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Competence, Change Agents, Software, and Music

Seth Godin wrote an interesting article on the subject of competence; it resonated with me personally for a variety of reasons.

The article uses musicians, and Bob Dylan in particular, as an example of how "competence" can pale in comparison to "incompetence" in terms of the quality of the results. In particular, it asserts that competent musicians consistently play the music in question the same way, and suggests that the lack of such consistency could be thought of as incompetence. Bob Dylan thus becomes an incompetent musician who is nevertheless really great due to the emotional content of his performances; beyond that, he is a "change agent" because of his brilliance. And that's the crux of the article: the "incompetent" people are the change agents who advance the state of the art, while the "competent" people resist change and thus hold things back.

As a fairly serious practicing musician myself, I'll assert in response: this is not an accurate representation of musicianship, and the issue extends to the core of the article's argument.

Playing music the same way every time is not an indication of competence. It's an indicator of insufficient imagination and demonstrates a lack of mastery. The different musical traditions of the world vary considerably in the precision of their musical project specs (e.g. scores with full orchestrated notation versus "charts" with melody over chord symbols versus no notation at all), but the musician always has ample room to interpret. The jazz musician gives the appearance of spontaneity in wild improvisational flights of fancy, while the classical pianist playing Bach may seem to be playing things the same way twice. But there's plenty of interpretative, improvisational nuance going on in the Bach performance, it's just subtler and doesn't necessarily have to do with the order and combination of pitches played. The jazz musician's appearance of spontaneity is a studied spontaneity that is practiced and accumulated over time just like instrumental technique; the improvised material consists largely of material the musician has already mastered and played, in various combinations, many times over.

A musician who aspires to play something the same way every time is a musician who is trying to learn a piece, but who is not trying to master the piece so it can become an expressive vehicle. The musician may ultimately be able to execute the piece, but will probably not ever give a particularly compelling performance of it. Furthermore, it is commonly the case that truly dedicated listeners are potentially better-equipped than are casual listeners to separate the ho-hum performances from the truly exceptional.

So, how does this relate to the business world?

The person the article categorizes as "competent" may truly be simply competent, solving problems in the nearly same way every time, delivering consistent results. It may also be that the "competent" person is truly a master, with that mastery expressed in the small details that aren't necessarily so obvious to people unfamiliar with the craft. In software engineering, it takes all kinds to make things run. There are some engineers who consistently display a great creative impulse, who think outside the cliché, who can be used to approach difficult problems with ingenuity and boldness. There are some engineers who stay more focused on a particular toolset, methodology, etc., who will not necessarily display "outside the box" thinking, but will demonstrate complete command of the tools of their craft, delivering rock-solid, maintainable solutions to problems large and small, easy and difficult.

In the world of software engineering, or any other craft that involves building stuff to spec, what does it mean to solve problems the same way every time? If we're literally talking about writing similar code over and over, then the problem needs to be re-positioned: we should be talking about building a generic solution so humans don't need to waste their time with redundant custom solutions. Furthermore, if a proven method, design pattern, etc. has worked effectively for a problem in the past, and a similar problem comes up now, disregarding the "competent" solution of relying on past success to inform today's plans would be deeply unwise. Perhaps an "incompetent" person could come up with something even better, so the important thing is to have the flexibility to embrace change when appropriate.

The real win, I think, is to have the full spectrum of possibilities adequately represented. Hire people who are really smart, take pride in their work, and who show humility. The last point is critical: the extremes of "competent" versus "incompetent" as laid out in the article arguably represent archetypal factions that cannot appreciate the value that the other faction adds. A dose of humility ensures that all parties can appreciate the others' contributions.

Now, the original article is talking about "change agents", and I'm not really addressing that. But, to go back to music for a second, let's consider a rather important figure in western art music (that tradition most people call "classical music"): Johann Sebastian Bach.

Bach was working during the phase when the "baroque" period ended and the "classical" period began. He was known and respected for his skill in composition and keyboard performance, but he was regarded as something of a relic. He was composing at the very extreme edges of the "baroque" tradition, while the simplified "classical" tradition was coming into vogue. In that light, he was not regarded as an innovator.

Yet an innovator he was. Beyond his innovative experimentation with equal-tempered instruments, Bach achieved a level of sophistication and mastery of counterpoint (the weaving together of multiple concurrent melodies so that each melody stands on its own while all working together to achieve coherent harmonic progressions) that remains unparalleled. Everything he did was a logical extension of the tradition in which he operated; his prolific body of work and the stunning mastery it demonstrates would not be possible without a complete dedication to his musical tradition. He did not set out to be different; he mastered the compositional techniques of the day to such a degree that he had complete freedom in how he exercised those techniques. Yet he approached problems using the same techniques time and time again; his music unfolds in a clear, logical manner that to the well-versed can often be quite predictable.

JS Bach was a "change agent". The western art music tradition would never be the same after him. Countless major composers that followed were heavily influenced by Bach's work. Yet his work is that of the supremely competent craftsman. A staggering, brilliant, unerring competence.

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