(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.)
'From the word go, I felt good about this small town solution, which I'd already seen work in Bonn, Edinburgh and Aix. Elgin, with some 110,000 people, lay about 70 kilometres west of Chicago, Illinois. Talking to the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra team, I felt the warmth and generosity that we needed to carry the orchestra to America and look after us. I also heard the same clear-headed problem-crunching and local connectivity I'd experienced in previous years. Most importantly, I heard women with passion and nous. Elgin presented itself as a solution I could believe in, and my relentlessness began to reboot. Elgin had found the pioneering spirit the big cities had lost.'
From Upbeat: the Story of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq by Paul Macalindin
The above quotation emphasises the advantages of the 'small town solution' when choosing partners for a collaborative project: the benefits gained through engaging with small rather than large communities. It also begins to reveal some the traits that make small town solutions particularly beneficial: warmth and generosity, clear-headed problem-crunching, local connectivity, tapping into the talents and expertise of women, and a pioneering spirit.
It is not that the above traits do not exist within large communities, of course they do, but that they are more likely to be consistently identifiable and accessible within small communities. This is because small communities tend to be more joined-up than large communities (which means someone is likely to 'know someone who knows someone'), have a well-developed sense of family (which not only deeply enriches relationships but also inevitably enhances and encourages the involvement of women in the community), and possess a hands on practical approach to problem solving that is unencumbered by bureaucracy.
Being a small American City with a settler history, Elgin emphasises the last trait mentioned by Paul: the pioneering spirit. Arguably, it is this pioneering spirit that, if present, can turbo-charge the effectiveness of a small town solution. The risk-taking associated with the pioneering spirit can add creativity and innovation to practical clear headed problem-crunching. The reciprocity and enlightened self-interest crucial to successful pioneering, where everyone by necessity needs to be able to rely on everybody else, encourage warmth and generosity and a feeling of family and community that enable easy access to needed resources and expertise. The stories of pioneering and achievement, and the shared social history they create, further strengthen the feeling of family and community and help build the mutual trust needed to take risks and give and receive help and support.
Lastly, small communities make it relatively easy to put not only a name but also a face to key local officials and other valuable people. This helps create enhanced working relationships: ones which are not only suitably formal and professional but also appropriately informal and personal.
These well balanced holistic relationships increase the enjoyment and attractiveness of working with people and, again, encourage the building of trust between people. Also, as well as enabling easy and timely access to needed resources and expertise, they encourage a strong tolerance and even enthusiastic encouragement of differing perceptions and approaches. This increases the flexibility, creativity and inventiveness of the work people do together.
Small town solutions, however, have one major weakness: they are vulnerable to infection from rapidly spreading group-think:
'Then, on 18th March, we hit another road block, this time from Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra itself. Two board members had flagged security concerns around the visit, and their President had run these past a consultant. The inflammatory tone pressed all the wrong buttons for me.'
The above quotation describes the first expression of security concerns about the NYOI's visit to Elgin. Despite repeated and reasoned attempts to discuss the basis of these concerns (which was never clearly defined) and reassure people about the security and safety of the visit and precisely who would be involved and how, the above concerns continued to spread and grow:
'The string players we select to join your students, since they must be over the age of 18, will be our alumni and friends, not current students. Though I've expressed this multiple times, board members still come to me and say, 'Well, I wonder if I would feel safe having my children in that environment,' to which I say, 'Keep them at home.'
(Quotation from Rachel Elizabeth Maley: Local Coordinator for the NYOI's visit to Elgin.)
Very soon, this increasingly influential 'group-think' began adversely affecting the arrangements being made for the tour:
'We reached the next road block on 1st April, when Elgin City Council delayed the motion that allowed NYOI to use the school which Mayor Kaptein had committed to us.'
Even though the NYOI received assurances that the above motion was delayed for reasons other than security concerns about the tour, it is hard to believe that these concerns did not play some part in the decision. It is also important to note the time between the first expression of concern and the delaying of the motion: less than two weeks. This shows how group-think can very quickly grow, take hold and begin affecting actions and decisions.
In the end, the concerns of some within the Elgin community about the tour did not prevail. The community's local warmth and generosity and 'can-do' attitude won the day and alternative accommodation for the NYOI was found. This demonstrates how small town solutions can be very resilient in the face of difficulties and opposition, even when these are generated internally. Their feeling of community and tolerance of differing perspectives, along with the many options made available by their deep connectedness, enable small town solutions to survive and thrive in spite of many setbacks.
So, search for partners who offer small town solutions. Use their warmth, deep connectedness and 'can-do' attitude to mutual advantage. Whist doing so, however, look out for the emergence of rapidly growing group-think that could endanger your work. If the group-think is spreading rapidly take action to address it. Do this by working through and with your partners' network of rich and influential relationships.
But make sure any action is considered rather than reactive. Remember that you will usually be able to trust the innate resilience of the small town solution to overcome many problems, even those generated from within.