Three Lessons on Business Change from Learning the Piano

Five years ago, I attended a leadership training class that ended with each participant giving a passionate speech about how they would do something new and different in their lives. My first two speeches stayed under 100 decibels and thus lacked the passion that was required. On the third go round, I screamed out: “I WILL LEARN TO PLAY THE PIANO!!” The volume and passion was there, and I graduated from the class.

Later that summer, we bought a piano, and I began playing. I have been playing daily ever since.

As one who has learned a new skill somewhat later in life, I have come to see parallels between my learning to play the piano and people and businesses learning how to change and effect business transformation.

The three parallels that I have seen are:

  1. To change you need to create your own discipline
  2. You cannot change totally and be anything that you want to be
  3. We overestimate the change that can be done in one month, but underestimate the change that can be done in 5 years


To Change You Need to Create Your Own Discipline

To learn something new or to change, you need to have discipline and self-control to do something different from your old way for an extended period of time. In their book, Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard, the Heath brothers conclude that change is so difficult because discipline and “self-control are exhaustible resources.” When changing, we simply require too much of people, too much change, too much discipline, too much self-control. And so they give up and fail.

At the beginning of my piano adventure, I tried to play 45 minutes to an hour a day. That lasted all of about 2 days. Then, I tried 30 minutes a day. That lasted a couple of weeks. So, I shrunk the change and decided on 20 minutes a day. That has now lasted for 5 years. With 20 minutes a day, I have the time to practice every day. With 20 minutes a day, I have the discipline to do it even on those days when I am tired or absolutely do not want to practice; I do it because it is “only 20 minutes”.

Importantly, I do not do more than 20 minutes a day. That means that I often stop practicing in the middle of a piece of music, energized and wanting to do more. But, I take that positive energy and eagerness and commit myself to have a perfect 20 minute practice tomorrow. As such, I remain engaged rather than wearied or exhausted.

Further, I play 20 minutes a day every day that I am home. I do not take days off. I play on Sundays. I play on Christmas Day. I even play, much to my wife’s chagrin, when I am sick. I firmly subscribe to the idea that it is easier to do something 100% of the time than 95% of the time. Playing every day creates a habit that sticks.

As a business leader, think of something that you may struggle to get done. As an example, think of employee development and performance evaluations. If you were to take 20 minutes a day (approximately 5% of your work day) each and every day to focus on employee development, I daresay that you would do a professional job and begin to see significant positive benefits from that attention. More importantly, your January and February would be far more pleasant as you would not have to cram to write up all those yearly performance evaluations that you have procrastinated on for the previous 10 months.

You Cannot Be Anything That You Want To Be

I have likely practiced the piano for 500 hours so far. Malcolm Gladwell and others have written that someone can become an expert by practicing for 10,000 hours. At my current run-rate of 100 hours a year, I should be planning for my Carnegie Hall debut in the year 2105. Except that I won’t. I just do not have the talent to ever be a great pianist no matter the discipline no matter the dedication.

Talent, personality and innate ability matters. I can now read music. I can play all the notes correctly. I can keep a metronomic beat (O.K. reasonably well). But, I just do not have the feel and the innate musical ability. When I try to play quickly my fingers just will not go on the keys that they are supposed to go on. And I have a very poor “musical memory.” Perhaps, I just am not musically talented. Perhaps, I just started learning too late. I am confident that I will become pretty good. But, I will never be an expert no matter my discipline no matter my sheer force of will.

But, David, you have only practiced for 500 hours, you still have 9500 hours to go. True. However, I watch my children and other children in piano recitals leap ahead of me with their speed and feel for playing. Trust me; I am just not that innately good.

Likewise, most people in your organizations are what they are. Someone brought up in operations his or her whole life is unlikely to become a highly effective and aggressive cold-calling salesperson. A sales hunter is unlikely to become a detailed and organized operations manager. Yes, there are exceptions; but, they are rare.

So, realize the strengths and limitations of your people and adjust accordingly. If you need more outside sales presence do not assume that a meticulous inside sales person will become your ace sales hunter. As the business changes the required DNA of your team may need to change. That is likely to mean that your team members need to change. It is unfortunate. But, I, you, and they cannot be anything that we want to be. In short, putting a square peg in a round hole will not work out long term.

We Overestimate the Change that can be done in One Month, But Underestimate the Change that can be done in Five Years

As I have said before, I will never be a concert pianist. Nevertheless, after five years, I can play. Each day it does not feel like I am getting better. But, when I look back at the pieces I played 1, 2, 3 years ago, they seem simpler and simpler. The change and improvement that I am making is tangible; but it happens over a long time and from the constant effort.

Likewise, in a company, real lasting change happens slowly. Real lasting change takes a tremendous amount of effort.

But, with constant, sustained effort real lasting change can happen.

In my old company, we started talking about improving safety in about 2001 – 2002. And we really got serious about it in about 2005. Getting really serious meant that each day, everyone from top management on down was talking about and focusing on improving safety and the safety culture. By 2009, the safety culture in my group of approximately 500 employees had markedly changed. Safety was in-bred in nearly all employees and was a constant point of discussion. As a result, in 2009, we had no serious accidents and a safety recordable rate (minor injuries) more than 60% below the national average for all businesses. Similar results happened across the larger company as the constant, sustained, daily focus on safety was transformative.

Think of the major change initiatives that you want to undertake: safety improvement, introducing a culture of accountability, operational improvements such as lean or six sigma, or markedly improved customer service and satisfaction. To stick and become permanent, all of these really require a cultural change. As such, to really effect and implement these changes will not take one month, two months, or five months. It will take constant, dedicated attention for years.

But, if you give the constant, dedicated attention for years, the culture will be transformed, the change initiative will be successful, and the results will be significant and permanent.


Both as an individual and a company, the most effective way to change is:

  1. To ensure that you and the people in your company have the innate capability to succeed at the change that needs to take place
  2. To accept that the change will be difficult and time consuming and thus to focus on only one or at most two major changes at one time.
  3. To create the discipline to work on the change on a daily basis for the years that it may take.


Until Next Time.


About David Shedd

David has been a President - CEO - COO of an up to $350M group of manufacturing, distribution, specialty retail and services companies, having led 22 different businesses from turnarounds to start-ups to fast growth companies.
This entry was posted in Improve / Turnaround and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s