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Appreciating Philip Glass

- Joe Benesh is a senior architect with Shive-Hattery and president and CEO of the Ingenuity Company, a strategic planning, diagramming, framework development and design thinking consulting firm.

At the risk of writing an esoteric entry this month, I would like to explore something I discovered recently while watching a documentary on Netflix. Philip Glass is an American composer, arguably the one who has had the most impact on modern classical music in the later part of the 20th century. Both as a musician and an architect, I had, until recently, struggled with his music. Philipglass120206_560

Glass uses what he calls “repetitive structures” in his music. In fact, his compositions are very easy to identify as a result of this. I found the repetition somewhat unappealing, anticipating a more conventional musical structure to develop - surely there would be a change in melody or tempo – something to add interest or embedded mechanisms or cues to keep the listener engaged. The documentary opened my eyes to something that I had not considered. Glass’s music is meant as an exploration; not simply repetitive constructs and endless arpeggios, but manifestations of his minimalistic style.

I started really thinking about this. Many of the frustrations that organizations experience with strategy consultants resemble my initial frustrations with Mr. Glass. Organizations hire consultants to help with strategic conversations and often get the same results, from very similar processes, and start to get desensitized.

This creates an uphill battle for me as consultant. Inherently, those who have experienced the aforementioned fatigue with a common or standardized strategy process are skeptical of doing planning work at all. They might argue that the sessions are “soft” or “touchy-feely” and resist engaging in the process at all, citing “wasted time” or “useless results”. Much like how I felt about the music of Philip Glass.

I was wrong. I’m not advocating for the common and standardized processes mentioned above, but what I do think has value is being able to make the distinction between a strategy process that will yield implementable results and one that will not.

I have designed and used planning modules that may, at first glance, seem simple. But, like the “repetitive structures” of Philip Glass’s music, there is a lot more there. Data exist, in layers, brought out by the nuance of conversation, exchange of ideas, and a framework for collaborative iteration and aggregation of motivations, objectives, mission, and perspective. It is the job of the facilitator to be able to listen the right way, to the right “notes”, and piece together a composition that reflects a useful, purposeful, and readily accessible and implementable strategy document.


As I sit here and type this blog post out, I am still struck by the positive tension that was created by the additional layer of understanding that led to the newfound appreciation I have for Glass’s music. How the evolution of my perception moved from a lack of appreciation for a stylistic approach to one of admiration for the rigor and commitment to a specific art form.

Both as a strategy consultant (and for that matter, as an architect), my job vacillates between art and science. The workshop of ideas that is afforded by respect and adherence to a useful strategic development framework makes success possible where it would otherwise not be. It’s the difference between looking at a page of sheet music and seeing music instead of a collection of notes. You may not notice until someone tries to play them, but, when they do - the distinction will be obvious.

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Thank you for your most intriguing article. I have always been a fan of Philip Glass and find his music to be a great stress releaser in its harmonic repetition, beautiful symmetry, and almost hypnotic-like quality.

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