The [Orchestra] Innovator’s Dilemma

November 15, 2010 by Paul Gambill
innovator's dilemma

A few years ago I was participating in a week-long retreat in Santa Fe as part of the Andrew MellonFoundation’s Innovations Forum. Representatives from the three orchestras chosen for that year’s award were in attendance. During one of the discussions about the challenges we all faced to implementing change in the tradition-bound orchestra world, someone spoke about their orchestra board’s definition of artistic excellence and the specific parameters for achieving excellence. Those included performing certain composers, on a certain stage and with a particular dress code. Even the type of lighting on the orchestra and audience was included in their definition of what would constitute artistic excellence.

YIKES –talk about challenges to innovation!

This may be considered an extreme example of traditional classical music values, but all orchestras and audiences have a set of values around what is considered, to some, a sacred cow – the how and what of classical music performance. And that’s a good thing. I’ll take passion for classical music in any way, shape or form. But the orchestra field is in a slump, some would say crisis, and we need to stop doing the same things and expect different results.

If we expect more members of our community to attend concerts, we
need to present programs that relate more to the values of today’s audiences.

And therein lies the orchestra innovator’s dilemma – how to present programming that attracts the next generation of committed fans without alienating the current (sustaining) generation of patrons that hold traditional norms so dearly.

In his book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen presents a compelling case for how innovation can succeed in the face of sustaining “technologies.” Not all of his findings and propositions are applicable to the non-profit orchestra field. But as a vehicle for framing the discussion about the challenges to innovation in a tradition-bound field, I was struck by the parallels that can be drawn between the orchestra world and the business models Christensen explores.

To frame his ideas, Christensen’s first defines technology as “the process by which an organization transforms labor, capital, materials and information into products and services of greater value.” He then defines two types of technologies.

First, sustaining technologies are those that “improve the performance of established products, along the dimensions of performance that mainstream customers in major markets have historically valued.” And second, disruptive technologies, are those innovations that “a few fringe (and generally new) customers value.”

A key point of The Innovator’s Dilemma, is that market leaders often don’t pay attention to the fringe (new) customers until it’s too late. Disruptive (innovative) technologies are first embraced by a few, but soon capture a larger audience, and before you know it, the established product has lost its customer base. Is this sounding familiar?

For the orchestra field, Christensen’s sustaining technologies are all of the marketing and audience outreach initiatives that are being developed to keep and attract audiences to our established product, which is the typical concert format with traditional classical repertoire.  The disruptive, or innovative technologies would be those that have drawn the audiences away from the concert hall. Most notable of those disruptive innovations is the internet, which has had far reaching impact on all forms of entertainment and cultural organizations.

One more Christensen quote and then I’ll bring this back to the orchestra field:

By and large, a disruptive technology is initially embraced by the least profitable customers in the market. Hence, most companies with a practiced discipline of listening to their best customers and indentifying new products that promise greater profitability and growth are rarely able to build a case of investing in disruptive technologies until it is too late.

I am continually inspired by the innovative marketing and outreach projects that orchestras develop. However, those efforts are almost exclusively focused on enhancing the audiences’ experience with the orchestra’s sustaining product, the traditional concert. Rarely, if ever, are there fundamental changes to the product itself—that is, the mix of music performed and how it is performed.

Disruptive technologies (new forms of entertainment and enrichment) have drawn customers away from the concert hall as they have discovered more engaging and affordable ways to spend their weekend nights. All the while, orchestras have steadfastly maintained the same traditional product while insisting that innovative marketing and outreach support for that traditional product will hold off the exodus. Clearly, that approach is not working.

The best path forward is to continue serving the sustaining customers, while embracing the innovation needed to attract the fringe customers that will one day become sustaining customers. The orchestra innovator’s dilemma is compounded by the internal challenges to innovation that are found in all big organizations. To turn those challenges into opportunities, we first need to be fully aware of the core values we share for classical music so we can be fearless as we let go of the non-essentials.

In my next post, We Need a New Car, Not a Faster Horse, I’ll discuss how we can implement Ben Cameron’s advice from his key-note address at the League of American Orchestra’s national conference on how orchestras need to essentialize, sacrifice and innovate by focusing on the fundamental reason that orchestras exist.

In the meantime, go here to read the program listing of Gypsy Nights, and consider how it would impact your audience.

This program featured a violin soloist who walked on stage playing a Bach sonata and segued into a fiddle jig which we followed immediately with Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs); then two new works featuring steel string gypsy-jazz guitar, cimbalom (photo), and violin; followed by another new work featuring solo violin with jazz and carnatic (Indian) influences; and finishing with Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta.

Excerpt: Istiqbal Gathering, by John Jorgenson and Carl Marsh.
Featuring John Jorgenson, gypsy-jazz guitar; Alexander Fedoriuk, cimbalom; David Davidson, violin; Orchestra Nashville, P Gambill — live studio recording

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Does this program fit on your orchestra’s main Classical concert series? Or would you place it on a Pops, World, NextWave, or You-Name-It series? How would you market this, and to whom? Would your traditional, sustaining audience balk at this, or embrace it as something fresh? Those questions are at the core of the orchestra innovator’s dilemma.

More info, audio and video on the Gypsy Nights Program page.

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