What the Ohio State University marching band can teach you about business fundamentals, talent management and innovation Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2010

When The Ohio State University marching band steps onto the field this month, they’ll be ready. And the journey they take from raw recruits to a national television-ready band can teach us a lot about business. In a conversation with Jon Woods, the band’s director, Jim Lane, director of GBQ Redbank Advisors, identified key lessons that apply to both marching bands and businesses.

“A rigorous focus on fundamentals, talent development, and balancing innovation and tradition drives performance of bands and businesses,” says Lane.

Smart Business spoke with Lane about the lessons learned from OSU’s marching band, and how to incorporate those lessons into your business.

How do you define fundamentals?

Fundamentals are the core activities that a business repeats in order to satisfy customers. It can be closing an order, making a product, or purchasing something, but there are fundamental things that your business does over and over again, everyday. The power in these comes from the number of times they are done. In the case of the band, there are 60-some odd fundamentals a band member needs to know to be successful. Examples include four different types of marching steps, how to tip a hat and how to create a horn flash. The fundamentals characterize how the band looks as a unit. By doing them consistently, the band looks like a cohesive group. By combining fundamentals in the proper sequence, enormously complex musical and visual displays can be created.

Once the fundamentals are identified, the power of their numbers comes into play. Because they are repeated so frequently, even if you improve each one just a little bit, they have a big impact on the business because they’re repeated often. Take a business that sells a high number of orders per day. If that business focuses on the sales process and reduces the amount of discounting on each customer’s order by 1 percent, on average, they have put an entire percentage point of revenue to the bottom line. Without that focus on a fundamental process like sales, results are unlikely to occur evenly across the business and they will under-achieve the potential.

What lessons can you learn about the talent life cycle?

The band has an interesting approach to the talent life cycle. They go out and impress young musicians from high school marching bands, but they also recruit good musicians who haven’t necessarily marched before. Musical talent is critical. Marching they can teach. There is more to this recruiting than just putting on a good show for the enthusiastic recruits though. They also need to help them understand before they commit just how difficult it is being a member of the OSU marching band. It’s a two-phase commitment process — inspiring and attracting and then getting recruits to understand the nature of the commitment.

Once they have committed, the recruits are trained and developed by students. There are directors and instructors supervising the process, but the student squad leaders run the tests to see who is the strongest. Young band members relate very well to the squad leaders who are closer to their age. They also communicate in their own terms, so there’s less lost in translation.

The last lesson from the talent life cycle is that Woods has final say on who will make the band each year. Squad leaders develop recommendations, and rankings are given, but the director makes the final decision. It helps maintain that single vision of what the band needs to be. This translates directly to the business world. Each part of the business, but particularly the talent, needs to reflect the vision of the business.

What lessons can you learn about tradition and innovation?

Every great tradition of the band started out as an innovation — Script Ohio, Hang on Sloopy, Across the Field — everything had its debut moment. The trick is to continually debut new material and strong pieces that have potential of becoming traditions, and let the fans (or in the case of a business, the customers) make the decisions. If the band doesn’t play Sloopy often enough, the fans will start yelling for it.

In business, the analogy is listening to the customers and letting them be the arbiters of which innovations should become traditions. Be quick to abandon the ones that don’t work — like playing the sinking of the Titanic during the 41-14 loss to Florida in the National Championship game. You also need to continue to refine the innovations that are successful. If you look at historic photos of Script Ohio versus what it looks like today, it has the same fundamental design, but the form is very different. Years of refinement of the fundamentals and tweaking the overall design of the performance make it truly incomparable among college and university band performances. Once you’ve got something that’s worthy of becoming a tradition in your business, keep drilling on it and refining it to improve the overall effect.

How do you integrate these lessons into your business?

Start by identifying the fundamentals. These are the high repetition activities that occur over and over again. Identify steps in each function of the business. Employees that do them should be involved to document and understand them, and then work on refining and improving the steps. Determine if you can eliminate any steps in order to make them faster, more effective, increase the quality or improve the effect on your customers.

What benefits will you see by integrating these lessons into your business?

The value of the focus on the fundamentals is the easiest to see. You repeat these things so often that adding a little more to the price or selling a few more each month can really impact the performance of your business and make you grow more profitably.

Jim Lane is the director of GBQ Redbank Advisors, GBQ Partners LLC. Reach him at (614) 947-5257 or jlane@gbq.com.