Good Strategy is the half battle won


It was the topic of a Pulitzer-Prize-winning article in the Washington Post several years ago: what happens when one of the world’s greatest violinists plays six pieces of some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made — but donned in street clothes, at a busy metro station in Washington D.C., and before an audience of roughly 1,000 morning commuters?

Not a great deal, it turns out, as Gene Weingarten describes in his article, “Pearls Before Breakfast” (a brilliant read, made even better by the videos). The master violinist in question, Joshua Bell, only made seven people stop and linger. A full three minutes went by before a man turned his head ever so slightly, and it took six minutes for someone to momentarily stand still to listen. Not counting a donation by a woman who recognized Bell, he collected the grand total of $32.17 — a far cry from his usual playing fees.

The experiment was intended to test whether people recognize beauty in everyday life — whether “in a banal setting at an inconvenient time, beauty transcends,” as Weingarten put it. But the moment I first read the article, it struck me that Bell’s experiences hold lessons for everyone seeking to advance their career.

A first insight is that the challenge that Joshua Bell faced is that he is competing for people’s attention. This is the core problem that managers and many others in the workplace experience every day. It may seem that a master violinist had a head start on his competition, since he’s likely far more talented and far better trained than a typical street performer, but having a great product isn’t enough. That’s another critical truth. Bell’s playing was described by one expert as doing “nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live” but it still wasn’t sufficient to draw attention. “It was a strange feeling, that people were actually, ah… ignoring me,” Bell told Weingarten. It’s a fate that befalls many who rely solely on product quality and forget to “market” that product — even if they are the product. This is as true for a virtuoso performer like Bell as it is for freshly minted MBA alumni.

Bell’s performance at the metro station was purposefully devoid of any indication that suggested he is, in fact, a superstar worthy of people’s attention. It was the worst marketing strategy imaginable: the wrong location, the wrong time, and (with his street clothes) the wrong image. If the goal had been to attract attention, even a few little adjustments would have gone a long way: picking a place in the station where commuters naturally stand still, placing a banner displaying his name, or hiring a few fans to serve as his cheering section, to name just a few examples. In many ways, everyone who is competing for attention in the workplace needs a strategy, too — even paying attention to seemingly minor details can go a long way.

In thinking through strategies designed to effectively compete for attention, I think there is a lot to learn from the creative industries, which are full of people who are masters at getting others to listen, watch, read, or otherwise pay attention to the stories they’d like to tell. They know how to clue other people into the value of their products. Oftentimes, subtle quality signals do the trick (think of messages such as “from the Oscar-winning director…” or think of how blurbs for new books often make comparisons to past successes). When objective quality is difficult to assess, framing also is important. It’s why Bell usually performs in symphony halls – that’s where the best musicians play. And why great art hangs at the Met, not on the side of a building. (Even though Banksy might disagree).

Which strategy and signals work best to convey quality will differ across people, situations, and industries. How you, say, set yourself apart from the competition in an entry-level banking job may be entirely different from how you make it to the top as an software developer. But the key is to have a strategy. The bottom line is that if you’re good, you have to let others know it, because otherwise they may never have a clue — and ignore you just like those morning commuters whisked by Joshua Bell.

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Courtesy: Anita Elberse 

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