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Wednesday 26 April 2017

This is how a collaborative person works: 12. recognise and exploit the relationship tipping point

(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.)

'I stood on the sidelines, watching, waiting. The garden party, fuelled with wine and snacks of French fruit and cheese, buzzed along in a typically genteel manner, till finally we hit our tipping point. Out came the daff and Sherwan struck up the call to party. The orchestra coagulated into its familiar ring of dance. Within moments, the French reacted by joining in with uninhibited gusto; no sitting on the sidelines for them. I breathed deeply, relieved that our young guests had some Gallic spunk in them. It was looking good.'

'The beat kicked in and Orchestre Francais des Jeunes locked itself scarily into co-ordinated blocks of 70s disco steps. But they were happy. Mine were not. Across the hall I could see some of them hacking into the conference laptop with their own USB sticks, and as if by magic, up started the Iraqi pop music. Squares broke down helplessly into whooping circles, with selfies being flashed through the irresistible mayhem.'

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

Most of us would accept that making time for informality within our lives and work is important. It is during this time that we get to know the people behind their labels: peeling away stereotypical veneers.

Collaborative projects are no exception. Indeed, creating time for informality between partners from different organisations, communities and societies, etc., is not merely important: it is essential to collaborative success. To work well together partners need to move beyond making assumptions about what each other does, thinks and feels towards exploring what each other does, thinks and feels (and they need a safe informal space within which to start doing this).

The above quotations not only demonstrate how important it is to make time for informality but also illustrate how informal time can be exploited to a collaboration's advantage without unduly manipulating the individuals involved.

They clearly describe a 'relationship tipping point': a point during an informal gathering when the spontaneity and closeness between individuals rapidly increases, so offering the opportunity (if this increase is sustained) for gaining enhanced mutual understanding and trust and (eventually) an accurate appreciation of what each person can do and offer.

The quotations also identify how this 'relationship tipping point' can be encouraged and usefully exploited. There are five things that need to be done:
  1. Create an informal and friendly atmosphere which is safe, comfortable and enjoyable.
  2. Watch and observe what is going on. Be patient, and be prepared to wait. Take time to notice the changing emotional and group dynamics.
  3. Encourage or introduce some kind of catalyst that will move you toward and over the relationship tipping point. (In the first quotation the catalyst was the introduction of the Daff and the 'call to party'. In the second quotation it was the hacking of the conference laptop with Iraqi pop music.)  
  4. Notice the changes that occur between people when the tipping point has been passed. What specifically are people saying and doing differently? You will be able to use the look and feel of these things as a benchmark for assessing the quality of relationships between people as the collaboration progresses. (In the second quotation passing the tipping point was marked by dancing squares turning into whooping circles and the taking of selfies.)  
  5. Keep a record of the moment when the tipping point was reached and passed. Encourage those involved to take pictures and record videos. (As the second quotation shows, people are likely to do this without encouragement by taking selfies, etc.) Keeping a visual record and sharing and revisiting it during the life of a collaboration will remind people of the spontaneity and closeness that is possible between them (and encourage them to maintain or regain it).   

The passing of relationship tipping points will not always be so exaggerated and obvious as in the example described by Paul. Their exact manifestation will depend on the people involved and their shared context. However, a tipping point will appear and be passed if you make time for informality and are observant -- and you are willing to risk a catalyst or two!

And be sure to get some pictures of it happening.

Tuesday 25 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. To read more posts in this series go to the March to August 2017 Blog Archive on your right.)

'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 and symbolically significant step in this latter direction.

When collaborating with people remember there is no such thing 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.

Saturday 15 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. To read more posts in this series go to the March to August 2017 Blog Archive on your right.)

'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.

Tuesday 11 April 2017

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

'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 spanned the globe and 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.

Monday 10 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. To read more posts in this series go to the March to August 2017 Blog Archive on your right.)

'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 canap├ęs, 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 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.