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.

Friday, 19 May 2017

This is how a collaborative person works: 15. encourage, involve, appreciate and develop women

(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.)

'I had no interest in playing to cultural sensitivities around the inferior position of women in Iraq, and readily looked at talented female as well as male tutors.'

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

Here, Paul is challenging the inferior position of women in Iraq head-on. This was essential to the success of the NYOI on at least three levels:

1. Encouraging women to play full parts within the NYOI, as not only tutors (as described above) but also players within the orchestra, ensured it had sufficient quality musicians to be viable and sustainable over a number of years.

2. Where their quality and ability merited it, encouraging and selecting women to take leading roles within the orchestra (as tutors, section leaders or managers of key support functions, etc.) created role models which showed that women could not only do these roles but sometimes do them better than their male colleagues. This contributed to achieving two interconnected NYOI goals: 1. providing all its young musicians, whatever their gender or backgrounds, with as many opportunities as possible to realise their potential; and 2. giving its players the confidence to go on and take leading roles within their country's wider artistic life.

3. Encouraging women in the above ways helped the NYOI tap into the skills, qualities and characteristics most usually unique to women. This is beautifully described by the following:

'Sabat's sister, Saween, a modest violinist, transfixed everyone with her incredible voice. Incanting deep Kurdish sorrow without a trace of Western vibrato the filigree butterflies emanating from her glottal twists and turns fluttered straight into our stomachs.'

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

The context of Iraq emphasises the importance of helping women play full and influential parts within not only collaborative projects which need their skills but also societies and cultures which, because of their attitude toward women, are at best only half resourced.

This is equally important within less extreme collaborative and cultural contexts. Look around at those working with you. Do you have enough partners to sustain your work? If not, does this coincide with an absence of women? Have women with the required qualities and abilities been given the same opportunities as men to take lead roles? Lastly, and perhaps most challengingly for those who think themselves sufficiently diversity aware, are you really identifying and taking advantage of the unique skills, qualities and characteristics of the women working with you?

Friday, 5 May 2017

This is how a collaborative person works: 14. choose the right vehicles for your context, your people and their motivation

(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 electricity cut out during our Skype call. This is why classical music is such a good art form for Iraq. You don't need to plug in a cello!'

'I decided we should also perform Beethoven's Prometheus Overture, a fitting start to as bold an act of creation as ourselves, and finish with Haydn's Symphony No 99. These two works lay at the heart of my pedagogy, as the musicians couldn't help but learn about their various roles as orchestral players, melodically, harmonically and rhythmically.'

'Haydn's Symphony No 99 was not only my best guess at what they could pull off in two weeks, but also an injection of humour. Haydn revels in his false starts and finishes, witty turns of phrase, pregnant daft pauses and great tunes. 

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

The first quotation cuts to the chase in explaining why classical music was such a good vehicle for artistic collaboration within Iraq: it did not overly rely on technology and the energy needed to power it!

The second quotation emphasises how important it was to find and focus upon music which would help the young players of the NYOI develop the broad range of skills needed to collaborate musically and perform orchestral music well.

The third quotation illustrates the care needed in finding music which would maintain the young players motivation by being not only suitably challenging but also appropriately enjoyable to play.

The above makes it clear that amongst everything which has to be thought about and addressed whilst starting and developing any collaborative project, three questions must be given priority:

  1. What is the best vehicle or form of collaboration to meet the needs and limitations of your context? 
  2. Which vehicles, projects or activities will help you and your partners develop the skills needed to perform effectively and attain the collaboration's goals?
  3. Which vehicles, projects or activities will achieve the right balance between being not only suitably challenging but also enjoyable (or at least fulfilling) to do?               

The last question is often the least asked but can be the most important to answer, especially when encouraging people to do new and difficult tasks and achieve new and ambitious goals.

Monday, 1 May 2017

This is how a collaborative person works: 13. welcome provocation

(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.)

'Orchestra of Dreams, Channel Four's news segment on us, aired that evening. With it came the first taste of some tough questions. How did it feel accepting money from a government that invaded Iraq? Was this guilt money? Zuhal and I were taken aback but also grateful for the provocation, which helped us read the visit's political undercurrents.'

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

The above quotation relates to a documentary aired during the NYOI's 2012 tour of the UK. It emphasises how important it is to welcome and be grateful for provocative comments and questions.

Arguably, this is particularly so for collaborative initiatives which are ground breaking and consequently often seen as controversial (just like the NYOI).

This is because many such collaborations find themselves working against the grain of establishment practice and public opinion and the provocations received from the custodians of the former and the representatives of the latter help them enhance the clarity and acceptability of their purpose and key messages, improve their overall effectiveness and, importantly, prepare for any negative reactions, unhelpful political manoeuvrings or animal traps placed in their way.

When listened to openly and carefully, provocative questions and comments reveal much about the preoccupations and interests of the people a collaboration has to work with, work around and, in some cases, work against.

So, as well as getting your mouth ready to make arguments in defence of your collaboration, get your ears ready to listen very carefully to what people are saying and how people are saying it (and get your eyes ready to notice where and when they are choosing to say it).

Then, as I say above, you will be able to use what you have discovered to not only enhance your effectiveness within the context you are working but also prepare for and perhaps avoid the harmful frictions and painful splintering that comes of working against the grain.

Friday, 28 April 2017

This is how a collaborative person works: 12. recognise and exploit the informality tipping point

(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.)

'I stood on the sidelines, watching, waiting. The garden party, fuelled with wine and snacks of French fruit and cheese, buzzed along in a typically genteel manner, till finally we hit our tipping point. Out came the daff and Sherwan struck up the call to party. The orchestra coagulated into its familiar ring of dance. Within moments, the French reacted by joining in with uninhibited gusto; no sitting on the sidelines for them. I breathed deeply, relieved that our young guests had some Gallic spunk in them. It was looking good.'

'The beat kicked in and Orchestre Francais des Jeunes locked itself scarily into co-ordinated blocks of 70s disco steps. But they were happy. Mine were not. Across the hall I could see some of them hacking into the conference laptop with their own USB sticks, and as if by magic, up started the Iraqi pop music. Squares broke down helplessly into whooping circles, with selfies being flashed through the irresistible mayhem.'

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

Most of us would accept that making time for informality within our lives and work is important. It is during this time that we get to know the people behind their labels and begin to peel away the stereotypical veneers we have unthinkingly pasted upon them.

Collaborative projects are no exception. Indeed, creating time for informality between partners from different organisations, communities and societies, etc., is not merely important: it is essential to collaborative success. To work well together partners need to move beyond making assumptions about what each other does, thinks and feels towards exploring what each other does, thinks and feels, and they need a safe informal space within which to start doing this.

The above quotations not only demonstrate how important it is to make time for informality but also illustrate how informal time can be exploited to a collaboration's advantage without unduly manipulating the individuals involved.

They clearly describe an 'informality tipping point': a point during an informal gathering when the spontaneity and closeness between people rapidly increases so offering the opportunity, if this increase is sustained, for gaining an enhanced understanding between individuals and, eventually, an accurate appreciation of what each person can do and offer.

The quotations also identify the way in which this 'informality tipping point' can be encouraged and usefully exploited. There are five things which need to be done:
  1. Create an informal and friendly atmosphere which is safe, comfortable and enjoyable.
  2. Watch and observe what is going on. Be patient and be prepare to wait. Take time to notice the changing emotional and group dynamics.
  3. Encourage or introduce some kind of catalyst which will move you toward and over the informality tipping point. (In the first quotation the catalyst was the introduction of the Daff and the 'call to party'. In the second quotation it was the hacking of the conference laptop with Iraqi pop music.)  
  4. Notice the changes which occur between people when the tipping point has been passed. What specifically are people saying and doing differently? You will be able to use the look and feel of these things as a benchmark for the quality of relationships between people as the collaboration progresses. (In the second quotation passing the tipping point was marked by dancing squares turning into whooping circles and the taking of selfies.)  
  5. Keep a record of the moment when the tipping point was reached and passed. Encourage those involved to take pictures and record videos. (As the second quotation shows, people are likely do to this without encouragement by taking selfies, etc.) Keeping a visual record and sharing and revisiting it during the life of a collaboration will remind people of the spontaneity and closeness that is possible between them and encourage them to maintain or regain it.   

The passing of informality tipping points will not always be so clear, exaggerated or obvious as in the example described by Paul. Their exact manifestation will depend on the people involved and their shared context. However, a tipping point will appear and be passed if you make time for informality and are observant -- and willing to risk a catalyst or two!

And be sure to get some pictures of it happening.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

This is how a collaborative person works: 11. remember there is no such thing as a free lunch

(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.)

'We always incurred horrendous catering costs for a whole orchestra over two or three weeks, and if they didn't like it, we ended up throwing good money and food away each day. We all agreed the players would carry some costs, for each other if need be, whenever necessary. The relief I felt that they could agree to this not only came from keeping our budget down, but also bringing them into the process of taking responsibility for the orchestra.' 

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

Collaborative initiatives require partners that contribute and take responsibility; this is obvious. However, the nature of some collaborations (specifically those which need to engage with people who are disadvantaged, isolated by circumstance or otherwise disenfranchised in some way) leads to this requirement being downplayed and sometimes even rejected.

This happens because encouraging involvement rather than seeking contribution is understandably perceived as a priority for the above mentioned collaborations, especially during their initial stages, and this way of seeing things often becomes habitual. When it does, it blinds a collaboration to the fact that eventually (if it is to develop effectively and genuinely succeed) it must seek contributions from all of its partners and participants.           

The above tendency is made even stronger when people falsely equate treating all partners and participants equally with providing everything for free.

This is what happened during the first few years of the NYOI's existence. The young Iraqi musicians were certainly disadvantaged in respect of support and opportunities to develop their talents, and they were clearly isolated by circumstance. In the worst cases, they were disenfranchised by their own communities and society.

Given this, it is understandable that Paul and all those setting up and developing the NYOI would do everything they could to help these young people, including providing virtually everything free of charge.

Providing free access to the audition process, musical tuition and many other things was obviously essential to the purpose of the NYOI and its desire to engage with and support the most talented young musicians in Iraq, whoever they were and from wherever they came.

However, a more detailed look at the circumstances of many of these young people's lives reveals the dangers inherent in assuming that treating people equally must always be about providing things for free:

 'These young people were turning up in BMWs and Range Rovers with poor quality or broken instruments. At the end of each day, as we sat in the pristine, beautifully furnished director's office to share our daily feedback, we began to get a clear picture of what was really going on here.'

The above quotation makes clear that although the young Iraqi musicians were musically disadvantaged this was not always the case for other aspects of their lives. For the NYOI, therefore, treating people equally was eventually likely to become less about always providing everything for free (free provision being increasingly restricted to those things vital to the NYOI's purpose and mission) and more about providing opportunities for all the young players to take, and help each other take, some responsibility for the upkeep of the NYOI.

Asking for a contribution to the NYOI's catering costs, and for the players to help each other make this contribution, was a simple, symbolic and significant step in this latter direction.

When collaborating with people remember there is no such things as a free lunch, even for those who are disadvantaged, isolated or disenfranchised in some way. The likelihood is that even the most disadvantaged will be willing and able to contribute something in some way and be eager to take responsibility, as long as they are provided with opportunities and others are given opportunities to help them.

Balance free and easy access with opportunities for all those involved in and benefiting from your work to make contributions, support each other and take responsibility.

Monday, 17 April 2017

This is how a collaborative person works: 10. find ways to be both inside and outside

(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.)

'There is zero governmental openness about budgets. Indeed, it's seen as corrupt to keep all the money from a deal for yourself. Your partners down the line expect their share of the cash, like unofficial taxation.

So, NYOI could only have existed internationally, and online. Iraqi banks took a long time to credibly re-establish themselves. Transparency of transactions through various Western organisations, which showed our funding was going 100% to the orchestra, kept us credible and alive to our international partners over five years. The British Council and the German Friends played a huge role in ensuring that.'

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

The above quotation emphasises the obvious importance of maintaining transparency and credibility, especially when seeking to collaborate with partners within complex and challenging contexts. 

But it also emphasises a less often appreciated but at least equally important aspect. This is the ability to exist both within and outside of a collaborative context at one and the same time: to be able to keep a safe distance from the potentially damaging aspects of your theatre of operations but still work with people effectively within it. Achieving this balance enhances transparency and safeguards credibility.   

It was obviously essential for Paul and others involved with the NYOI to collaborate 'on the ground' with partners within Iraq. This enabled the orchestra to gain the profile, support and resources necessary for it to establish itself and become sustainably successful. 

However, this exposed the NYOI to the risk of becoming enmired in the dark side of Iraqi life with its acceptance of corruption and the assumption that any progress was conditional upon payment of 'unofficial taxes' down the line of local partners. If this risk had become reality, or had even been suspected of becoming reality, the NYOI would have lost its independent identity and the distinctiveness and power of its ideals and approach. International and Iraqi partners alike would have perceived the NYOI as yet another feeder vehicle for the greedy mouths of Iraqi corruption and self-interest; very quickly, all credibility would have been lost. 

The way Paul and his colleagues avoided this outcome was by giving careful thought to which activities needed to take place, and be seen to take place, outside Iraq. Raising money and financial management were obvious selections as was the audition and selection process for players, which was done online through YouTube. Also, some (but not all) of the recruitment for key posts was done outside Iraq. 

Recruitment needed to be done carefully to ensure that Iraqi partners and stakeholders felt fully involved and that, as alluded to above, the NYOI had people well-placed within Iraq who could liaise with and influence local authorities to gain support and resources, provide updates about progress and give timely warnings of potential problems.                  

As Paul says elsewhere in his book, it is likely that the NYOI could not have existed any other way, successfully at least, but as an online organisation with its key functions spread across the world. This inside/outside quality of the NYOI's organisation insulated the orchestra from accusations that it was becoming just another way of lining the pockets of corrupt Iraqi fat cats: that it was becoming part of the problem to which it was seeking to provide a solution.           

So remember the following: when collaborating within challenging contexts which present risks to credibility, find ways to be both inside and outside your theatre of operations. Start by identifying those activities and functions most threatened by the environment within which you are working. Then find ways to place these outside your theatre of operations without diminishing your collaboration's presence and creating a lack of involvement from local partners and stakeholders.