I do a lot of trainings and workshops for Boulder Digital Works. One of the trademarks of all the BDW programs is immersion and interaction. Every day, we try to have breakout sessions where people work together to solve a problem, figure something out, or brainstorm ideas. Then they report back to the larger group. One of the tricky pieces about breakout sessions and reports is that they can turn into simple reports of what the group talked about, simply capturing all the ideas that came up. That’s great if you’re looking to generate ideas, but if you’re trying to get groups to think differently, or try out new ideas and frameworks for thinking about things, or tee up conversations that help to figure out priorities, this can be a little loose.
I’ve recently started working constraints into breakouts. Remembering the Steve Jobs line about focus:
People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of many of the things we haven’t done as the things we have done.
In that spirit, a lot of breakouts I do ask groups to “to pick the top 3 things” or “choose one action in each of these three areas”.
Making lists create interesting dynamics that can create self-awareness, force people to expose their logic and thinking, and highlight otherwise overlookable differences between two groups.
The NY Times recently did an exercise in which music critics tried to figure out the 10 most important classical music composers of all time. In an area as snobby as classical music, there was a wonderful self-awareness of how ridiculous these kinds of exercises are, (see Dead Poets Society clip: “I like Byron, I give him a forty-two, but I can’t dance to it.”) while still embracing the fun of the conversation. Sports fans love to do make lists and baseball statistics nuts will argue endlessly about the tenth spot in a top ten list for greatest second basemen. Rob Fleming, owner of Championship Vinyl in High Fidelity has lots of memorable lists — though the nature of the list was usually funnier and more interesting than the list itself.
Still, lists can be fun and useful. Check out the NY Times greatest composer article to see how they can be fun.
First, the self-awareness of the silliness and the value of the exercise:
I began this project with bravado, partly as an intellectual game but also as a real attempt to clarify — for myself, as much as for anyone else — what exactly about the master composers makes them so astonishing. However preposterous the exercise may seem, when I found myself debating whether to push Brahms or Haydn off the list to make a place for Bartok or Monteverdi, it made me think hard about their achievements and greatness.
Wrestling with the difficult choice of numbers 2 and 3, the question was who comes out on top, Mozart or Beethoven?
The obvious candidates for the second and third slots are Mozart and Beethoven. If you were to compare just Mozart’s orchestral and instrumental music to Beethoven’s, that would be a pretty even match. But Mozart had a whole second career as a path-breaking opera composer. Such incredible range should give him the edge.
Still, I’m going with Beethoven for the second slot. Beethoven’s technique was not as facile as Mozart’s. He struggled to compose, and you can sometimes hear that struggle in the music. But however hard wrought, Beethoven’s works are so audacious and indestructible that they survive even poor performances.
This sounds remarkably like the Babe Ruth Barry Bonds debate the SABREMetrics folks did. The numbers for Bonds are ahead of Ruth’s (and longer), but Ruth was a pitcher, and even pitched in the World Series.
An interesting note how even setting the parameters can change the tenor of the discussion:
I’m running out of slots. In some ways, as I wrote to one reader, either a list of 5 or a list of 20 would have been much easier. By keeping it to 10, you are forced to look for reasons to push out, say, Handel or Shostakovich to make a place for someone else.
His top five, in order, were Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Debussy, at which point the next five got tricky.
In ranking the “dynamic duo of 19th century opera”, character came into the equation in terms of who comes out on top:
But who ranks higher? They may be tied as composers but not as people. Though Verdi had an ornery side, he was a decent man, an Italian patriot and the founder of a retirement home for musicians still in operation in Milan. Wagner was an anti-Semitic, egomaniacal jerk who transcended himself in his art. So Verdi is No. 8 and Wagner No. 9.
And when he got to number 10, he faced the problem of all the people who would never make the list: Haydn, Ligeti (I had never heard of him, so there’s another great thing about list-making, even the exclusions help you learn), Messiaen, Shostakovich, Ives, Schoenberg, Prokofiev, Copland, and Monteverdi . . . all in favor of Bartok
Make lists, force priorities and hard choices and get people to explain them. Lots to learn, lots of spirited conversation.