How music can create better IT leaders

Works by The Lonely Island, Diddy, and Ludovico Einaudi reminded Scott Lowe of important lessons for successful IT project management.

I love almost all genres of music (I'm not a fan of country). Lately, when I listen to some music, I think about how the works can inform my actions as an IT leader. Three songs come to mind that help illustrate my point:

"Jack Sparrow featuring Michael Bolton" by The Lonely Island. This song contains coarse language and is not safe for work, which is why I'm not providing a link, but it's easily found on the group's site or on YouTube. "Coming Home" by Diddy-Dirty Money featuring Skylar Grey. Yes, Diddy changes his name more often than some people change their clothes, but this song - in particular how the song works with the collaboration with Skylar Grey - works. Although I do like some rap and hip hop, it's not my genre of choice; this actually plays into my thinking about how music informs leadership. "Divenire" by Ludovico Einaudi. He is a musical genius who has created some of the most compelling works I've ever heard. I chose to feature a specific live performance at the Royal Albert Hall in London for the purposes of this post.

The partnerships make these pieces of work what they are."Jack Sparrow" and "Coming Home" are collaborations between the primary artists or artist and another individual. "Divenire" is a partnership between Einaudi and the orchestra, mainly led by the composer/pianist to great effect.

If you're wondering how this topic translates to IT management, consider this: How many IT projects take place in a vacuum? In most cases, IT partners with someone -- another part of the business or a consultant, for example -- in order to carry out the goals of the project. Without the right level of partnership, the IT group would not be able to adequately map project tasks to operational business goals. Further, it takes a team with the right set of comprehensive skills to make sure that all of the project goals are met.

Problems abound

Here's how "Jack Sparrow" (which I realize is intended to be a humorous song) translates to what can happen in a project (I also realize the song is the desired outcome for The Lonely Island and not really their poor planning and leadership skills):

  • Poor planning. Many IT projects suffer from poor planning. In "Jack Sparrow," this is evident as none of The Lonely Island team have any idea what Michael Bolton plans to bring to the table. Throughout the song, Michael Bolton continues to go off on his own to satisfy his own needs without regard for the needs of the overall project. In an IT project, similar action would similarly derail a project or, at the very least, make it extremely difficult to meet original goals.
  • Improper needs assessment. The Lonely Island crew had an outcome in mind, and it certainly wasn't a song about the antics of the lead in The Pirates of the Caribbean. By bringing Michael Bolton into the mix, they brought someone with the wrong skill set for the collaboration and that plays out throughout the piece.
  • Poor leadership. The inability for the leadership (The Lonely Island) to rein in an out of control team member (Michael Bolton) dooms a project and makes it impossible to reach the original goal.

Deep collaboration produces outstanding results

Egomaniacs like Diddy generally turn me off to the music; however, in the spirit of keeping an open mind, I listened to his song "Coming Home" and loved it. Not only do the lyrics send a positive message, I love the dichotomy between Skylar Grey's chorus and Diddy's singing. When combined, I believe that the two create a whole that is larger than the sum of the parts. That's the goal in IT management, too.

In this specific case, I see the following lessons:

  • Give everyone a chance to participate. I've seen this song advertised before, but I wasn't interested because of my preconceived notions about Diddy. In reality, he brings strengths to this work that I did not anticipate, and it has to do with his background (listen to the lyrics). The lesson: Don't count someone out because you never know what strengths they might bring to the project. You'll get more diverse perspectives and fresh eyes on the project this way.
  • Strong collaboration leads to strong results. In this case, the styles between Skylar Grey, the female vocalist, and Diddy couldn't be more different but when brought together, they result in a work that is fantastic on many levels. The same goes for IT project management. Make sure that the right people are collaborating at the right level and that their styles can mesh in a way that will produce positive results.

A strong leader makes all the difference

I urge you to watch Einaudi's live performance of "Divenire." You'll notice that he, as the leader, is not actively conducting. However, all of the team members (the orchestra) know exactly what has to be done in order to pull off the performance while he does his part. The team is comprised of professionals with the right skill sets and, individually, each contributes to a greater whole. With the exception of Einaudi, no one is grandstanding to the audience (this is akin to the project stakeholders), and he's not really grandstanding -- he's simply performing. For this musical project, there is a definite plan and each player executes the plan well while Einaudi drives the pace of the schedule.

The lessons from this performance are:

  • Plan ahead for the best result. A good project plan or a plan for executing on the various tasks in front of you helps to ensure overall success.
  • Keep things on schedule. If Einaudi gets off schedule, everyone else does, too. Do your best to set realistic goals and hit them so that the business doesn't suffer.
  • Let people do their parts. Don't micromanage. Even if you've written the individual project plans, let people execute them.


By understanding what works and what doesn't in an accessible medium -- in this case, music -- it might clarify some of the actions that you should take in your organization to more fully realize the potential of your project team members.

Have any songs or musical performances ever helped you work through an IT problem? Do you have examples of similar and perhaps surprising sources of inspiration for your IT work? If nothing else, I'd love to hear about your favorite musical collaborations. Please join the discussion.