On Rachmaninoff and failing fast

“Failing fast” is an oft discussed principle for innovation, levied particularly at large, risk averse companies that are struggling to innovate in the digital realm.

It stands to reason that you don’t fail at what you already know how to do. It also follows that if you’re only doing what you already know how to do (or following ‘standard practice’) then it is unlikely that you’ll innovate. We learn, and innovate, by stepping outside of our comfort zone and going into uncharted territory. It’s not so much a case of ‘failing’ but having the courage to tackle the unfamiliar or the difficult, being prepared to make mistakes, and working through them until you know how to do it.

I am a *very* lapsed pianist. After going through the grade system, during a childhood of constant study of music, I didn’t really play the piano properly for years. As I have returned to the instrument in adulthood, I’ve found that my ‘chops’ are not what they once were, and I stumble around pieces that I would have been able to play fluidly. I’m a tinkerer most of the time, playing the simple stuff, improvising, allowing myself to make mistakes without correcting them and I tended for a long time to ignore harder passages or unfamiliar pieces because my technique wouldn’t allow it.

Lately though, circumstance has given me a new goal in my musical life which I think acts as a neat analogy for the importance of failure in business. The Rachmaninoff C#m prelude is an awe-inspiring and fear inducing piece of music. It’s in a difficult key, with sections where your hands have to counter-intuitively cross over one another. In the latter section, the score moves onto two staves – sight reading this alone is a head scratcher for an amateur pianist – so many notes, so many accidentals. Better stay safe and rattle through some comfortable Beethoven instead.

Rach Cm Score

And yet, as I make a concerted effort to play it, the piece’s logic starts to unfold for me. Even the last section that is so daunting on the page follows an actually deceptively simple logic – block chords, moving in parallel. Find the right shape with one hand and the other will follow. It requires accuracy and concentration for sure, but if I slow down, repeat parts which I’m stumbling over, become comfortable in the key so that my hands naturally find the shapes they need to be and bring out each phrase fluidly, the more the piece comes together.

And tonight, I actually got through the whole piece, a piece I’ve wanted to be able to play all my life, from beginning to end. It was messy and played with many mistakes, but the notes don’t seem so daunting to me anymore, and I don’t stop at the splitting of the stave as I so often have in the past. In fact one of the reasons why I often stopped at this point was that I love this piece, and it pained me when my execution of it didn’t sound like I know it should.

This pushing through the pain point has also had an interesting side effect – after an hour or so of playing the Rachmaninov, when I subsequently play an easier, familiar piece, say Debussy’s La Fille aux Cheveux du Lin, I play it fluidly, almost effortlessly, my fingers moving across each phrase with such ease that all my attention can be placed on the expression of my performance, and it opens up new capabilities within my technique that makes other difficult pieces far less of an ordeal to play.

As we come to tackle unknown territory in technology, in business, even in our everyday lives, we will *not* learn, grow, innovate or refine our skills, knowledge and capability if we stick to the strategies that we already know. We have to embrace unknown territory, not be disheartened if we fail, break the problem down and work through each section until it untangles before us.

The fear of failure in a large business is analogous to hearing a piece of music played badly. If the work you are producing does not ‘sound right’ – if it doesn’t match to what we think our business output should look like, or what our market expects, then we often deem it a failure and don’t progress further, and this is what kills any innovation.

But if we stick through it, working through each difficult passage and learn from our mistakes, then not only will we achieve things we never knew that we could, but it will also make what we already know how to do easier.

About Andrew

I am a technical director, creative technologist and digital strategist who has been working in the web industry for 15 years. An early online user from the days of Prestel and BBS systems, I am a self-taught technologist and developer who has been immersed in the creative possibilities of digital technology from childhood. My career path has taken many turns, from the heady dot-com agency days, through the corporate world and the variety of experience which freelance brings. Throughout, my goal has been to help organizations and brands realise the potential that the art and science of being digital can achieve, and to help them create opportunities to better use the most important emerging medium of our time. I am a strong advocate for digital as a multi-disciplinary medium, with an enviable record in building and retaining teams, and in the importance of the creative disciplines of collaboration, vision, practicing and failing in order to push things forward.

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