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?

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