Deborah Borda, President and CEO, Los Angeles Philharmonic, was the third speaker at the June 7th plenary session. She presented an interesting view of technology and innovation in her remarks titled “Toto, We’re Not in Leipzig Anymore.”
First she explored the importance of innovation and being able to identify which innovations are important. In 1879, the Pony Express had folded and Western Union dominated communications via the telegraph, the modern, cutting-edge technology of the time. However, Western Union leaders declined to get involved in the new-fangled telephone and the rest is history. “And how sad – the poles were already up.”
Jump to the 1970s, where Steve Jobs had traded shares in his company for access to Xerox’s technical think tank. There he saw something revolutionary that Xerox declined to follow-up on – the new invention was the computer mouse and again the rest is history.
She asserted that the decision not to follow up on a new idea is based on a denial of the fact that the world is constantly changing. Albert Einstein suggested that insanity was doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. To create an environment for change, you must first recognize the need for change.
She asked three innovative Americans a simple question: “What is the greatest impediment to innovation?”
Frank Gehry said: “The people who are making the decisions either don’t understand or don’t value the options of creativity.”
John Adams said: “If I had to choose I’d say ‘anxiety of the unknown’ – Freud used the term Angst vor etwas. People don’t fear the unknown because they think it might harm them, but rather because the effort is uncomfortable and painful.”
Ben Rosen, co-founder of Compaq, gave her a list of the seven greatest impediments to innovation, in reverse order:
7. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. (Even if it is broke don’t fix it.)
6. We’ve always done it this way.
5. It’s too expensive.
4. Fear of failure.
3. Innovation will result in new versions of our products that will cannibalize our current line and make less money.
2. Organizational inertia and lack of urgency.
1. Lack of realization that while you might not be changing, your world sure is!
In the orchestra world, she talked about how we are rooted in five centuries of history; indeed, the motto of one of the oldest orchestras in the world, the Leipzig Gewandhaus, remains today: “Res severa verum gaudium” (True joy is a serious thing). We know we need to change but how? How to over come the fear? To move forward while remaining true to our art?
She reminded us that Steve Jobs didn’t create the mouse – he just recognized the genius of it. Great leaders are the ones who create a sense of empowerment for others to produce great ideas, and then recognize greatness when they see it.
She spoke of the culture at the LA Phil that allows for risk and lets people learn from their failures, which can result in some “messiness.” Their mottos is “Innovation and Excellence.”
She then added her own impediment to innovation to the list created by Gehry, Adams and Rosen: “We must not let our own institutional cultures and expectations of neatness strangle us. Innovation is messy. Innovation can feel destabilizing.”
Trying to turn transformative ideas into something “safe” can destroy an idea worth trying. But we can’t continue to manage orchestras as we did 20, ten, or even five years ago. We need to take into account our worth to the community in ways we never did before. And we need new allies for a new future.
Search out the unexpected. “As leaders we are also creators. It is our responsibility to keep moving forward.”
She stressed the need for more meaningful ways of working with musicians. “So many are alienated and – underneath – terrified of what they see as a collapse of the world as they knew it.” It’s time to at least start talking with them. And board must face up to difficult institutional assessments before matters get to the courts.
She closed by urging attendees to have the courage to work with an open and flexible mind. “The person who dares to make mistakes will be the winner. To re-invent the Gewandhaus motto: ‘Innovation is a serious thing.’”