Tuesday, 28 March 2017

This is how a collaborative person works: 4. introduce partners to their new selves

(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 most ironic culture shock for them was the prevalence of new music, especially from Gordon Mcpherson and Peter Maxwell Davies. It took the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq for young Edinburgh musicians to play (new) Scottish orchestral music.'

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

Paul is describing how, during its tour of the UK, the NYOI was able to introduce young Scottish musicians to new Scottish music. The somewhat conservative classical music scene in Scotland did not include such music in its programmes very often.

Those living within a community do not always have the opportunity to engage with and appreciate what is new and emerging within it. There are different and inter-related reasons for this: the prevalence of traditional and established practices and tastes; lack of awareness and knowledge of current developments (coupled with a lack of access to them); the comfort of the familiar and the ease of following habit as opposed to the discomfort of the unfamiliar and the difficulty and sometimes embarrassing awkwardness of learning something new.

Whatever the reasons, collaborative initiatives (especially those between partners from within and outside communities) offer the opportunity to introduce people to their communities' innovations and new ideas, perhaps for the first time.

The eyes and actions of partners on the outside of a community are not so readily blinkered and restrained by the traditions and habits existing within it. Outsider partners are also more willing to explore not only what is traditional and established within a community but also what is innovative and new: if making the effort to find out about the former it is plain common sense to do the same for the latter.    

So if you find yourself working as an outsider with partners from inside communities, recognise that you may have the opportunity to introduce your partners to their new selves: to the new and emerging ideas and developments that are so close to them but with which they may have had little or no experience.

What is more, you can do this in the most collaborative, natural and acceptable of ways: you can find and learn about the new things together, just like Paul, the NYOI and the young Scottish musicians.

Monday, 27 March 2017

This is how a collaborative person works: 3. note the blind spot

(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.)

'......when I started filling out the Bank of America Foundation application and reached the page which asked me which of the following minorities would be in the audience, I saw no mention of Middle Eastern or Arab peoples at all. I couldn't even tick a box called 'other'. They weren't the only foundation to ignore this group. Were Arab Americans undesirable or just plain invisible to the needs of corporate socially responsible America?'

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

Above, Paul is describing a little of his experience as he applied for funding from American Institutions in support of NYOI's proposed tour of the USA.

It is a short but very telling quotation for the following reasons:
  • It is a clear example of a deeply embedded, institutionalised blind spot concerning a specific part of the American population.
  • It shows how negative assumptions are readily made about the presence of such a blind spot rather than it being accepted as a genuine oversight or error. (This likely happens because no one likes to be ignored.)
  • It shows how a blind spot can be not only perpetuated but also enlarged, spreading into surrounding institutions. (This is particularly the case, again as the above quotation shows, when the institutions possessing the blind spot are high profile, powerful and influential members of their sector or well-established pillars of society. Taking their lead from these well-established and esteemed institutions, those interacting with them often see and not see the same things in the same ways. If they do perceive an ever-spreading blind spot, they almost unquestioningly assume that it is there for a good reason or is simply 'the way things are around here'.)
  • It shows how a blind spot, particularly one such as the above, is most likely perceived and questioned by those who have themselves been under-represented, marginalised or even ignored. (In this case, Paul is a member of the gay community).          

So, take care to ensure your context and the institutions you are working with do not blunt your curiosity and dull your sensitivity to blind spots. Be careful to remember that blind spots are potentially dangerous because they tend to be perceived negatively by those sensitive enough to recognise them. Take a careful look at forms and documents; listen intently to conversations and presentations; take careful note of what is said at meetings. And if you sense the spreading presence of blind spots similar to that described above, make yourself ask the obvious question:

'Why are they there?'          
If you can, invite someone especially sensitive to being marginalised, ignored and placed within blind spots to help you search for, discover and challenge them. Indeed, extending this invitation may be all that is needed to make the blind spots shrink, retreat and disappear.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

This is how a collaborative person works: 2. 'It's her choice.'

(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.)

"'It's her choice.'
What, was it really? How much choice did a 17-year-old Iraqi pianist from Baghdad really have? She was being led straight off a plane from Baghdad onto a media band wagon and given one of the top venues in London to platform her cause, but obliged to play while being filmed with virtually no rehearsal. These sounded like unreasonable demands to me."

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

Above, Paul is describing the reaction of the director of a reality television show in response to his concerns about the demands being placed on Zuhul Sultan, the young woman who played the central role in founding the NYOI. The director thought that what she was asking Zuhal to do was reasonable; Paul thought that her demands were unreasonable. 

When people with different priorities, agendas and needs work together there can, of course, be tensions. When power dynamics are not equal within a collaboration, these tensions can quickly escalate into conflicts or solidify into barriers that put distance between people.   

Most damaging, however, is when there are different priorities, agendas and needs at play and the differing power dynamics between people are not perceived, especially by those holding the most power.

In the example above, Zuhal, through her musical talent and strength of will, was able to cope well with what was asked (or demanded) of her. As a result, the performances and interviews she gave at the Wigmore Hall, London's premiere chamber music venue, were successful.  

But think for a moment: what if those possessing the power associated with a high profile reality TV series made the same requests or demands of Zuhul day after day after day? What if they not only repeatedly ignored Zuhul's differing priorities, agenda and needs but also continually discounted the significance of the differing power dynamics between themselves and Zuhul? What if they consistently made the untested assumption that meeting their 'reasonable requests' was always and unequivocally 'her choice' when, in fact, Zuhal felt she was complying with 'non-negotiable demands' under ever-increasing duress?

Sooner or later something somewhere would likely blow-up and fail spectacularly and all involved, including the most powerful, would suffer the consequences.    

This is a scenario which can easily occur within long-running collaborations between partners possessing differing levels of power. If the more powerful always assume that those with less power always freely choose to meet their 'reasonable requests', and if the less powerful always assume that they must always meet the 'unreasonable demands' of the more powerful, then acrimony and recrimination will inevitably result.

This will then be followed by the less powerful retreating, exiting or even rebelling, and the more powerful standing baffled amongst the ruins of a failed collaboration. 

So, keep in mind that one partner's reasonable request could be another partner's unreasonable demand. When you catch yourself justifying the requests you are making of your partners by saying 'It is their choice.', ask yourself how you know this for sure. When a partner tells you 'It is your choice.' to carry out a request do you agree with them? Are they correct? Checking out these assumptions straight away, as soon as they are made, will help you avoid significant, collaboration threatening problems down the line.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

This is how a collaborative person works: 1. keep the camera rolling

(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.)

'Since 2010 Gill's presence had been constant. In making her documentary, she was following the golden rule: just keep it rolling. With enough patience, one never knew what one could capture.'

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

Gill Parry was the documentary maker who was making a film about the development, experiences and achievements of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq. Paul is describing her 'keeping the camera rolling' whilst the orchestra, exhausted after a long trip from Iraq to Edinburgh', is making the final coach trip from Edinburgh Airport to the college that would be their base for the majority of their 2012 UK tour.

Keeping the camera rolling not only increased Gill's chance of capturing an unexpected insight or happening but also contributed to the developing chronicle of the NYOI, which Paul and others were constantly updating and sharing through the traditional written word, websites and blogs and social media.

Maintaining such a chronicle, especially through the above diverse mix of media, obviously helped the orchestra publicise its aspirations and achievements and raise its profile. It also served another arguably even more important purpose: it helped the diverse mix of partners who were maintaining and developing the orchestra to capture and act upon comments, opinions, feelings and incidents that might otherwise have gone by unnoticed, enabling timely advantage to be taken of valuable insights and opportunities.

For example Paul, early on during his work with the NYOI, was careful to capture the ideas, opinions, hopes, dreams and desires of his young players. These were used as the foundations of an initial strategy which gave direction to the development of the orchestra and a focus for its ongoing story: it would be not only a safe place to learn about and perform music but also a vehicle to demonstrate the hopes and ambitions of its young people and their commitment to integrating Iraq firmly into the modern global community. 

This clear statement of intent, the core meaning gained from the mouths and minds of the players themselves and captured by diverse media, played a not insignificant part in defining what was unique about the NYOI and demonstrating why it merited a place alongside other more established and accomplished youth orchestras at prestigious music festivals. Festival and concert organisers took note and the NYOI was duly invited to perform at Beethovenfest in Germany and at a series of prestigious concerts by leading European national youth orchestras at the Grand Theatre de Provence. The Scottish Government were also persuaded to 'put their money where their mouth was' and fund an NYOI trip to Edinburgh.

If the players words had been spoken but unrecorded and unchronicled the passions and motivations of the players and the unique purpose of the NYOI would have lain latent and undiscovered; NYOI's invitations would have gone elsewhere.

So, make sure you keep a detailed, ongoing chronicle of the development and achievements of your collaboration; make notes and gather information as if preparing to write a book. Do not forget to gather and record the values, beliefs, dreams and desires that are driving and motivating your partners as they seek to develop and achieve; make these the preface to your chronicle. Then use the insights and opportunities you gain to realise your collaboration's potential.

Paul Macalindin did exactly this. The notes he made about his work with the NYOI and the huge amount of correspondence and other records he gathered and kept formed the basis of 'Upbeat', his definitive chronicle of the NYOI. They also enabled him to recognise and take advantage of insights and opportunities quickly, at the times and places they would have best impact.


Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Integration and Implementation Insights

A version of my 'Taboo Triangles' article has now been posted on the 
integration and implementation insights (also known as I2Insights) blog, which is about research resources for action-oriented team science.

You can access it here:


To read my original article click here.

The 'Taboo Triangles' concept is part of a wider exploration of how to create 'willing and able' collaborative networks. This exploration resulted in '6 Principles of Involvement' which are described in my book Sleeping with the Enemy - Achieving Collaborative Success.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Make it simple: a lesson from Myanmar

The more we know the more we can over-complicate things.

More often than not, the way to encourage and strengthen partnership working is to make the process simple for people.

This fact was strongly emphasised to me during a workshop I recently delivered in Myanmar.

The workshop was part of an ongoing project seeking to strengthen partnership working between key stakeholders within the public and private sectors in Myanmar: government officials, leading business people and others involved in their countries economic and social development.

The workshop's approach was deceptively simple: a mix of key public and private sector stakeholders were invited to attend and given the opportunity to work together whilst learning about and practising presentation skills and techniques. Small groups of public and private sector attendees were given the task of researching, designing and delivering a presentation to their colleagues which highlighted and explained their various roles, responsibilities, challenges and priorities.

Obviously, this required attendees to not only prepare a presentation but also listen to and learn from each other: to find out about each other's lives and work and the particular and diverse demands placed upon people from differing sectors.

The focus upon learning about and practising presentation skills proved to be a very effective catalyst for encouraging and strengthening collaboration. Requiring attendees to design and deliver a presentation about topics that were new to them not only concentrated their minds but also encouraged them to listen to and learn from each other. Also, the focus on clear and concise presentation of information drew attendees' attention towards how well they were communicating with each other during the workshop. This led to people more readily asking questions and seeking clarification and becoming clearer in their communication with each other overall.  

Over the five days of the workshop (the length of the event also played a significant part in helping attendees enhance their communication with each other), the improvement in the relationships between public and private sector participants was marked, as was the level and effectiveness of the cooperation apparent between them. Two things in particular stood out: 1. the relationships between attendees became more informal and relaxed; 2. the attendees became more willing to challenge each other's perceptions, thinking and approaches.

The change in the relationships between people is most effectively demonstrated by comparing people's behaviour at the beginning of the workshop with that observed at its end. At the beginning of the workshop attendees behaved very formally, with the public sector attendees brigading themselves at one side of the classroom and those from the private sector doing likewise at the other. Five days later, at the end of the event, people who had not known each other before the workshop were willing to mix freely and participate (enthusiastically) in a karaoke evening!

The relationships between people had transformed, and informality between people was no longer considered a threat to status (or indeed anything else). Also, people's increasing willingness to challenge each other's thinking and perceptions did not diminish or inhibit these enhanced relationships; it was, in fact, a characteristic of them.

So, remember to make it simple. When seeking to encourage and strengthen collaboration between people identify an essential skill or fundamental focus you can use as a catalyst to make it happen. Then place it at the centre of people's thoughts and actions - and watch collaboration grow.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Get the most out of a partnership's latency phase: think about it differently

I have previously written about what I call a partnership's Latency Phase. Essentially, it is a period during a partnership's development within which progress towards results seems very slow or indeed non-existent.

This happens because partners' attention and energy becomes focused upon specific questions about the partnership's interests and goals, its overall credibility and resourcefulness and the competing needs and expectations of partners.        

I identified five ways in which partners can address these questions and effectively manage the latency phase, making it more likely to become a springboard towards achieving their partnership's potential. (To read the full article, which is also a chapter in my book 'Sleeping with the Enemy', click here.)

The five ways identified focus mainly upon addressing trust and relationship issues between partners, acknowledging and addressing partners' differing needs and expectations and managing perceptions about what constitutes progress and what needs to be done by when.    

Recently, I read How to Create an Exponential Mindset by Mark Bonchek. This article highlights that as well as addressing the above issues and changing perceptions, partners also need to change the way they think.

Most of us, because of our education and training, think in in an incremental way: we think logically and methodically about how we can make things better; we seek to see steady straight-line progress towards our goals.

When steady progress cannot so readily be seen, as during a partnership's Latency Phase, an incremental mindset can quickly lead to frustration. This frustration can then cause partners to rush through the Latency Phase without dealing with its issues. In more extreme cases partners may dismiss the worth of the partnership and make a swift and probably premature exit from it.

The incremental way of thinking creates an expectation gap between what the partnership seems to be achieving and what we perceive it should be achieving.   

To effectively negotiate our way through a partnership's Latency Phase we need to develop what Mark Bonchek calls an exponential mindset or way of thinking: a way of thinking that accepts and works with initial uncertainty and apparently slow progress in order to achieve increasingly speedy and significant progress later on.   

Many partnerships are formed to address issues that are messy and difficult and which no single organisation has been able to address effectively using traditional mainstream approaches. Therefore rather than finding ways to make things better, the partners are expected to find ways to do things differently.

Doing things differently requires finding different people to work with in different ways, finding different ways of combining new, existing and sometimes unexpected resources, and being open to different and probably unforeseen opportunities, activities, outcomes and solutions which appear 'as-and-when' and sometimes in parallel. (It requires creating ever increasing triangles of trust and influence and speculating in new partners and apparent side issues.)

Rather than seeking to see steady progress towards foreseeable goals, partners need to see their way through the apparent lack of straight line obvious progress. This process takes time and its outcomes are unpredictable. If, however, partners do see it through they can eventually find themselves travelling increasingly speedily up an ever-increasing exponential curve leading towards a vast array of new and innovative ways of doing things.

The exponential way of thinking encourages us to accept very slow initial progress as a necessary precondition for eventually achieving things increasingly quickly, effectively and, most importantly, innovatively.

(To find out how to develop an exponential mindset read Mark Bonchek's article, the link to which is given above.)