Monday, December 18, 2006

Music lessons (for organizations)

Years ago, I was the director of the World-Famous, Award-Winning Will Rice Chorus*, one of several** very good a cappella choruses at Rice University. We were perhaps a rather unusual group; you could hardly convince this all-male chorus to sing anything that wasn't composed in the 17th or 18th centuries, although we did manage to enjoy at least one somewhat dissonant Credo by Harald Genzmer.

After singing in the chorus for three years, I became director for two. As usual, we prepared seriously for concerts and especially for our annual Rondelet contest, rehearsing every Wednesday night at 10 p.m. all throughout the year. As concerts and contests approached, our rehearsals lengthened, and we'd add extra days each week.

The night of my first competition as director arrived. We had three pieces totalling 10 minutes of music. Most of the performance went quite well, but one (Johann Sebastian Bach's Sicut Locutus Est from his Magnificat in D, BWV 243, as I recall) went horribly wrong. As an a cappella group, we had no instrumental accompaniment to guide our intonation, and, at one point, part of the chorus wandered miserably off-pitch. Being new to conducting choruses in contests, I wasn't sure what to do, so I kept on keeping on. The chorus (there were perhaps 60 or more of us) did a great job of looking professional, but you could see the terror in some singers' eyes. We might be facing a musical train wreck.

Then one section (the basses, I think), which had had a few measures of rest, came back in strongly and on pitch. Succeeding entrances by other sections followed suit, and we finished strong—strong enough to win the competition. As one judge said, being able to recover was at least as impressive as not having stumbled at all would have been (that said, I would still rather we had done it as well as we did in rehearsals).

What's the lesson for business and organizations? Don't stumble, if you can help it, but, if you stumble, you can recover. In most situations, you aren't alone, even if you're the CEO (or director) of the organization. While you sometimes may find that people in the organization fail to execute your plans as you hope, you may also find that people in your organization jump in when your plans have holes and who carry you through the rough spots. In other words, we're all human, and we can all help each other if we have the right conditions.

What was key to getting into a position where we could recover? First, we worked hard preparing so that people knew their roles (parts) well. We paid attention to our rehearsal results and learned from our successes and our failures. Everyone in the organization knew they could tell any of the rest of us, including me as director, things we could do to make the music (the results) better. If something went awry in one area, others could help out because of their abilities and confidence.

Second, there was a desire to do well (to win) that was forged in healthy competition, those hours of preparation, a love of the work (music) we were doing, camaraderie, and a refusal to give up.

Third, there were pauses (rests in the music) to let the various groups take in the big picture and re-orient themselves (in this case, to the proper pitch) so that they could start the recovery.

Fourth, there was trust and refusing to intervene inappropriately (to micro-manage). The doofus in the front waving his hands (that would have been me, the director) didn't jump in too quickly to "fix" things. He happened to trust the guys in the choir to fix the intonation (or perhaps he was too paralyzed by the fear that we'd collapse, but it worked anyway), and he kept focused on keeping the timing and expression together, giving the guys in the chorus the opportunity to fix the intonation.

Finally, there was, no doubt, a bit of good luck.

If you lead an organization, what lessons can you draw from this story?

In most cases, we are fortunate to have others around us to help us over the rough spots, whether we're the CEO of a corporation or the director of a musical ensemble, if we make it possible for them to help. There is at least one category of person who wields incredible individual power—think of the power of a pipe organ under the control of one person's ten fingers and two feet. Friend and colleague Drew McManus of Adaptistration has reposted a classic holiday train wreck, where the power of the organist is all-too-painfully—and all-too-humorously—evident. Listen, groan, and chuckle.

* We earned the "award-winning" label for winning most (I think) of the annual Rondelet choral competitions, but why "world-famous"? One of the professors associated with our college sent us a postcard wishing us good luck from his European sabbatical, so it's clear our fame spanned the globe!

** The Jones College Chorus was traditionally our strongest competitor, with the Brown College Chorus often very close behind.

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Blogger Matt said...

I like the lessons you've drawn from your conducting experience that apply to orgs, Bill.

There is so much that musical systems has in common with other organizational systems, I think, because they are human, social systems . . . which make the governing principles similar across "platforms," as the IT folks would say.

And, the conductor's nightmare is a classic! Glad that the chorus didn't lose itself in all the musical chaos! Matt

23 December, 2006 15:34  
Blogger Bill Harris said...

Matt, thanks for stopping by and joining the conversation. Do you have a favorite example of a lesson from one "platform" that can inform those working with business and non-profit organizational systems?

26 December, 2006 13:40  
Blogger Bill Harris said...

Brian Childs summarized it well: the best time to prepare to recover from a problem is well before you start.

10 January, 2007 14:08  

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