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.

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