Cultural Drift

Change happens, whether we force it or ignore it!

plate_history_lge

I clearly remember my second year in college sitting in a marine geology class and discussing the then revolutionary topic of continental drift. After decades of theories and much scoffing at the subject of plate tectonics by renowned scientists, in 1968 Geophysicist Jack Oliver published seismology evidence supporting plate tectonics and continental drift. Massive areas of the ocean floor could move, although extremely slowly (geologic time), but small movements over millions of years have created our dynamically changing planet earth.

The analogy between continental drift and shifts over time in corporate culture is quite clear to me and needs to be better understood by business leaders.

You get the culture you ignore!

Almost all early stage companies have some sort of foundation principles, usually based on the beliefs and values of the founders, for how they will conduct business and how people should behave at work. While perhaps not as codified as the example from Netflix, which has a 124 slide deck of what the Netflix culture, values and behaviours. HubSpot and Zappos.com also have rigorous “acculturation” on-boarding processes which help establish the accepted ‘ways of working’ in the company and prove highly useful in establishing alignment between customers, employees and the organization. So in some sense, all founding organizations had a culture by design, some stronger and more transparent than others.

The problem with most organizations as they grow and change is that nearly everything gets managed, sometimes micro-managed, except the culture

culture drift .

Culture is often left to its own and as a result, organizations experience ‘cultural drift’ and over a fairly short period of time wind up very different from how they started.

One of the prime reasons so many well aligned cultures shift out of alignment over time is that executives at the top don’t fully understand or appreciate the importance of culture.

Most don’t know how (and some don’t care) to manage corporate culture. This lack of understanding and appreciation can lead to lost ‘leadership moments’ that could have kept the culture in alignment.

As a result of culture neglect and lazy leadership, over time a culture will drift from aligned and optimal towards the median, or mediocre. And given the pressures of growth, mergers or acquisitions, sudden competitive challenges, or significant leadership changes, toxic corporate cultures and negative subcultures can and will evolve.

If you are not actively managing the culture, who is?  Chances are you won’t like the answer!

(above excerpted from LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture, by John R Childress, Principia Associates Press, 2013. London)

Written and Posted by: John R. Childress

Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid

Website: www.johnrchildress.com

e: john@johnrchildress.com
Twitter @bizjrchildress

Read John’s blog,

On Amazon: LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture

Read  The Economist review of LEVERAGE
Also on Amazon:   FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution

John also writes thriller novels!

Posted in corporate culture, ecosystems, John R Childress, Organization Behavior, the business of business | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Death by a Thousand Cuts

TSA line

As some of you know, one of my other “jobs” besides business consulting and advisory on strategy execution, leadership and corporate culture, is writing thriller novels.  And there is plenty of inspiration to be found for a fast paced thriller novel in the news feeds I read every morning on my iPad. In fact, some of the stories I read are even stranger than fiction! And everywhere you turn the theme of terrorist attacks, suicide bombings, truck’s being detonated at family weddings and next to hospitals. And it is becoming a global epidemic. And if you are a thriller novelist, reading all this horrible stuff begs multiple questions, the kind that start the germ of a story idea.

One of the big questions that always comes up is: What are the terrorists trying to achieve? Do they really think they can win a real war? Do they really think they can defeat the “evil West” and bring about the supremacy of their radical cause?

On one level, these are naive objectives.  In a traditional war, even with massive revenues from illegal oil, extortion, cyber crime, human trafficking and illegal drug smuggling for backing, they don’t have nearly the resources and weaponry of the major military superpowers like the US, Britain, Russia and China. In a conventional war, any one of these three could easily overcome these fanatical followers.

But what most people (and many politicians and military) don’t understand is, this is not a conventional war.  Radical Islam’s goal is not to defeat the West, but to cripple and bankrupt it! It’s not instant death or surrender they seek, but death by a thousand cuts. And at this point, they seem to be winning.  Here’s why.

The amount the US spends on Homeland Security for things like airport security processes, parcel screenings in most major office buildings, CCTV surveillance, is a staggering amount, from $19 billion in 2002 to $68 billion in the 2017 US budget. Add to that around $20 billion in the military budget dedicated to counteract terrorism globally, plus the operational costs of waging the war on terror, then factor in the loss of time and productivity and the bill in the US alone is easily close to  $200 billion. Value for money?

And this is from a special report to  Congress about the long-term impact of 9/11 on the US economy.

Large amounts of resources are and will be committed to making production, distribution, finance, and communication more secure in the United States. Resources that could have been used to enhance the productive capacity of the country will now be used for security. Since it will take more labor and capital to produce a largely unchanged amount of goods and services, this will result in a slower rate of growth in national productivity, a price that will be borne by every American in the form of a slower rate of growth of per capita real income.

As one economist says: “you can’t spend your way out of this problem. There’s not enough in anyone’s budget to protect everything and monitor every threat.”

Why Osama bin Laden is still winning

bin LadenOsama bin Laden may be dead, but in many ways, he is still winning. The drain on our national economy from all this “defending the homeland” spending, the loss of productivity, and the time wasted is enormous. And these little things add up to a huge drain on our national psyche, productivity and feelings of well-being.

Just a simple example.  I go flyfishing each year somewhere far away from London. Last year I went to Argentina. At the airport I could not take my fly reels or my fly rods on the airplane because of the “security risk” and had to repack everything into checked luggage. The TSA agent told me with a straight face that a flyline could be used to strangle someone! And what about not allowing people to take water bottles through security and instead making you pay exorbitant fees for bottled water inside the airport?  Then one of my bags was opened and several expensive fly reels stolen. And one shoe bomber was caught on a flight and everyone now removes their shoes at security check points, not to mention the extra staffing and equipment required. Small, petty issues? Absolutely, but add all these inconveniences and costs, plus the number and costs of security checks conducted just to enter office buildings in most major cities, and it’s definitely death by a thousand cuts.

death-of-a-thousand-cuts

The point of terrorism is not an outright win, but a slow and debilitating demise.

And we are beginning to fight this war on terrorism on multiple fronts. Cybersecurity, overseas interventions, tighter immigration, chemical warfare security, electronic surveillance.  I am reminded of the fates of Napoleon and Hitler when trying to fight a war on too many fronts.

Reverse Terror

So, my newest novel is being crafted from this “witches brew” of the war on terrorism.  It’s called Reverse Terror.  The thesis is simple, but controversial.

What if instead of trying to use conventional rules of engagement and to “win hearts and minds” against radical terrorist organizations, a well-funded and highly motivated group, sponsored by global businesses from many nations, took terrorism to the terrorists. Using their playbook against themselves?

Unconstitutional?  Immoral? Un-American? Vigilante Justice? Against the rules of British fair play?  Definitely!  Effective? Hmmmm!

vigilance-committee-300x230

I continue to scan the news feeds for factual events to add into this purely fictional novel and will keep my readers posted on the progress of my next book. Maybe even a few sample snipits will appear in my blog postings.  Hopefully by the end of 2016 my newest novel will be available on Amazon and in e-Book format. (In the meantime, check out my other novels: http://novels.johnrchildress.com).

Then again, maybe reality and fiction are not so far apart!

Written and Posted by: John R. Childress

Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid

Website: www.johnrchildress.com

e: john@johnrchildress.com
Twitter @bizjrchildress

Read John’s blog,

On Amazon: LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture

Read  The Economist review of LEVERAGE
Also on Amazon:   FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution

John also writes thriller novels!

Posted in Human Psychology, John R Childress, John's Novels | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What they don’t teach in Med School and B-School

med school

Medical schools turn out doctors.  Business schools turn out managers.  Or so the theory goes. I recently read an interesting article that got me thinking about these two forms of professional education.

A cardiologist wrote an article about how in medical school he was never taught about nutrition and its relationship to health and well-being.  He was well schooled in medicines to counteract heart disease, but not about prevention through nutrition and exercise. And the chronic epidemic of heart disease in the US from obesity is genetic or accident caused, but a nutrition and lifestyle symptom.

We all know that the mind and body are connected. Just witness the spectacular demise of one of the world’s most gifted golfers, Tiger Woods, following his public humiliation and divorce. Did his talent just suddenly disappear, or was it his mental state that changed?

tiger-woods-weekly-golf-rankings

And we are rapidly learning about the connections between nutrition and human health and disease. What if medical schools took a more holistic approach and taught nutrition as an integral part of saving lives and healing the sick, along with modern advances in medicines, technology and surgical techniques?  I for one refuse to go to a doctor who smokes or is grossly overweight. If they don’t care enough about themselves, why should they really care about me and my well-being? I am afraid they will just go through the routine motions and ignore me as an individual. That’s not healing, that’s textbook solutions!

hammer nail

Managers Not MBA’s

Could the same be true for Business Schools and MBA degrees? Several years ago Mark McCormack wrote a best-selling book entitled: What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School. McCormack founded IMG (International Management Group), the first sports management company in the world, eventually becoming a multi-million dollar, worldwide corporation. McCormack’s book describes his business success as a result of non-traditional MBA issues such as analysing yourself and others, sales skills, negotiation skills, time management, decision-making and communication.

Several years later Professor Henry Mintzberg wrote a book entitled Managers, not MBAs, where he decries the lack of people skills and poor understanding of basic human psychology principles in the traditional MBA curriculum. After all, business gets done through people, not computers and spreadsheets.

It you deal with human beings, then being human is critical for success.

My field of expertise, corporate culture and its impact on performance, is a classic example of how narrowly academics and business people look at business performance. For much of the past 30+ years since Tom Peters and Bob Waterman wrote about culture in their global bestseller, In Search of Excellence, the field of corporate culture has focused mainly on the measurement of culture and top-down culture change workshops and seminars. Consulting firms are long on describing and measuring culture, but woefully short on reshaping it.

For example, most culture change programs are top-down, cascading and based on business logic: we will make more money and serve customers better with a culture of accountability, so everyone understand the value of accountability for the business. Great business logic, but lousy people logic. Understanding WHY people tend to blame other and shirt responsibility is the real key, and that takes an understanding of human psychology, not an understanding of balance sheets.

Organizations are not hierarchies, they are social networks. Information doesn’t flow top down and bottom up, it’s a jumbled network of links where the higher you are in the organization the less you know what is actually going on. Organizations are social networks based on human psychology principles of peer pressure, social acceptance and the desire to “fit in” with the group.

social network2

Corporate culture works on human logic, not business logic!

And a great number of managers, directors and executives I have met have pretty poor people skills. In contrast, those who understand themselves and the principles of human psychology, seem to be the better managers and leaders.

Time to rethink the MBA curriculum?

Written and Posted by: John R. Childress

Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid

Website: www.johnrchildress.com

e: john@johnrchildress.com
Twitter @bizjrchildress

Read John’s blog,

On Amazon: LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture

Read  The Economist review of LEVERAGE
Also on Amazon:   FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution

John also writes thriller novels!

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An Opera Production and Corporate Culture

 

Verdi opera

Opera is when the hero gets stabbed in the back and instead of bleeding, he sings!  ~Robert Burns

My daughter loves opera and even though she is just 17 has seen nearly 100 operas in places like the Royal Albert Hall, Royal Opera House and the English National Opera in London, the Met in New York, the Wagner operas in Bayreuth, the Palais Garnier in Paris, the Coliseum in Verona, the Mikhailovsky in St. Petersburg, and Glyndebourne in the English countryside. It is the combination of singing, orchestration, set design and the classical story all coming together that provides the magic transformative experience of opera. She is even considering putting on a production of the Rape of Lucretia, an opera by Benjamin Britten, at Cambridge University next year.

There are many elements that make up a great opera production, but key among them are three important roles: the singers and musicians, the directors, and the producers.  Basically, the singers and musicians are what the audience hears and sees, the directors mold the performance to their interpretation of the story, and the producers provide the funding for location, logistics, costumes, sets, marketing, salaries, etc. The same key roles are responsible for a movie and a live theatre performance. Very important roles and they need to work together to produce a great production.

Opera is for a lifetime, not just a minute.  ~Kiri Te Kanawa

Imagine what a mess the production would be if the directors (music director, choral director, stage directors, etc.) each did their own thing without talking or coordinating with each other. Circus Maximus!  And imagine if the singers came without knowing the story and how the plot unfolds, they just sang the notes?  And if the producers were only focused on making a profit and keeping costs as low as possible?

A perfect recipe for disaster and a design to fail!

Corporate Culture as Opera

So, here’s my analogy between corporate culture and opera (bet you wondered where this was going!).  First an understanding about corporate culture. Corporate culture is an outcome that can only be seen in behaviours.  How employees at all levels (senior management, directors, managers, supervisors, professional staff and employees) habitually and routinely behave towards each other, their jobs, other departments, management, customers and suppliers.

Corporate culture is how employees behave when no one is looking.

These visible behaviours and actions (like blaming others, criticising other departments, blaming management, high or low engagement) are the outcome and product of the common beliefs people have about the business. which are in turn a product of company work rules and practices, policies, hiring and onboarding practices, HR and compensation policies, interactions with upper management, what upper management focuses on, how meetings are run, and a host of other organizational policies and processes.

In most organizations, new employees are hired based on skills and experience, but with very little indoctrination into expected behaviours and overall understanding of the company strategy. And in order to fit in and be accepted within their function and department, they are keen to discover “how to succeed”. Being accepted as part of the group or team is vitally important to most new employees.  After all, their income and the future of their family depends on being accepted and getting rewarded.

So, the most influential individuals in determining how a company performs are not the employees and not senior management, but the immediate supervisors and those in charge of functions and departments. They set the informal ground rules on the accepted behaviours.  It’s very much like a hospital, where everyone knows it’s the head nurses who really determine the culture, not the doctors or senior administration.  Get cross ways with the Head Nurse and your tenure will be difficult and short!

Corporate culture works on human logic, not business logic!

That’s just how organizations work. It has very little to do with strategy analytics, published values, or senior management speeches. Human beings are wired in their evolutionary DNA to fit in and become a part of the group (team, tribe, etc.) and they quickly adopt the accepted behaviours to fit in.

So, the major key to a high performing corporate culture is alignment and a common script on behaviours among the key informal leaders (supervisors, department heads, team leaders, etc.).  Unfortunately, this group is often overlooked as critical to corporate success.  And in fact, most senior managers don’t even know who these informal leaders are.  But just ask the employees doing the work and they will tell you instantly.

Drivers of culture

And just like in an opera production, senior management  (the producers of the opera) plays an important background role.  Notice I said background role. The real job of senior management is to provide the organization with the vision, budgets and decisions required for superior performance.  If senior management is more concerned with quarterly profit than investing in infrastructure (a systemic problem with big banks) or training, or customer satisfaction, then even with highly skilled employees and managers, superior performance is difficult.

You can’t build s sustainable future by trying to please Wall Street every quarter!

 So next time you go to the opera, or the theatre or a movie, remember that the experience your walk away with is the result of a myriad of inputs behind the scenes.  And next time you start to think about your company performance, remember the role of corporate culture and the key drivers.  Therein lies your real levers for dramatic performance improvement.

Written and Posted by: John R. Childress

Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid

Website: www.johnrchildress.com

e: john@johnrchildress.com
Twitter @bizjrchildress

Read John’s blog,

On Amazon: LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture

Read  The Economist review of LEVERAGE
Also on Amazon:   FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution

John also writes thriller novels!

Posted in Classical Music, corporate culture, Human Psychology, John R Childress, leadership, Organization Behavior, strategy execution | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Culture as Business and Social “Glue”

lincoln quote on inside out

Nothing is so painful to experience than when a company or a nation begins to deteriorate from the inside out.

Every business organization has a  unique identity and purpose that differentiates it from the others. And these elements of uniqueness are evidenced in the corporate culture.  Corporate culture, the habitual way people behave towards each other and customers, and the beliefs they hold about their role in the business world, are a combination of the beliefs and actions of the original business founders, combined with organizational policies and business process.

In the early life of a company, the culture is usually very strong as the founder(s) keep a tight control over how things are done and who gets hired. And it is often this cultural alignment inside the company that allows it to be successful in the market place (assuming its products and strategy are sound).

But unless tightly guarded and reinforced, a culture can easily become diluted as the company grows and adds more managers and employees from other companies and as it becomes more global, brining in different national cultures as well. Very few companies that I have studied over the past 35 years have been serious about keeping their special culture intact. In fact, culture often takes a distant back seat to profitability and cost control measures. Hiring focuses more on skills and experience than cultural fit, adding to the dilution of the culture.

As a result of this cultural goulash, subcultures begin to form and alignment about who we are, what we stand for, and how we work together tends to deteriorate.

As the culture weakens and fragments, performance suffers. Internal friction grows, we-they, finger-pointing and lack of accountability are common behaviours that further erode internal cohesion and alignment.

A good case is Blackberry, once the dominant market leader in smart phones. In just 10 blackberry declineshort years since it went public, Blackberry garnered 20% of the global market and 50% of the US market. But with such rapid growth came a dilution of the unique corporate culture of innovation and leading edge technology. Strong subcultures and fiefdoms began to emerge and internal bickering and lack of alignment on strategy, goals, processes and technology became the order of the day. In just 4 short years, from its market dominance in 2009, Blackberry routinely missed product release deadlines, failed to innovate and keep its technological advantage. By 2013 its US market share plummeted to 2.1% and has never recovered.

What about the US Culture?

The current state of the US as a strong and unified nation is seemingly in peril of decline. No longer is the US the most admired nation in the world. US infant mortality is the 6th highest among the OECD countries. Japan, a country in ruin just 70 years ago has an under-five infant mortality rate 2 1/2 times lower than the US. The US education system is not world-class, especially in science and math. Of 76 countries, the US ranks 29th on maths and science results for 15 year olds. Singapore ranks first, a country that only became a sovereign nation in 1965.  And the political fragmentation and dysfunction within the US Congress and the state of the current presidential campaign has become the laughing-stock of the press.

congress

 

How has the US fallen from its once position as the country everyone admired? I have a theory that has to do with the fragmentation of the cultural glue of America.  When I grew up in the US in the 1950’s, the constitution was taught in my school as a compulsory subject. It was called Civics.  We studied not only the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, but also how the government works, how laws are made, why the rule of law was critical for a healthy society. We saluted the flag said the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of every school day. We took field trips to visit with the police, firemen and others who work for the good of our society. We learned the rights, and the responsibilities, of being a US citizen. This was the 1950s version of “cultural on-boarding”. Understanding the way our society worked and most importantly, why.

Like many businesses, over the years in the US this cultural on-boarding has been diluted and in many cases abandoned altogether. The cultural norms that define the US are dissolving, and as a result, performance is declining. I believe the solution is not more laws, tighter regulations, restrictive gun freedoms. I believe that we can be the cultural melting pot of the world and still have a strong, aligned culture that defines who we are as a nation and as people.

The solution is to bring back an acculturation process. Come to the US for opportunity. Come for the freedoms.  But if you do, your responsibility is to become a citizen and not an outsider with your own rules. And early school education should bring back Civics as a required class.  Parents should work to become role-models for children again. Responsibility should go hand in hand with Rights and Freedoms.

And here is a practical solution to jump-start the cultural realignment. Introduce compulsory military, public or social service for every person between 18-21. And develop a curriculum of cultural groundrules, discipline, rights and responsibilities into each. Switzerland has compulsory military service.  So does South Korea. Both nations with strong, aligned cultures (no matter what you think of their cultural attributes, they are definitely aligned as nations).

This is the debate I would like to see in America, not the vitriolic Presidential debates currently going on.  We need to do better. We need to be better. For the nation and the world.  Cultural realignment is a key.

Written and Posted by: John R. Childress

Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid

Website: www.johnrchildress.com

e: john@johnrchildress.com
Twitter @bizjrchildress

Read John’s blog,

On Amazon: LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture

Read  The Economist review of LEVERAGE
Also on Amazon:   FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution

John also writes thriller novels!

Posted in corporate culture, Human Psychology, John's views on the world, leadership, Organization Behavior, parenting | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

More On Culture Change from Will Rogers . . .

will rogers 3

“There are many ways to skin a cat, although the cat might not agree!”  ~Will Rogers

The business world is obsessed with change; change management, change agents, change readiness, 8 Steps to Culture Change, business transformation, champions of change, culture change. The list goes on and on. I assume one of the reasons for such a huge focus on change by businesses is that technology, communications, markets and consumer expectations are changing rapidly. Globalization is a huge forcing function for change.

And the plethora of consulting firms are leading the “change cavalry”, with offerings from change readiness assessments to change management training to 8-step change frameworks and of course, culture change.

Yet with all this academic and consulting horsepower focused on business change, the interesting fact is the most change efforts fail more often than they succeed.  Numerous studies have shown that around 50-70% of business transformation, culture change and even merger integrations fail to deliver on their intended objectives.

If Will Rogers were alive today he might be able to help explain this poor change performance, and the essence of his logic may be found in the “skin the cat” quote at the beginning of this blog.  He might elaborate by saying something like: “the only cat that’s easy to skin is a dead cat, and even then you need a pretty sharp knife”!

The fact is, people don’t like things done to them. Humans tend to resist change that is imposed on them.  Yet paradoxically, humans are the most adaptable and change oriented species on the planet, when they are a part of the process. And the most stubborn and resistant to change when it is forced on them.

One of the big lessons from my book, Leverage: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture, has to do with culture change.  Want to reshape your culture to better match changing business requirements and market dynamics?

Don’t call it culture change!

Avoid the word change. It has picked up over the years a toxic connotation in business, somehow implying that what we are doing is wrong and we (employees mostly) need to change.  Making people feel wrong is a certain way to create resistance.

Why not focus on “making our business better” or “making work easier” or “more smiling happy customers”.  Humans are wired for improvement, yet resistant to forced change. Then listen to what your employees have to say about making our business better.  You may discover an easier way to “skin the cat”.

Written and Posted by: John R. Childress

Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid

Website: www.johnrchildress.com

e: john@johnrchildress.com
Twitter @bizjrchildress

Read John’s blog,

On Amazon: LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture

Read  The Economist review of LEVERAGE
Also on Amazon:   FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution

John also writes thriller novels!

 

 

 

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Classical Music in the South of France and Group Behaviour

After a successful two weeks of classical music in the south of France, I now have a chance to step back, relax and think about lessons learned.  It’s a habit I have used to good advantage throughout my business life, and personal life as well.  Too many of us rush from one experience to anther, one meeting to the next, without taking the time to slow down and look for lessons learned, but good news and not so good.  Taking the time for reflection often brings insights that can be used going forward to not only improve performance, but also avoid making the same mistakes over and over again.

So, what can be learned after spending two weeks with 14 young musicians, mostly strangers to me, and to each other?

First of all it became obvious fairly quickly that skills, and they have a very high level of technical skills on their instruments (violin, viola, cello, double bass, clarinet, oboe, piano, voice), there is more to a solo or an ensemble (trio, quartet, quintet, sextet, etc.) than just playing the individual notes perfectly.

“Music is the space between the notes” – Claude Debussy

A musical performance is akin to a dance, where everyone must move together, and the audience must be moved as well. What is interesting about ensemble and chamber music is that each player only has their music in front of them and don’t see the notes the other musicians will be playing.  Therefore, understanding the piece of music in its entirety, how it flows, the story it tells, the colours and feelings it is intended to create in the mind of the audience, is critical to a successful performance.  Second, all the players must not only play their parts, but listen to the others at the same time. Should the first soften her playing a little so the second violin and viola parts can be heard more clearly?  When is time to emphasise a note or phrase and how does this fit in with the overall musical experience? Successful ensemble performance is about listening and feeling.

When a player is either unfamiliar with the music, or insecure about their own playing, most of this listening is cut off as they focus intently on the notes on the page instead of the whole musical experience. If a player is intent of showing off or being seen as the “star”, they can easily overpower the group and the audience receives a lopsided performance and misses the real collective magic of the music.

The second lesson learned is that what happens off the stage is equally as important as the actual performance, and in fact has a direct impact on the performance.  Is someone getting on someone’s nerves? Has something been said that was taken wrongly? Is one player upset with another player? Does one musician act like a jerk or incessantly show off to gain attention?  Does one bully the others?  All these behaviours and more happen naturally when humans gather into groups. And it is exacerbated when the group is made up of teenagers and young adults who don’t know each other well.

Politeness is the poison of collaboration. —Edwin Land

In my experience, too often people try to be polite when in actuality they are really upset. And as group dynamics go, it is not unusual for one or more in the group to be upset with others.  The real problem is, very few have been taught the skills of how to deal with upset or conflict in a way that resolves the issue.  Most just ignore it, try to put on a brave face of “politeness” (in business it’s called political correctness). Which only makes things fester, like a boil.

hidden agenda

So, one of the goals of the Young Virtuosi Summer Festival is to not only play great music, but develop the playing and people skills of these talented young musicians. As a result, throughout the 2 weeks we conducted a group seminar in personal and professional development.  And one of the key issues we focused on was how to give and receive feedback and how to eliminate negative hidden agenda.

During several sessions we borrowed a technique that I have used repeatedly in my senior executive team alignment workshops. The process involves introducing the group to the importance of feedback through a demonstration of goal achievement using a blindfolded participant, a large bucket and a set of tennis balls. The object is simple, throw the tennis balls into the bucket.  Something any child could do easily. However, when blindfolded it becomes difficult, if not impossible.  That’s where feedback comes in. With good feedback and coaching, the blindfolded participant gets a high percentage of the balls in the bucket.

While this is instructive, what comes next is transformational.  We then pair up the young musicians in groups of 2 to give and receive feedback from each other. And we do this multiple times, changing partners each time.  As a result, issues that were below the surface and getting in the way of good performance dynamics are surfaced, talked about openly, and solutions quickly emerge. Then we have a group feedback session so all issues can be discussed openly.  With these tools and the feedback experience, the group cohesion becomes tighter, and when problems do occur, they now have a methodology to resolve them.

The secret is to gang up on the problem, rather than each other. —Thomas Stallkamp

Written and Posted by: John R. Childress

Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid

Website: www.johnrchildress.com

e: john@johnrchildress.com
Twitter @bizjrchildress

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On Amazon: LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture

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Also on Amazon:   FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution

John also writes thriller novels!

 

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