.

  • Conceptual frameworks

Like all professions, music is composed of conceptual frameworks that capture its essential characteristics and designs.  After the notes themselves, musical scales are the basic building blocks.  They are the common language that defines music’s grammar, which comes in many different combinations.

Students learn and practice these frameworks until they become mental models to be identified and used intuitively when playing. Professionals do not play by reading individual notes.  The only way they can musically play rapid passages is by identifying music’s larger structures and frameworks.

  • Masterclasses for team learning

A primary teaching method in music is the masterclass, where an expert teacher meets weekly with their twelve or so students.  Multiple students will individually play a piece they are working on and receive feedback from the teacher. All the students learn by seeing what the other students do well, where they have trouble, and how the teacher helps them address shortcomings.

In the class, the objective is not to play the parts that student play well.  It is to focus on those areas of major concern. Great music teachers are also usually mentors who help advance the careers of their students.

Even after practicing for 5 hours every day for 15 years and learning all the fundamental elements of music, there is still no guarantee that the student will become a great musician.  There are other essential skills and attributes, such as the creative ability to conceive and execute compelling interpretations.

  • Creative tension

Conflicts are built into quartet paying. Like in all creative activities, conflicts can inspire transformational musical experiences.  At the same time, conflicts always represent instability and the potential for failure.

Quartet performers are often with each other for weeks on the road while working up to 6 to 12 hours a day, continually playing, discussing, and sometimes arguing about what is likely the most important activity in their lives after their immediate families. Each of the players is a superb professional, and each may interpret parts of a piece differently.  And yet they must eventually work out, bar for bar, how they will play together to convincingly perform the music.

To resolve conflicts, methods must be employed to maximize the team’s potential while minimizing the endless possible disputes.  There are numerous strategies for doing this.

  • Essential, productive diversity

On its face, a quartet is both perfectly diverse and perfectly aligned. The players all share the vision, have unique complementary skills, and share in the rewards of success.  At the same time, they must have different perspectives that bring new creative insights and provide motivation, which are the basis for better ideas and unique performances.

To be productive, they must also share certain fundamental principles and human values, which are the strengths to be leveraged in the team.  Often that comes from members having the same teachers or culture.  My great Julliard cellist friend, Aline Johnson, describes this need for shared values as the base notes the cello plays in the quartet.  There are times you can’t hear them distinctly, but if they are not there, the loss is immediately apparent.  The bottom drops out that holds everything together.

  • Play it first; don’t argue

Some quartets argue endlessly about the different ways to play passages. But words can only partly describe what is required. They are always incomplete and open to misunderstanding.  A better approach is for the quartet to play the proposed options immediately.  Often, during the playing, the best option becomes obvious, resolving the issue.

Another approach is to always ask for three options, reframing the proposed idea and opening up new possibilities.  It is the classic method of reframing problems to discover better solutions.

  • Constant feedback

Playing music is a “transparent activity” where the standards are clear.  The great violin teacher, Ivan Galamian, always said, “No matter what happens, keep playing, half the audience listens, and half the audience watches.”

That is good advice in many settings.  But it is not the same for experienced musicians.  As soon as someone plays three notes, they know exactly what to expect.  There is no hiding or covering up.

Musicians understand this reality and also that no performer can fully evaluate their own playing. Thus, they constantly ask for feedback and often continue taking lessons throughout their careers. They want to be reminded about what works, as much as what does not.

The inherent transparency of music-making and the high global standards mean that lesser groups fall away.  It is a demanding profession, and only those with the necessary skills, drive, and human values survive.

  • Balance of roles and responsibilities

In principle, the four quartet members are equals, but that is not completely possible because the first violin gets most of the melodic material.  By default, the first violin usually becomes the leader.

This potentially results in a conflict if the first violinist is overbearing.  A standard solution for this, used by many successful quartets, is that the first repeatedly points out that the quartet consists of four equal members and seldom refers themself as the leader. Thus, by minimizing the issue, the leader lessens the potential for conflict.

Another potential sore point is the role of the second violin. The second violinist may play almost as well as the first violinist, but they might lack some of the dramatic intensity required to make effective performances. If they are both equally good, one solution is to take turns playing first.  Another is to find a person who prefers being less out front and is happy to play second.  In all cases, the roles of all players are to be constantly acknowledged and celebrated.

  • Active listening

One of the essential skills a quartet musician must have is the ability to actively listen to others. Active listening means hearing, understanding, and responding.  Active listening is a continuous musical activity for musicians because it is the only way players can be musically aligned. Active listening is, to some degree, teachable, but it is still a particular skill that the best musicians possess.

In addition, because musical ideas are so important to players, when musical ideas are being discussed with fellow players, active listening is also fundamental. When people feel like they are not being taken seriously or disrespected, they will often act out.

My colleague, Bill Wilmot, one of the world’s leaders on personal communications, said that when people act out, it is almost always because they feel like they are not being included or respected.  In an intimate, intense activity like playing music, being ignored or disrespected can feel like the worst insult possible.

  • Delivering surprise

The goal of all art is surprise.  People sometimes think that is not possible in chamber music.  After all, they are often playing pieces that are hundreds of years old.  But if there is no surprise, then there is no excitement or delight.  The goal of quartets is to constantly reframe the music and discover new insights that bring the music to life.

The goal of all innovations is surprise.  If there is no surprise, there is no new value and no innovation.

  • Business model

A string quartet is a small business so it must have a sustainable business model.  That includes promotion, booking, logistics, and taxes.  The different players must divide up these tasks.  Not all quartets, even very good ones, can solve these business issues.

Enterprise Value Creation and Active Learning

  • Introduction

Below are elements of our value creation process that are directly analogous to playing in a string quartet.  Our methodology uses active learning, including constant doing and iteration, to have the concepts and frameworks mentioned become intrinsic mental models.

  • Important mission

The objective of value creation is to address an important unmet customer and market need, not just an interesting one.  Important opportunities are required to attract the best talent, raise resources, have the time needed to create a valuable innovation, and motivate the team to perform the hard work required.   Valuable, important opportunities motivate value creation teams like they do for quartets playing the great repertoire.

  • Intense practice

Value creation is a process of learning and creating that can only be mastered by continuous work on the task for years.  At SRI, when I was CEO, it took a new Ph.D. from 3 to 5 years of intense work to become an effective value creator.  Most important innovations take 5 to 15 years.

Some people think that once you have a Ph.D., you know how to create customer value and innovations.  But value creation is just as hard as playing an instrument and learning how to work together in a quartet.  Additionally, the global standards are the same.   There are only a few winners.

  • Conceptual frameworks

We use shared value creation concepts and mental frameworks, such as NABC value propositions, to facilitate effective communication and value creation. These concepts are like the scales in music, the basic grammar for value creation. Without these frameworks, teams cannot work efficiently and effectively.

  • Masterclasses for team learning

Recurring team value creation forums are held for 60 to 90 minutes every 2 to 4 weeks consisting of 3 to 6 teams working on different initiatives. All presentations use the NABC framework with the focus being on the critical parts that are still not resolved.  These are much like masterclasses.

At each forum, a facilitator has other participants give feedback from multiple perspectives and also introduces additional value creation concepts.  The teams address different market opportunities, which is like students studying pieces from different composers. When required, mentors are provided for teams between forums to address performance gaps.

  • Creative tension

Value creation requires people with different skills and perspectives.  Typical roles at the start include a person with business interests and skills, a person or two with deep technical abilities, and an operations person.  One of the initial team may be the visionary who can “see” the opportunity.  Additionally, someone will eventually be required to build the offering. The businessperson is usually the initiative’s champion to drive it forward, like the 1st violin in a quartet.  Also like in a quartet, there are potential conflicts or tensions in value creation teams.  Those tensions can drive creativity, but they need to be aligned with the initiative’s vision and goals.  Like in music, the “bass notes” that establish the shared human values to be leveraged in a team must be there.

  • Essential, functional diversity

Most major opportunities today are interdisciplinary.  Value creation starts with a small number of teammates, each of whom address a critically important aspect of the challenge.  These teams share the vision, have unique complementary skills, and share in the rewards of success.  Like in a string quartet, there are no bench sitters.  In big companies, this principle is often violated.  When there are redundant or unneeded people on a team, there will be waste and conflict.

  • Play it first; don’t argue

In value creation forums, each team is given 3 to 10 minutes to present their value propositions.  This is similar to a student in a masterclass starting the class by playing a passage from the piece they are working on and then getting feedback.  Presenters are quiet after their presentation, so they can actively listen to the feedback from other teammates.  Negative comments and arguing are not allowed. Like in music, when a value proposition is presented, its strengths and weaknesses quickly become apparent to almost everyone.  And if an initiative has no value, the team soon realizes that, and it often drops away.

  • Constant feedback

At value creation forums, the facilitator calls on other teammates at random (to assure everyone is actively listening) to give feedback from multiple perspectives: what was good, ideas for improvement, eyes of the end-user, eyes of the funders.  The teams address the issues raised in forums by constantly reframing and iterating on their value proposition.   Team members also practice by “pitching” their value propositions back and forth to each other to practice both the content and the presentation’s delivery.  The amount of feedback, study, and work required during the process of value creation to create a new innovation is equal to that required by a professional quartet.

  • Balance of roles and responsibilities

Every initiative must have a champion who drives the formation of the value proposition and assembles the core team. Productive teams must exemplify integrity, trust, respect for others, and generosity of spirit (the bass notes).  The champion is mostly the person with skills and interest in business development.  They are the 1st violinist in a value creation initiative.

  • Active listening

Each forum team presents for 3 to 10 minutes and then is quiet and listens carefully to the feedback. In addition, innovators are constantly interacting with potential customers, partners, and competitors.  Value creators are always looking for faint signals in a sea of noise.  To hear those faint signals, innovators must be active, empathetic listeners, like those in a string quartet.

  • Delivering surprise

Teams are taught how to “bring their ideas to life,” so they are compelling and unforgettable. Value creation is about creating surprise.  Like in music, if there is no surprise, there is no significant innovation.

  • Business model

Value creation is the process of creating innovations.  Over time a complete business plan is developed, including having a sustainable business model.


  • Lessons

Our value creation methodology, Innovation for Impact, is based on the principles of active learning.  It is the only method that is so conceived.  It differs from other popular methods in three fundamental ways.

  • Important unmet needs
  • Shared concepts and frameworks for value creation
  • Team-based value creation forums

First, our method is focused on finding and addressing important opportunities.  Most people feel those are risky, but they have the least risk when the principles outlined here are used to learn, create, and improve fast.  Important opportunities carry the advantages of playing great music.  They attract the best talent, motivate and provide meaning, justify all the hard work, provide sufficient rewards for all involved, and make it possible to secure the necessary resources.  Most would-be innovators do things that are interesting to themselves, but not important to others.  That is the risky path.

Second, no other value creation methodology has a family of concise frameworks and concepts for value creation.  We consider these concepts to be as important as scales in music.  Their lack in other methods leads to enormous waste and inefficiency.

Third, all major innovations are interdisciplinary and require the integration of many different forms of knowledge.  Value creation forums are essential for helping teams combine those different forms of knowledge.  Value creation methods that use complicated frameworks, long presentations, and unfocused feedback are mostly ineffective.  The multi-perspective feedback used in forums plus the concise NABC framework and short presentations uniquely allows for rapid reframing and comparative learning.  That is, each team can see from the other presentations what works and what doesn’t.  Comparing different NABC value propositions is like an eye test in how quickly it helps teams learn, reframe, and improve their initiatives.  In forums learning compounds, and the improvements made become exponential.

  • References

    • Carlson and Polizzotto, Innovation for Impact: Coursera
    • Curtis Carlson and Bill Wilmot: Innovation: The 5 Disciplines for Creating what Customers Want, Random House
    • Curtis Carlson: Innovation for Impact: Active Learning as the Basis for Value Creation, HBR
    • YouTube: See Innovation for Impact, Curt Carlson
    • LinkedIn:
    • Keith Murnighan and Donald E. Conlon: Dynamics of Intense Work Groups: A Study of British String Quartets:
    • Hat tip: David K. Hurst