Wednesday, 21 June 2017

This is how a collaborative person works: 21. remember that where you place and position people affects perceptions, responses and behaviour

(This post draws heavily upon the experiences of Paul Macalindin as described in his book Upbeat, which chronicles his inspiring work with the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq.)

'On Sunday 12th August, the Edinburgh Youth Orchestra players and oud player Khyam Allami arrived at the course. As with Beethovenfest the year before, the new players sat on the inside of each string desk and the Iraqis on the outside, not just to support, but also to make sure that the orchestra actually looked Iraqi in public.'

Where people are placed within a collaborative initiative (of which the NYOI is an obvious example) affects how those on the inside and those looking in from outside perceive and respond to it. This is nicely summed up by the above quotation from Paul's book.

The simple act of placing the more experienced (relative to the Iraqis) Scottish players on the inside desks of the violins not only consolidated and encouraged their supporting and helping role but also put the Iraqi players in full view of the audience, emphasising that the purpose of the orchestra was to promote and develop Iraqi musicians and encourage them to be high profile ambassadors for Iraq and its culture.

Often, placing and positioning that are influential both symbolically and practically need only be slight:

'So, the Kurdish violinists, who I'd put mostly in violin two, were musically weaker than their Arab counterparts in violin one. I seated one Kurd in violin one and one Arab in violin two as a yin-yang solution, to see what would happen musically and diplomatically.'

Given the historical and political tensions and cultural differences between the Iraqi Arabs and Kurds, not acknowledging and symbolically addressing the unavoidably unequal representation of Kurd musicians within the first violin section would likely have caused serious tensions within the orchestra sooner or later.

These tensions would have not only grown within the string section but also spread to other sections of the orchestra. Any unacknowledged difference in status between the Arab and Kurd violinists would have gradually become a proxy battle for other members of the orchestra: Arab and Kurd non-violinist musicians associating their own status with that of the largest and most visible (if not the loudest) section of the orchestra.

By placing one Arab violinist in the second violin section and one Kurdish violinist in the first violin section, Paul is achieving at least three important things: 1. he is acknowledging the difference in status between Arab and Kurd violinists; 2. he is making it plain that the difference in status is unavoidable but not necessarily permanent (because, the precedent having been set, the Kurdish violinists can reasonably assume that they will be able to join their colleague within the first violins when they gain the necessary expertise and experience); 3. he is ever so slightly but also significantly (the two things are not mutually exclusive) loosening and challenging the social and cultural boundaries between the Arab and Kurd musicians. This could not only increase understanding between the two races but also encourage the mixing of approaches and perceptions that could lead to interesting and surprising musical and artistic outcomes. In the fullness of time, and with suitable development and encouragement, these could evolve into a unique sound and approach for the NYOI.

It is important to recognise that making changes to the placing and positioning of people within a collaborative project will often increase rather than decrease the complexity of its activities and processes:

'For the first half of the concert, I'd allocated Kawan (a Kurdish violinist) to lead the first violins, and therefore the orchestra, while Mohammed Adnan (an Arab violinist) was designated to lead the orchestra in the more challenging second half. When they were not leading the first violins, they exchanged places to lead the seconds. This proved quite complicated, but somehow they made it work.'

Increased complexity, however, is often worth the extra effort and thinking required. This is because, as the above quotation implies, it encourages people to take account of and address each other's needs and collaborate more closely and carefully than might otherwise be the case.

Sometimes, however carefully you think about and implement them, it is not possible to predict how people will perceive and react to the placing and positioning of people within a collaboration  

'Dr Dheyab, through his smile, told me: 'This is an international orchestra'. I wasn't sure if this was good or bad. He'd mentioned to me in London the need for young Iraqis and Brits to work alongside each other, and here it was happening in front of him. But the reality of seeing Scottish players in the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq had made an impact'.       

Dr Dheyab was Director of the Iraqi Cultural Centre in London. He was a significant stakeholder who could influence the future of the NYOI and was visiting a rehearsal of the NYOI in Scotland during its tour of the UK. He saw that young Scottish musicians were sitting beside, playing with and supporting Iraqi musicians. His comment that the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq was an 'international orchestra' rather than a national one could be either positive or negative, depending upon his perceptions and thinking at the time. Given Dr Dheyab's status and influence, this ambiguity signalled a potential risk to the activities and future of the NYOI for which it would need to prepare.

When managing and developing your collaborative initiative, think carefully about how the placing and positioning of people will influence the perceptions and behaviour of those on the inside and those looking in from outside.

When placing and positioning people within a collaborative initiative consider the following questions:
  • How do you want the collaboration to look to those outside it? How do you want to influence their perceptions, thinking and behaviour? What messages do you want them to receive and act upon?
  • How do you want the collaboration to look to those inside it? How do you want to influence their perceptions, thinking and behaviour? What messages do you want them to receive and act upon?
  • What slight but also significant changes can you make to the placing and positioning of people within the collaboration? Could any of these slight changes encourage new relationships to form, the sharing and mixing of perceptions and practices, and the discovery of new insights and innovations?
  • How will your placing and positioning of people add to the complexities of your collaboration's activities and procedures? Will the people affected appreciate why the additional complexity is needed and be motivated to contribute the additional effort, thinking and consideration of others required to make it work? Will this additional effort and thinking, etc., be worth it in terms of additional benefits gained?
  • Does any of the placing and positioning of people within your collaboration have the potential to cause either positive or negative reactions in those that see them? If so, how can you encourage the former and mitigate the latter?

Thursday, 8 June 2017

This is how a collaborative person works: 20. look beyond the usual channels for partners and supporters

(This post draws heavily upon the experiences of Paul Macalindin as described in his book Upbeat, which chronicles his inspiring work with the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq.)

'The Iraq Foundation had never done this before, and we needed to deeply understand local promotion and pricing structure to sell seats. So, trusting my instincts, I contacted the most powerful social network in town, the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington DC. They were fabulous. Their President gave me the complete low-down on performing there. The National Youth Orchestra of Iraq faced yet another ludicrous irony of receiving more support from them than from the Iraqi Culture Centre.'       

From Upbeat: the Story of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq by Paul Macalindin

Because they often seek to achieve new things, collaborative initiatives ask new questions and seek new types of support. Mainstream organisations often find it difficult to answer these questions and provide this support.

The reasons for this can be political (what the collaboration is seeking to achieve is counter to the organisation's current policy or political goals), procedural (an organisation's systems and bureaucracy is unable to recognise and process the questions asked or comprehend the nature of the support requested), or cultural (the collaboration's activities challenge the attitudes and customs the organisation represents). It may also be that the mainstream organisation simply does not have the relevant experience, expertise or resources to deal with the questions and requests.

Whatever the reasons, collaborations needing to be innovative must seek out new channels towards different and often non-mainstream organisations possessing the attitudes, experiences and expertise, etc., that enable them to willingly provide the answers and support requested.

This is what Paul did when he contacted the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington DC and requested their help and advice about arranging concerts in their city. Being outside the mainstream 'official' channels but never-the-less firmly and influentially embedded in the musical life of Washington, the Chorus was uniquely placed to empathise with the needs of the NYOI (itself on the fringes of mainstream Iraqi culture), understand its goals and offer support and advice to help it achieve them.

When your collaboration needs answers to previously unasked questions or it needs help and support for new and innovative activities, by all means go through the usual channels to try and get them.

But also ask yourself the following question: 'Who is most likely to be politically, procedurally and culturally aligned with your purpose and goals and have the experience and expertise you seek?' However initially surprising the direction and eventual destination, go to where this question leads you.

Then ask for and accept the help most willingly offered.         

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

This is how a collaborative person works: 19. encourage your ambition to reverberate

(This post draws heavily upon the experiences of Paul Macalindin as described in his book Upbeat, which chronicles his inspiring work with the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq.)

Ambitious visions and undertakings are powerful forces; they possess the ability to influence and change people. Their power is particularly important for collaborative undertakings, which tend towards influence and persuasion rather than command and control.

The power of ambitious visions and undertakings derives from their ability to reverberate in three specific ways:
  1. They reverberate 'in the moment' within people. They loosen people's existing perceptions. They encourage people to ask questions about how the world is, their place within it and what each person is capable of and can achieve.
  2. They reverberate within people over time. People remember the experiences and learning gained from being involved in ambitious undertakings. The insights these memories provide and the questions they encourage people to ask about the world and their place within it eventually mature into strong personal beliefs and perceptions that hardwire ambitiousness into everyday lives and actions.
  3. They reverberate out from people. They create ripples and sometimes waves of new possibilities which flow from one person to another, mixing with existing cultures and ways of doing things to create new ways of thinking and acting.     
To ensure your collaboration benefits from the reverberation of ambitious visions and undertakings do the following four things:

1. Gather and tell people's individual stories of ambition and the changes it enabled

'NYOI made me dream bigger and all the experience that I collected during these four years led me to be granted a scholarship from DAAD to further study in Germany, which was very competitive.'

Encapsulated in one sentence is the effect participating in the NYOI had on one individual player. The ambition of the NYOI reverberated within this person, loosening pre-existing perceptions and ways of thinking and clearing the way for more positive and ambitious ones to take their place; it changed her perception of the world and what she could achieve within it.

Capturing and sharing this process, as Paul has done by including it in his book, will encourage others to experience the same thing. It  will increase the influence of the NYOI's ambitious mission within the wider world.    

2. Create monumental memories

'The idea of a national youth orchestra for Iraq struck an enormously powerful chord in me and many others back in 2008. By unifying disparate groups of youngsters throughout Iraq and delivering music education where there was none, we had created the beginnings of a solution that we hoped could reverberate throughout the country. Moreover, the ambition to create a full symphony orchestra and perform in public shifted everyone's perceptions of what was possible in the name of Iraq.'

Making the idea of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq into a reality created memories that will shine bright within many people for many years. Also, as well as shifting perceptions of what was possible at the time, it will continue to be an inspiration for people as they live their lives and develop their own ideas and beliefs about things. It is an unforgettable monument to what is possible with ambition and determination and will ensure the power of the NYOI's vision and achievements travel forwards with people in time, continuing to influence their thoughts and deeds towards ambitious goals and undertakings. 
3. When things are at their most difficult work at being your most ambitious

'We sat. We talked. We brainstormed. In a couple of hours, we came up with a list of things to do back in Iraq to get money. We knew how futile this was, but America was such a pinnacle to our achievements so far, it was worth pulling together in one mammoth effort to break through.'

The above quotation refers to the difficulty Paul and the NYOI were experiencing in gaining funds from Iraqi institutions to support the Orchestra's tour of the USA. It would have been easy for Paul and his colleagues to 'cut their cloth according to their means' and focus on a less ambitious tour or activity. Instead, they committed to the American tour and drew up plans for trying to coax money out of Iraqi institutions. The effect of this decision did two things: 1. it challenged those involved with the NYOI to show determination and resilience and take responsibility for making things happen; 2. it sent a very strong message to supporters and potential supporters about the ambition of the NYOI and its determination to be successful in the face of difficulty and adversity. In the long run, taking this stance was likely to be healthier for the NYOI than one projecting a message that the orchestra was insecure about its future and timid in its decision making.

In short, confident and ambitious decision making on the part of the NYOI was likely to reverberate clearly and positively (and ultimately advantageously) with not only the NYOI's people but also its supporters.      

4. Identify and develop ambassadors of your ambition

'Everyone played their role as cultural diplomats brilliantly and won over thousands of hearts and minds, through the supporting youth orchestras, performances and international media. Determined to bring isolation to an end, the players forged international friendships and learnt to communicate not just with each other, but with the music world.' 

The above quotation shows how the players of the NYOI became strongly motivated ambassadors for the orchestra and its ambitious vision and goals. They were encouraged to form friendships with the people and musicians they met during the NYOI's tours and events and focus their communication out into the wider musical world. Hence the ambition of the NYOI could begin to resonate with and influence a significant number of people from other countries, societies and cultures.       

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

This is how a collaborative person works: 18. create 3 dimensional pictures of your partners

(This post draws heavily upon the experiences of Paul Macalindin as described in his book Upbeat, which chronicles his inspiring work with the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq.)

'At the same time in the next building, two Arabic experts from Paris took the 14 young musicians from Orchestre Francais des Jeunes through Iraq history, geopolitics and culture. For the last hour, I took some of the NYOI musicians with me after rehearsal to join in. There, transliterated on a whiteboard, stood Arabic text, which the experts coached us to sing to the tune of our old friend, Che Mali Wali. As the French students sang along, there, sitting under the open windows were Mohammed Adnan, Murad and Hassun playing the pained melody that had accompanied them through childhood. Totally in their bliss, a deep melancholy seeped out from within their Iraqi soul. This wasn't all. Naturally, the Kurds also needed to express their culture. Alan Kamil, our new concertmaster, struck up some traditional melodies on his violin with our wonderfully gifted new percussionist, Peshawa, imitating a zither accompaniment on the grand piano at the back of the room. Two intense musical traditions perfumed one small space filled with the finest of France and Iraq.' 
From Upbeat: the Story of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq by Paul Macalindin

The above quotation is slightly longer than usual. This is because it is a passage rich with insight about how best to begin understanding and appreciating new partners and collaborators. It emphasises the importance of creating a safe, supportive and creative space which encourages learning in 3 dimensions. These dimensions are thinking, doing and feeling: 
  1. Providing facts encouraged the young French musicians to think about Iraq, its society, culture and politics. 
  2. Doing something, in this case singing a traditional song, encouraged them to gain further insights about Iraqi music and culture. It also reinforced some of the learning from the rest of the session.
  3. Listening to the NYOI players perform some of their traditional melodies encouraged the French players to begin appreciating some of the artistic and emotional context of Iraqi culture and, very importantly, how Iraqis themselves responded and reacted to it. This laid the foundations upon which empathy could be built. 
When learning about the people you are collaborating with, create a space within which you can begin to not only understand them but also experience something of what it is like to be them: find and think about the facts associated with them; do some of things they do; watch what they do, listen to what they say and seek to empathise with what they feel. 

Allow the gradually developing 3 dimensional pictures you gain to inform the way you work with your partners and help shape your overall relationship with them.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Mysterious Lands and Beautiful Waters

Imperfect, but mine own...


This is how a collaborative person works:17. form the habit of empowering the disempowered

(This post draws heavily upon the experiences of Paul Macalindin as described in his book Upbeat, which chronicles his inspiring work with the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq.)

The position of women in Iraq was disempowering and inferior. If the NYOI was to be not only successful as an orchestra but also influential in improving the position of women, it needed - each and everyday of its existence - to take specific and positive action to challenge and change unhelpful attitudes and behaviours: it needed to form the habit of empowering the disempowered. 

It did this by consistently doing some straightforward but extremely effective things. Here are four of them:

Challenging the status quo by creating everyday firsts and taking everyday risks    

'Adam, our percussion tutor, had decided with me to choose Boran as Iraq's first female timpanist.'

'Tuqa, the only member of the NYOI to where a hijab, won over our cello tutor, Dave Edmonds, to the extent that he put her on the lead cello seat, much to her male counterpart, Hassam's disapproval.'

The first quotation shows that the first time events you create to challenge the status quo do not have to be earth shatteringly significant to be effective: even though an everyday routine decision, the significance of the choice of timpanist would have been clear to the rest of the NYOI's players and the audiences for which the orchestra performed.

The second quotation is an example of being willing to risk disapproval by making routine decisions which challenge cultural expectations. Tuqa's male cello-playing colleague may have had his metaphorical nose put out of joint but, given the immediacy of the personal impact of the decision, the experience would have forced him to come to terms with the situation and, hopefully, begin to question his assumptions about the place and abilities of women.           

Getting in early

'The auditorium filled to the brim with young girls in white headscarves, looking utterly adorable.

Uninhibited, they joined in Jonny's clapping and Dougie's singing games, their teachers watching on apprehensively from the back row. But when Dobbs came on and started his fairy story in Kurdish while plucking away at his base, even the teachers became enraptured. Music making in Iraq is basically a man's pursuit, girls are discouraged, and we so loved reaching out to these young souls.'

The above describes a concert given by the NYOI's tutors and players to an audience of young school girls. Gifting these young girls early memories of participating in musical activities (and demonstrating the positive effects of this activity to their teachers) planted the seed of an idea: that music making in Iraqi was not only for men but also women. With luck and nurturing, as the girls grow this seed will hopefully blossom into an enthusiasm for music making among women which will become easier for the male dominated musical establishment to embrace rather than ignore.              

Noting missed opportunities and planning to create them in the future

'Meanwhile, Zuhal worked alongside Phia to run the course and receive mentoring, but I sensed her disappointment at not being able to play piano with the orchestra this year, as none of the compositions required it. I determined to fix this for 2011.'

Missing one opportunity does not mean that another cannot be created. Achieving this, however, needs an everyday awareness of what is happening and, more to the point, what is not happening. It also requires a willingness to plan.   

Showing what is possible elsewhere

'In contrast, our rehearsals led by excellent tutors such as Angelia Cho or Ilona Bondar, as well as our visits abroad, empowered our female players to understand the prominent role of women in other cultures, and encouraged them to take a more leading role, where possible, in Iraq.'

This quotation describes how the NYOI showed its most significantly disempowered members, its women, what it was possible for them to achieve. Providing skilled and successful female tutors as role models and arranging visits to countries where women were encouraged and indeed expected to play prominent roles not only within music but also society generally, opened the NYOI's women's eyes to what it was possible for them to achieve with self belief, determination, and a culture which valued and supported them. As with the concert for the young girls, the seeds of possibility were being sown in young minds.

When seeking to empower your most disadvantaged partners and participants look for everyday opportunities to 'create a first'. Become accustomed to making decisions, big or seemingly small, which challenge the status quo and force people to adapt to and learn from new situations. Make a daily note of missed opportunities to involve and empower people and make specific plans to create similar opportunities in the future. Make sure that each and every day, at least in some small way, those that need to be reminded of what is possible are shown what is possible.

And sow the seeds of attitude changing ideas as early as possible.       

You will then acquire the habit of empowering the disempowered.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

This is how a collaborative person works: 16. lead with generosity and flexibility

(This post draws heavily upon the experiences of Paul Macalindin as described in his book Upbeat, which chronicles his inspiring work with the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq.)

'The soloist was a woman, and a particularly beautiful one at that. Throughout the morning, she gave us her constant loving attention, making sure she always played to the orchestra, maintaining eye contact with each of them. The generosity which had led her to accept us, now shone out through the hall. After so much effort, we needed this. Sometimes, the players just couldn't react to her finely shaded interpretation and my accompaniment of her. So she changed it to work for them. I was impressed, and they were in awe.'

From Upbeat: the Story of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq by Paul Macalindin

Much is said and written about how to lead collaboratively. Quite right too; it is and will continue to be an increasingly important and sought-after ability.

Sometimes, however, the more we think about and study something the less willing we become to acknowledge and value some simple truths about it.

Only when we see their power, in the moment, are we forced to turn and nod our heads in their direction.

The above quotation describes such a moment. The soloist is violin virtuoso Arabella Steinbacher and she is rehearsing Beethoven's Violin Concerto with the orchestra. 'Constant loving attention', 'always playing to the orchestra', 'maintaining eye contact with each of them': this is the moment to moment body language of not only a sensitive and collaborative musician but also a sensitive and collaborative leader. It radiates generosity and an enthusiasm for playing with rather than playing to: of working and performing with people rather than assuming and expecting that others are willing and able to follow the direction you wish to take.

The effect of Arabella Steinbacher's collaborative approach was two-fold: 1. it built a strong, warm and effective working relationship with the conductor and the orchestra; and 2, it laid the foundations for a performance which was less about straightforward compromise and more about uncovering complimentary strengths and subtly balancing and melding them.

The concert performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto was not likely to have been one that any of the performers had imagined beforehand; it was probably surprising and unique to the situation -- and stronger and more memorable as a result.

The lesson for anyone seeking to lead collaboratively is clear: be willing to live in the moment with your partners and demonstrate your generosity of spirit and flexibility of action through your moment-to-moment interactions with them. Yes, keep your direction and purpose in mind but be open to and willing to embrace the variations your partners seek to weave in and around them. You will then most likely achieve your goals in unique and surprisingly effective ways.