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.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Cherry Blossom ချယ်ရီ ပွင့်


This is how a collaborative person works: 9. switch to public viewing

(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.)

'This year, I had every video evaluated by an NYOI tutor plus someone completely independent, to be sure we had the right people. I even insisted that all YouTube applications be set to public viewing so that applicants could see and hear why successful players had been accepted.'  

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

Individual communities, businesses and other organisations can be poisoned by excessive secrecy and the rumours and uncertainties it creates. For collaborations that are excessively secretive, this poisoning is often terminal.

Trust is difficult to create within communities and organisations, etc., but it is even harder to create between them. They possess different cultures and competing agendas and often harbour resentments arising from current animosities and bad experiences. Throw excessive secrecy into the mix and trying to create trust can become a vexing repetitive nightmare made more tortuous by the chatter and gossip from multiple secrecy fertilised grapevines, which seek and generate multiple rumours and create ever-increasing uncertainty and discomfort.

To avoid the negative effects of excessive secrecy, collaborations must work hard at attaining levels of transparency and openness that are even more challenging and ambitious than those normally aspired to within single communities and organisations, etc. 

This is why Paul insisted that YouTube auditions were set to public viewing. He knew that the NYOI was built upon delicate collaborative foundations which stretched the globe and spanned diverse national and regional cultures and interests. He also knew that within these foundations sensitive informal grapevines were ever-ready to thrive upon gossip and transform it into damaging false assumptions and uncertainties.

It was not sufficient that the NYOI and its network of partners did things fairly and independently; they needed to be clearly seen and heard whilst doing it.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

This is how a collaborative person works: 8. become a social and cultural sponge

(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.)

'Clad in suit and tie, I sat alone in a cafe downstairs at reception, musing through a window at the absurdity of a conductor attending a talk called 'Iraq's Oil and Gas Sector'.

'...I arrived ahead of time to fan out DVDs of our film from the 2009 course next to canapés, various trade books and pamphlets from the energy sector. As people started arriving, I began my well-practised role as an unknown quantity in a closed circuit.'    

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

Ground breaking and innovative projects will usually require collaboration, and it is a simple but often overlooked truth that this collaboration will most likely need to be with new, unexpected and (at first sight) apparently incongruous partners.

And, as Paul says above, to do this collaboration effectively it is important to be well-practised at being an 'unknown quantity within a closed circuit': to be able to deal effectively with being the unknown and unexpected outsider seeking to connect with a well-established and cohesive group of insiders. 

In this context, 'well-practised' means the following:
  • Having the social and interpersonal skills which enable you to empathise and engage with people from a wide variety of backgrounds, occupations and business sectors.
  • Doing your homework and finding out everything possible about the people with which you will be interacting: what they do; what they think; what they expect; their problems and successes; their preoccupations; how they dress and present themselves; what they like and dislike. This will help you use your interpersonal skills to best effect by enhancing your ability to empathise with people and focus upon those things of most interest to them.  
  • And, most importantly, becoming a social and cultural sponge. (Think about a sponge: when submerged, it soaks up the water around it; it mixes with and becomes part of the surrounding environment but keeps the basic integrity of its shape.) When Paul went to the oil and gas conference he became a social and cultural sponge; he soaked up and adopted some of the surrounding social and cultural behaviours and ways of doing things: being timely and prompt; providing professional, business-like promotional materials; wearing a suit and tie; exchanging business cards, etc. He did enough of these things to fit in but not enough to dissolve the uniqueness of his role or dilute the clarity of his purpose.

He was still an artistic unknown quantity, but now he was recognisably business-like. As a result, those around him were willing to not only tolerate him but also temporarily integrate him into their network.

Having achieved this, Paul could start seeking new connections which would provide power for new collaborations.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

This is how a collaborative person works: 7. restitute, reconcile, collaborate

(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 openly discussed the sticky issue of reconciliation. Obviously, by bringing players from across Iraq together, NYOI had become a role model, but we knew the media would pick up on the broader dimension, reconciling Iraq with America. I already knew from talking to foundations that this stuck in some people's throats. Reconciliation implied liability. Liability challenged American exceptionalism, and not everyone was ready to go there.'   

'For NYOI, the first step towards reconciliation was restitution; restoring people's childhood lost to war, improving a broken education system and building a healthier link between the people's of Iraq and the wider world.'

'The High Court in Edinburgh fined the Weir Group £3 million and ordered them to repay £13.9 million in profits from Iraqi deals. The undertones of this judgement involved the righting of a Scottish wrong to the peoples of Iraq, but also carried an oblique sense of restitution for the damage done during the war. On this basis, we were awarded the £100,000 to come to Scotland.'

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

It is frequently the case that those seeking to collaborate with each other share a history. Sometimes this history is problematical, full of bad experiences and bitter outcomes, and it can cause friction within the machinery of  collaboration, causing it to shudder and stop. 

This is what happened when Paul tried to collaborate with American Institutions and agencies to arrange NYOI's tour of the USA. As the first quotation makes clear, not everyone was willing to acknowledge and address the nature of America's shared history with Iraq. This eventually led, through multiple difficulties thrown up by multiple American institutions and agencies, to NYOI's tour of the USA being cancelled. Because of an unwillingness to reconcile, the machinery of collaboration well and truly shuddered to a stop.

And, as the quotation also makes clear, this unwillingness to reconcile was merely a symptom of something else: the unwillingness to admit liability, which would almost inevitably lead to a need for restitution.

As the second quotation shows, this need for restitution as the first necessary step towards reconciliation (which can then lead to fruitful collaboration) was acknowledged by Paul and the NYOI. This clearly contributed to the orchestra's ability gain allies and supporters from within Iraq, which helped it survive and succeed over a five year period. 

The third quotation shows that even an implied sense of restitution, in this case provided by a High Court ruling punishing a company's dealings in Iraq, can kick start the machinery of collaboration: a supportive sentiment was created which encouraged and enabled the Scottish Government to award the NYOI £100,000 for its summer course in Scotland and associated UK tour.

The above demonstrates that it is difficult to collaborate effectively if the players share a problematic history which is not acknowledged and addressed. It also shows that restitution and reconciliation are the two necessary steps towards overcoming this history and enabling fruitful collaboration to begin.

In practical terms, this means that partners need to identify and acknowledge what has been lost, why it has been lost and, importantly, who needs to make restitution to whom.

Making restitution may require a simple acknowledgement or a challenging apology. It may be very demanding of time, effort and resources.

But if it is essential that collaboration takes place between partners 'with a history', restitution must be done and done willingly. Then, the resulting reconciliation can become a shared foundation upon which people can build.  

Monday, 3 April 2017

This is how a collaborative person works: 6. make sure there's no hole in your bucket

(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 miracle of learning became slowly apparent to the tutors. Our progress became visceral the further they went, because nobody had told them that classical music needs years of proper teaching and good instruments to yield results.'

'This shouldn't be happening, but it did.'

'They did what they did because nobody had ever told them they couldn't. Their motivation and faith remained unbounded throughout the five years.'    

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

The first quotation is Paul's reaction to the significant progress his players made during one of the NYOI's Summer Courses. The second quotation is an NYOI music tutor's reaction to a concert given by the orchestra in Scotland during their UK tour. The third quotation is from Paul's reflection's upon his entire five years working with the NYOI.

The point here is a simple but significant one: start with and continue to make positive and ambitious assumptions about what people can achieve, especially when they work in collaboration.

It could be argued that making positive and ambitious assumptions is less specifically relevant to collaborative good practice and more generally relevant to developing the attitude needed to attain new skills and be creative and innovative in any number of situations or contexts.  

However, the nature of many collaborative projects (including those fundamental to the creation and development of the NYOI) transforms the above general point into a centrally important one: one which is crucial for realising collaborative potential, attaining shared goals, and working together to become trend-setters and game-changers within an area of activity or sector.   

Many, if not most, collaborations are formed for one purpose: to combine people, activities and organisations in new ways to create new approaches to seemingly impossible challenges. So old and limiting assumptions that in most contexts inhibit creative thinking and problem solving (an outcome which is bad enough) will quickly become existential threats to collaborations.

A collaboration which cannot think and act innovatively is like a bucket with a hole in it: people and ideas may flow into it but, pressed upon by the gravity of old thinking, will just as quickly flow out.

So, make sure you do not allow your collaboration's creativity and innovation to flow away. Neutralise the gravity of old thinking with the energy of positive and ambitious assumptions.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

This is how a collaborative person works: 5. context, context, context

(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.)

'In the cycle of endless correcting of mistakes, we nailed down one, and another popped up. We thought this had something to do with pushing the players' concentration to the limits. However, it was often difficult for them to come from a small group rehearsal and hold onto the learning when they sat down in the next room with the full orchestra. The context, and how closely they felt they were being watched, changed the way they retained learning.'

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

Paul is describing the process of rehearsing with his players. There is a crucial insight here: rather than continuing to assume that the players were struggling because they were being pushed to the limits of their concentration, Paul and his colleagues soon realised that it was the context within which they were rehearsing which was affecting their ability to learn and improve. A small group setting enhanced the players learning and a large group setting eroded it.

As Paul says, one of the reasons for this was the perceived level of scrutiny: how closely the players felt they were being watched. Other likely factors would have been the increased pressure players felt when rehearsing in front many people, the potentially intimidating size of the orchestral rehearsal room, and the necessary formality required for managing and rehearsing a large number of people within a large space.

The crucial word here is 'felt'. It is the players' perceived level of scrutiny and pressure which affected their ability to learn within different contexts.

The crucial questions are as follows:
  • Why did the players feel this way?
  • What was/could have been done to make the players feel more comfortable within the large group context?

Arguably, there are three main reasons why the players felt the way they did:
  1. Because the attitude towards western music in Iraq was often at best ambivalent and at worst very hostile, the players were accustomed to practising alone and in secret, perhaps even muting their instruments with blankets so neighbours would not be able to hear. Therefore practising in a small group, let alone a large one, was very unfamiliar to them and probably felt very uncomfortable and risky. This would have been an almost conditioned response.
  2. There was a cultural element at play which meant players were very reluctant to lose face by being seen to make mistakes and having to admit to them. This tendency understandably increased as the amount of people watching and listening increased.
  3. The Western/European approach to classical music involved methods of rehearsal and performance which were new and alien to many of the players. This added to the discomfort players were already feeling as a result of the two previously described aspects.      

Paul and his colleagues did the following to address the above aspects:
  • They encouraged their musicians to play together in small groups as much as possible, rehearsing chamber music. This not only helped players develop the ability to listen to and respond to each other but also provided a reassuring stepping stone towards playing within a large orchestra.
  • They arranged informal fun activities for the whole orchestra which encouraged the players to interact and perform for and with each other. This not only acclimatised the players to doing things with and in front of a large group but also began to break down any barriers caused by any sense of embarrassment or 'losing face'. This approach was particularly valuable when, as was normal during NYOI's summer courses and tours, young musicians from other youth orchestras joined the orchestra to rehearse and perform with it, sharing their experience and expertise.
  • They offered repeated opportunities to rehearse and perform with a large orchestra and to give concerts to large audiences. This gradually sensitised the players to the feel, challenges and demands of these situations.
  • They boosted confidence by ensuring players possessed the key technical and performance skills necessary to play their instruments consistently well and communicate the music clearly to their audiences. This enhanced confidence underpinned and supported the actions described above.               

It is not uncommon for some people and organisations to struggle with transferring their knowledge, skills and learning from their own context and situation to that of an unfamiliar and challenging collaborative initiative which is high profile and/or has a large number of partners. Adopting and adapting the above questions to their needs and challenges and those of the collaboration they are part of can help address this issue.

When members of a collaboration are struggling to apply their experience, expertise and learning to its context try the following:
  • Do not assume that you know why they are struggling to apply their experience, expertise and knowledge to the collaboration's context. Ask why they are having difficulties. What evidence do you have that the answers you receive are correct? What specifically have they told you? What else have you heard them saying and what have you seen them doing?
  • Encourage them to take part in small but meaningful projects and activities with a small number of other partners. (As mentioned above, this will not only develop their ability to listen and respond to others but also provide them with a reassuring stepping stone to larger projects and activities involving more of the collaboration's partners.)
  • Offer them opportunities to mix informally with all the collaboration's partners and stakeholders. Make sure the opportunities have a clear goal or purpose in mind and that everybody is required to do, present or contribute something whilst attending. Also make sure these opportunities are provided frequently enough to ensure new partners can attend and participate soon after they join the collaboration. (Doing these things will acclimatise people to 'performing' in front of others and begin to break down any sense of hesitancy caused through fear of embarrassment. It will also help existing partners feel comfortable about interacting and working with new partners.)
  • Ensure they are invited, welcomed and encouraged to contribute to formal meetings and events involving all the collaboration's partners and stakeholders. (This will gradually sensitise them to the feel, challenges and demands of the situation.)
  • Help them develop skills which will increase their confidence in contributing to the wider collaboration. Do they need to develop skills in the fundamental areas of contributing to meetings and making presentations? Would developing any other skills enhance their confidence in making contributions? For example, would it be helpful and confidence boosting for them to develop data-gathering and analysis skills or any other technical skills essential to the collaboration's work? (This increased confidence will underpin and support all the actions described above.)