Jazz Bands and Orchestras

IMG_1183A veteran of PLC boardroom politics, a highly rated and wily treader of the greasy pole had been trying to help us and he was in despair.  “The problem with you lot is none of you want to be led”,  he raged at me and the fellow directors of our tech startup. “Business needs leadership! You need to accept that the Managing Director should be able to make the final decision …AND THEN GET ON WITH IT!”,  he continued. He looked around for a full compliment of cowed and nodding heads but didn’t find them.  “Look, here’s the thing. You’re an orchestra and like any good orchestra with lots of individual talent you must let the conductor conduct you!”

The silence that followed was punctured only by the branch of a tree squeaking against the window. Then one of the directors said: “But here’s what you don’t understand: We’re a jazz band.”

Not long afterwards I departed and the jazz band theorist became the MD.

The disconnect between the gameplaying world of careerists at giant multinationals and the cash-starved mentalists who inhabit startups is probably the clash of culture I know best. But the world is not short of other clashes of culture. There’s the clash between my personal trainer and me. He has taken to giving me dietary advice on printed paper because he knows I don’t read the emails. It would be outside his healthiness worldview to even contemplate that they go straight in the bin and nestle among the Mars Bar wrappers.

And there’s Brexit which has done for us all, has it not? Swivel-eyed leavers and sanctimonious remoaners dare not speak about what’s on their mind without carefully preparing the conversational ground first.

And let us not get into the world of generation snowflake who despair of their callous elders just as much as the bewildered others ponder whether the snowflakes’ brains have turned to slush.  And…I wasn’t going to say this for fear of giving offence but I can’t help it,  the carnival of  identity poltiics is the worst clash of the lot. There, I said it. Send your complaints to the pilot in his safe space behind the re-inforced cockpit door.

The identity thing is the worst, I contend,  because it atomises society more than anything else. But this is a business magazine and business folk need no more complaints about business culture; they need solutions. And in this  highly atomised and ever-so sensitive world business leaders need great performances from people functioning as teams. But in this environment how can they ever do this?

Fear not, I am here to tell you that someone wrote a book about it.

And it’s very good!  I expected it to be intolerable because the terminology triggered my snowflake politics sensor.  There are three “secrets “ to building a culture that enables “highly succesful groups” says Daniel Coyle. They are: Build Safety; Share Vulnerability, and: Establish Purpose. Well, you read that lot and think one thing: Pass the sick bag.

Coyle, it turns out, is a master of managing expectations because the book is much better than the list of “secrets” suggest. This is because he’s a good story teller and has found many exceptional stories to illustrate how great organisational cultures are fomented. Drawing on examples of US Navy SEALS, outperfoming basketball teams, world class restaurant chains, Soldiers on the fonrltine at Flanders, the success of Zappos, Google, Pixar, the pilots of spiralling jet aircraft (sorry), inner city schools,  stand up comedy and many more Coyle succeeds in gripping your attention and teaching you many things along the way (and I say this as a cynic).

He even succeeds in surfacing three core rules (I mean, secrets) that can be applied strategically and tactically in almost any organisation. But, and this is a personal problem I should see someone about, the label “sharing vulnerability” just irritates me beyond belief. I would describe the qualities he is seeking as “humility and openness”. That tiny culture clash aside, I would tell you (if I was your conductor) to go and pick this up.



I read:

The Culture Code: The secrets of highly successful groups

By Daniel Coyle