Tuesday, 27 June 2017

This is how a collaborative person works: 22. identify and carefully manage key communication moments

(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. To read more posts in this series go to the March to August 2017 Blog Archive on your right.)


'Meanwhile, the Regional Representatives were having kittens. Bashdar in particular, representing Suleymaniyah, explained that some players hadn't received a reply about auditions yet. I went into our Gmail account and saw that Zuhal had indeed sent out all the accepts and rejects, but that some had bounced back. In the face of reputational risk to NYOI whose applicants were now paying Majid $25 for the privilege of applying, Bashdar and I formulated a beautifully worded Kurdish rejection, which I sent out in my name, after doubling checking the applicants' emails with them'.

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


The above highlights a straightforward but too often neglected point: your day-to-day communication with people will determine how you and your collaborative initiative is perceived and either encourage or discourage support and a willingness to get involved.

Why is such a straightforward point so often neglected? There can be many reasons: in the above example the initial untidiness of communication could have been caused by a reluctance to give bad news coupled with competing demands on people's time; in other cases it may be traced back to an unquestioning blanket reliance on systems that are capable of processing people and providing them with information but incapable of acknowledging individual needs, reactions and feelings.

It is, of course, impossible to tailor all communications to individual needs: it would take too much time and resources away from the focus and priorities of your work, and it is not always appropriate. 

It is, however, possible to identify and plan your approach to key communication moments that (dependent upon their quality) are likely to influence people to either support or oppose your work.

The above quotation highlights 5 key things to do when managing your communications with partners, stakeholders and others affected by your work:
  1. Identify key communication moments in your processes and systems. (Arguably, the initial difficulties with the NYOI's replies to auditions would have been avoided by analysing the audition process from beginning to end, starting with initial calls for applications and finishing with the notification of audition results, and identifying its key communication moments. Obviously, one of these moments would have been the individual emails sent to applicants telling them whether or not they had been accepted by the NYOI. Having been identified, the manner and approach of this 'key moment' email could have been thought about and planned in advance so that misunderstanding and negative reactions were avoided.)      
  2. Check and monitor these key communication moments regularly. (The above quotation shows that Paul had his finger on the pulse of the day-to-day activities of the NYOI. It was his habit to check this pulse regularly, and this enabled him to identify emerging problems and take timely action to address them.) 
  3. Think about how those on the receiving end of a communication are likely to feel, react and respond. (Each of the applicants had paid $25 for the privilege of applying to audition for the NYOI. Most of them would have put a great deal of time and effort into preparing their performances. Those who had not been successful were likely to at best feel disappointed and at worst resentful. It was very important that the emails notifying people of their results took account of this.)        
  4. Tailor your communication style and approach to the needs, preferences and expectations of those on the receiving end of your communications. (As alluded to above, it was essential that the emails notifying people of their results not only gave the required information but also, as far as was possible and appropriate, assured people that their time and effort was appreciated and that the audition fees the NYOI received would be well spent. The emails also needed to be tailored to the recipients' preferences: it was important, for example, to ensure that Kurdish applicants received a letter written in their language. Lastly, those receiving the email would have had some basic expectations about it: they would expect it to be professionally presented and well laid out, and they would expect it to be error free in terms of not only drafting but also distribution. This is why Paul made sure the letter was 'beautifully worded' and double checked the accuracy of the recipients' email addresses.                
  5. Take personal responsibility for these key communication moments. (Sending the email in Paul's name ensured it was accompanied by a clear and important message: it emphasised that Paul was responsible for the overall audition and selection process and that he cared about how people were treated during it.)

Tuesday, 20 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. To read more posts in this series go to the March to August 2017 Blog Archive on your right.)


'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?

Wednesday, 7 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. To read more posts in this series go to the March to August 2017 Blog Archive on your right.)


'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 are 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.                          

Friday, 2 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. To read more posts in this series go to the March to August 2017 Blog Archive on your right.)


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, this determined 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.