Brainstorming and Arm-wrestling

Posted by jlubans on May 30, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

Jonah Lehrer’s provocative article, “The brainstorming myth” in the New Yorker got me thinking about how some groups are bursting with innovation energy and others are entrenched like stumps.
Lehrer backs up his hypothesis with research studies that conclude that brainstorming – with its “no criticism” rule – does not work. He cites Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University: “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.”
Certainly I have seen brainstorming fail, but that failure rarely had anything to do with Lehrer’s central point: “Brainstorming enshrined a no-judgments approach to holding a meeting.” What gets in the way is less the suspension of criticism and more a lack of good ideas or a pathological reluctance to share those ideas.
In one instance I challenged, in a public forum, a group of 20 peers – the year I chaired this group of directors of large higher education bureaucracies - to come up with a quick list of ideas on what we could do to increase the productivity of our 2500 staff members. To me it would be a fun and creative exercise and we just might come up with some promising stuff. That’s not how it worked out. The group, recruited from the best and the brightest of our profession, had few ideas – I do not recall our pursuing a single one. Perhaps they were not willing to take part because of me – a maverick with democratic notions – or they feared looking foolish to the audience in the meeting room. Regardless, the slim pickings made me wonder at the time how these directors developed new procedures and processes in their bailiwicks. I suspected most leaned toward top-down directives with minimal staff discussion.
So, while Lehrer triggered this memory of a brainstorming failure, I also recall brainstorming that got good results. Success probably happened because of other factors. For one thing, there was good camaraderie and people were invested. Participants felt connected to each other – trust was high – and each participant knew the topic. Like the self-managing Orpheus musicians in rehearsal, each well-informed participant could see the big picture and did not limit his or her thinking to the immediate horizon.
Personally, brainstorming, or something like it, works for me. Give me a problem and I can list out two or three dozen ways to fix it. While jotting down ideas, I am aware some are foolish. I don’t stop to debate with myself, I build on those ideas – they become useful to me as I look for a solution. I hurry on until I feel myself circling back to earlier ideas – a natural stopping point. Then, and this is a key point, I quickly separate the wheat from the chaff - out of a list of 30 I will probably keep five or six, something in the 20% range, for further exploration.
And, I have seen brainstorming result in excellent ideas in the Future Search process of exploring where an organization wants to be. Absent a corporate will, the process breaks down – in my experience – at the crunch question: what will we stop doing to gain resources for the new?
Still, Lehrer’s explorations give us much to consider. He heralds that the best group work results when we are “hurled together” (architecturally). “Human friction creates sparks.” The best office space is open with an environment that forces us to interact with each other serendipitously and frequently rather than doodling behind closed doors. Executive suites, non-profit and for-profit, are at the opposite of Lehrer’s optimum. If you want a collaborative team at the top, you need to facilitate frequent interaction. Apparently, Steve Jobs did so at Apple: “he had the building arranged around a central atrium, so that (the) diverse staff of artists, writers, and computer scientists would run into each other more often.” (I wish it were that simple!)
Caption: Herb Kelleher Arm Wrestles For Ad Slogan "Just Plane Smart". (He" lost" and won!)
When I interviewed Herb Kelleher (pictured), the iconoclastic leader of Southwest Airlines, I saw that there were no windows in corporate offices and that the Love Field headquarters building had hallways so wide you could drive a herd of cattle down them. The walls were decorated with hundreds of examples of corporate lore and here and there were stations for people to sit and interact in chance meetings.
The quintessentials for successful group work are an organizational culture that supports (celebrates) group work and that people trust each other. For more ideas, see my Chapter 10: It’s in the DNA: Infusing Organizational Values at Southwest in Leading from the Middle.
Our greatest friend among the insects, the honeybee, has something to say to us in this regard. On page 43 of the Smart Swarm book, the author paraphrases Seeley’s “must haves” for bees to choose the best location for a future home: “Seek a diversity of knowledge. Encourage a friendly competition of ideas. Use an effective mechanism to narrow your choices.”

Storming & Group Hugs

Posted by jlubans on May 23, 2012  •  Leave comment (3)

In February and March of 2013, I’ll be teaching an 8-week class on the Democratic Workplace at the University of Latvia. As I develop lessons on democratic concepts, like teamwork, I am well aware that self-managing student teams all too often result in a few students doing the heavy lifting while other students are sidelined. When we have uneven participation in student project teams, the active participants are not happy – they feel like they’ve been exploited. And, the not-so active team members are less than happy because they may feel excluded or passed over by the self appointed “leaders.” However, a few unproductive members are satisfied because the team has papered over their poor performance. No group hugs here!
So, I am taking another look at how I assign teams and how I instruct them about team dynamics.
Peter Miller, in his book, The Smart Swarm, mentions some Harvard-based research about project teams. The researchers wanted to know if “a group’s performance might be improved if its members took time to explicitly sort out who was good at what, put each person to work on an appropriate task … and then talked about the information they turned up.” The researchers (on pp. 54-55) tested all participants for skills, shared the scores with everyone, and then assigned them to teams. About one half of all the teams were coached on how to make “task assignments”. Teams able to fully collaborate did the best work on solving an assigned puzzle. Several teams had “expert” members - students who had tested very highly - but when those team members did not collaborate well, those teams “did even worse, in fact, than teams that had no experts at all.” Does that finding apply to teams at work? Of course!
Caption: Bruce Tuckman
Reading Miller’s words, reminded me of a handout I usually give to student project teams. The handout describes the popular notions about group dynamics developed by Bruce Tuckman, (pictured) back in the hippy, group-hugging era of the sixties. His “form, storm, norm, perform” has stood up well over time – it certainly is repeated glibly by team building teachers like myself. But, I am not sure students (or me for that matter!) understand what each of these phases and their definitions mean. Forming is the easy part, although randomly selected teams are probably less effective than teams whose members have some level of propinquity. The “storming” phase is the one most avoided by teams – I have long held that many workplace teams skip (not good) this phase or get stuck in it (really, not good). Why does this happen? Because, to paraphrase the Harvard researchers, many team members do not have the skills nor take the time to explicitly sort out who is good at what, put each person to work on an appropriate task … and then talk about the information they turn up.” There is an implied leadership, if not a leader, in this: who leads the sorting out, putting people to work on tasks and sharing information? Well, in a self-managing team, everyone shares the responsibility. That is what I hope to make clear to the self-managing teams in my Democratic Workplaces class.
Each project team in my 8-week class will get a revised handout of questions to answer before it starts production.
1. Team purpose? Each team member knows and agrees upon “What are we supposed to accomplish as a team?”
2. Roles? Each team member knows his/her role in accomplishing the team goal. (Remember, in the best teams everyone does an equal amount of work.)
3. Our individual strengths? What strengths do each of us bring to accomplishing our agreed-upon goal?
4. Who’s in-charge? What does being in charge mean? Will leadership change from day to day? How do we adapt to changing leadership? (Remember, you are self-managing.)
5. Decision making? Can we make decisions? How will we arrive at decisions?
6. Disagreeing? How do we resolve disagreements? How do we deal with conflict?
7. Risk-taking? How do we increase our ability to take risks until we get to the most creative, productive level? (Risk taking in this context is about departing from usual solutions and asking the tough questions: Why do we do something? Is it important enough to keep doing it? Who benefits?
8. Our sponsor? If our team gets in trouble, who will help us? Who – besides the instructor - accepts responsibility for us?
9. Sources of information? From what sources will we find out necessary information to accomplish our purpose?
10. When and how will we meet? How are we going to make ourselves more accessible to one another in order to complete our goals in a timely manner?

The “Maestro Complex” Part 2.

Posted by jlubans on May 15, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

Viviane Hagner (see Part 1) elaborated on her response: “Even in symphonies (with conductors, the players) need to talk with each other.” Her words are a good lead-in to Part 2 of the "Maestro Complex."

Davidson, in his article “What Does a Conductor Do?” suggests that leadership styles among conductors are changing. As implied in Ms. Hagner’s quote, he claims that there is a perceptible shift for more freedom (and power) for players.
This change is due more to unionization of musicians than to conductors “letting go” of their usual tight grip on the reins. A tyrannical conductor can still publicly humiliate a musician, but he’ll pay a price. The modern orchestra (a few are self-managed) has some say over which conductors get asked back.
Still, Davidson’s preferred way of leading leans to the traditional conductor, the self-sufficient and all-knowing maestro. I am not suggesting Davidson turns into an intolerant leader. Rather, he acts on the received tradition that the conductor’s job is to figure out the music and to lead it. Input from the musicians is incidental; it is not pursued. After all, as Davidson says, “(a) good conductor is a parent who’s always ready and always right.” In other words, musicians are children in need of guidance/direction.
While most of us think it is desirable to share decision-making, when we become THE boss, our go-to way of leading, our intuitive impulse is to centralize decisions, to go it alone - just like Davidson did - regardless of evidence that collaborating with others usually results in better decisions. (No, seeking advice from an inner circle of like-minded managers is not the same as talking to the people doing the work.) It takes a deliberate effort to ask for the workers’ advice and opinion. Doing so (letting others participate) can be seen by some as weakness. I am reminded of a study in a recent book, Sway. The authors maintain that dissent – a normal part of democracy - is essential to limiting our wrong-headedness. To get honest dissent, the boss has to establish a climate that permits, even empowers, dissent. Airlines now train cockpit crews in how to “block” – the term for getting in the way of irrational behavior - when a safety rule may be violated. Not only does dissent improve decision-making it can also save lives.
Corporate leaders, because they rarely allow others to see how they lead, are under far less scrutiny than are conductors (or surgeons or airline pilots). Inferior performance in an organization can be hidden for years or, if business is good, an inferior leader can take credit for the work of effective followers. Some corporate leaders may fantasize that they, alone, make the difference. I recall a friend’s boss who often spoke at professional meetings and encouraged collaboration and risk taking, innovation and experimentation. Back home, my friend learned to her dismay, that her boss talked the game but then punished anyone who took him up on it. If you experimented, innovated, collaborated with others then the boss would undercut your efforts, maybe even encourage you to leave. This boss was not about to relinquish control, and the organization suffered. Of course the damage (unlike a failed public musical performance) caused by this boss is not easily perceived by higher ups.

Early on in my career, I certainly thought it was up to me to make decisions and to do so with minimal input from staff. As I matured, I suffered less from Davidson's Maestro Complex (the need to justify my higher salary and to exhibit my “superior” knowledge). When I turned to the staff for help, we achieved our goals and higher productivity. It was really very simple, I had no illusions about my expertise, so I had to let go and allow staff to collaborate. Not that I was detached; I was an active participant in work meetings and I did ask good questions that complemented my ability to spot redundancies at 50 paces. I knew the type of followers I wanted and was active in recruiting them. And, I was very good at finding the best people (both staff and managers) and allowing them freedom to get the job done. My “hands off” approach worked well for about five years. Then, because of organizational shifts, we started to bog down once again, returning to the hierarchy in structure and behavior. My way of leading now ran counter to what the organization wanted and, as I have already said, inefficiencies can be easily rationalized and covered up. Finally, when my boss departed, I lost the necessary support and my days were numbered.

For those five golden years I did not have to justify my presence – staff relished their freedom (and saw me as the source of that freedom) and my boss supported me. Insecure conductors (and managers) "gesticulate, point, urge, and cajole" – they micromanage. For example, one of the conductors coaching Davidson in one session “demonstrated for a percussionist how to get the right sound on the triangle, corrected a bowing in the violin part, sang the bassoon line, and pointed out a subtle harmonic shift—all without glancing at the score.” For Davidson the key point here is the conductor’s phenomenal memory. Well, a good memory is important, but this is micromanaging. Why not let the musician make the mistake and figure it out; why not let them “lead” themselves and make decisions relevant to the work they do.

Conductors are essential for facilitating communication in large orchestras.
Caption: Karel Mark Chichon
Some conductors, like Karel Mark Chichon, whom I have seen perform a half dozen times with the Latvian National Symphony, have great gifts. Maestros, like Chichon, can take a very good orchestra and make it great. They understand the composer’s meaning, articulate it, and somehow inspire musicians to reach high levels of performance. I doubt there is much micromanaging (or ass-kicking, to put it crudely) by this superb leader; the true maestro works at the conceptual level, eliciting a particular sound from the musicians, the workers. It is up to the players to rise to the occasion, to meet the conductor at the mountain top and share in the joy of the music! The conductor trusts the musicians and the musicians trust the conductor. This shared trust spurs everyone to higher and higher levels of performance. That’s the best kind of leadership: followers and leader interacting and producing something very good.
Interestingly, Davidson does note, among other clues, his mentor’s advice (very much like a manager’s “letting go”) for getting through a dicey part in the score:
“Just beat clearly and they’ll take care of it.”
However, Davidson qualifies this counsel: “That’s a useful though not universal commandment: Do Less.”
Davidson’s coaches give him additional insights about leading: One tells a conducting student not to lean toward the players, (hectoring them) instead “to set aside the baton, close his eyes, and turn his back to the orchestra so that he’ll listen more and insist less.” No micromanaging there.
Then, Davidson heard some great advice from Bernard Haitink, the Dutch maestro during his visit to Juilliard. Observing a student rehearsal, Haitnik cautions: “The musicians are very busy with playing.... “You (the conductor) should not distract them!” Definitely no micromanaging there!
Davidson further reinforces the notion of letting the musicians lead with this quote from a principal cellist: “It’s amazing how beautifully we play when we don’t know what the hell the guy on the podium is doing.”
In spite of these several bits of leadership wisdom, Davidson is anxious about how he will lead the student orchestra through a difficult part of the overture. He calls it the No, really passage. Worried for several days, he hopes for the best that somehow something will come to him.
Here he describes how he did in his conducting debut:
“I make plenty of flubs: I scramble the beat, forget a cue, confuse the players once or twice. The Juilliard students respond with sensitivity and respect, and a desire to play as beautifully as I will let them.” And, his mentor offers him high praise for how he conducted the No, really.
Why did Davidson not ask the student musicians for help or simply let them play through the No, really? To collaborate with them and figure it out. Davidson did well, but I am left with a What if? What if he and the students had talked about the No, really?
“I learned more about conducting by watching (Orpheus) rehearse, than I have in all my conducting classes.”
This quote in my book comes from a conducting student who, like me, sat in on an Orpheus rehearsal. He had learned something remarkable: there is a process for and value in soliciting ideas from the players – the people doing the work. And while that may sound obvious to most managers, it is a lesson worth re-stating and practicing.

“The Maestro Complex” Part 1.

Posted by jlubans on May 10, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Vivian Hagner
While in New York city in April I had the pleasure of observing the violinist Viviane Hagner rehearse with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. She was their guest soloist for a performance at Carnnegie Hall. If you follow this blog, you know that the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (composed of between 25 -40 musicians depending on the piece of music) plays without a conductor. There is no boss. The players make all musical decisions (tone, mood, interpretation, tempo, etc.) Each musician is free to offer well-considered and well-informed commentary within the rehearsal time frame. The collective goal is an outstanding performance. While I have written extensively about their democratic process, I always find fresh insights at each rehearsal about their unique way of making decisions.
One of my on-the-road reads was “What Do Conductors Do?” by Justin Davidson, New York magazine’s music critic. He tells - a la George Plimpton or maybe, Walter Mitty – of his adventures in conducting the Juilliard School of Music student orchestra. Not a rank amateur, Mr. Davidson is a student of music and once conducted a few of his own compositions in college. And, he spent two months diligently preparing, with two Juilliard conducting coaches, before taking wand in hand for the 6-minute overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Still, Mr. Davidson is to be admired for his adventurous spirit and frame-by-frame analysis of how he did it. You can see a brief video of what happened at this link.
My interest in his story was more about how he led the orchestra than his musical interpretation of Mozart. The anxiety, the “Maestro Complex,” he feels about his leadership - that “the person responsible for the totality of sound produces none” - probably is similar to that of a work group meeting for the first time with a new manager or leader. The workers, just like the musicians, are thinking: “Does this person know what he is doing? Can we have confidence, trust in his leadership? And, the leader shares in the uncertainty: “How am I coming across? Am I being clear about my expectations? Are these people on board with my leadership? Will we excel or muddle along?”
There are multiple theories about how much we should involve workers in decisions about getting the job done. Some managers prefer to direct the worker – the expert manager knows more (he or she certainly believes that) than anyone else therefore it is for him or her to make all the decisions. Others, less certain about knowing it all, take a more democratic approach and expect the worker to have ideas on how to do a better job. While this manager “lets go”, he or she is no different from the micromanager in wanting results. In my experience, a manager’s genuinely “letting go” results in more innovation and higher productivity than does the omniscient micromanager.
The conductor, as a highly visible leader, gives us insights into the process of leadership and followership. Conducting is not karaoke – a version of singing along. In a live musical performance the conductor is literally a beat ahead of the orchestra. The orchestra follows. Like what a dancing instructor told me: “On the dance floor, good leaders initiate the movement they want from their partner and then follow the movement they've created.” That’s sort of like it is between the conductor and the musician. What’s unknown is how much input the musicians have had in the decision making prior to the performance; how much collaboration has gone on among the musicians and between them and the conductor in developing the interpretation and delivery of the music. Lots, some or none?
20120516-Orpheus USEIT.jpeg
Caption: Orpheus at ease.
Today’s rehearsal, at the Kraft Center on W. 115th Street, was Ms. Hagner’s first time playing with Orpheus
Ms. Hagner rehearsed two pieces: Henry Vieuxtemps’ Violin Concerto No. 5 in A minor and Beethoven’s Romance No. 2 in F Major.
I got there late, but soon after I sat down and listened, I was captivated by the bel canto quality of Ms. Hagner’s playing. I use the operatic term "beautiful singing" deliberately because it has multiple meanings about musical depth, breadth and range. The term fits what I heard: a lightness and richness, transcending and soaring alongside that of the orchestra.
Ms. Hagner, in jeans, sweater and flat shoes, plays with energy, rising up on her toes, moving about, playing toward the orchestra. (Good naturadly, a violinist reminds her that she should face front, not toward the orchestra. I think she was enjoying the collaboration so much that it was natural to turn to the orchestra.) I picked up on what must have been an immediate camaraderie – a liking and trusting of each other. (That said, I discovered during the 2.5 hour rehearsal Ms. Hagner's unstated charm that draws people to her.)
Today’s concert master (and first violin – for both pieces was Martha Caplin.
As the concertmaster, she is in charge of the “core”, the group of 4 or 5 musicians who make pre-rehearsal musical decisions. And, as concertmaster, she led and facilitated today's rehearsal. She is not, however, the only voice offering guidance and direction. At Orpheus ideas can come from any section of the orchestra.
Along with their patented forms of giving and sharing of information with each other – “say it, play it, sing it” -I have often seen Orpheus musicians stop playing and go out into the rehearsal hall to listen to the music. Today at least a half dozen players took turns to stand, a few steps behind me, and listen intently – score in hand. Then the musician describes what he or she heard and makes suggestions on what needs to be improved in the overall sound, pace and balance. Or, it can be a request to develop a less quantifiable quality, more nuanced, such as making the music “more sensitive” or “less mushy.” During the Beethoven piece an observer offered: “(The sound is) not as convincing; it should be darker, richer.”
Nor was Viviane reluctant to offer her ideas: At one point: (That was) “a little thick, get more air in the sound.” At another, she tells them, “That was good, that was great – we got it. One more time.” Shortly after, there is a mess up, but it results in good humor, not any blaming or finger pointing. Everyone wants the piece to work. That is what drives the discussion and decision-making; it is not one interpretation competing for first place. Rather the discussion, the back and forth, is about making the most of this musical piece. The process is collaborative; no one player has the answer. Instead the answer evolves, builds as the group rehearses and talks about it, tweaking, improving, and clarifying.
The group is having so much fun that Ronnie Bausch, a veteran member of Orpheus, admonishes: “Let’s do it for real; too many jokes, asides; now, all together.” The result gets applause.
Making decisions like this – typically the realm of the musical director - means knowing the ins and outs of the music, literally “knowing the score”. Each musical selection has at least a dozen or more Orpheans who hear the entire work, not just the sound his or her section makes. It is this shared overview (the big picture) that leads to the performance the orchestra wants. It is Orpheus’ unique sound.
At rehearsal’s end, I asked Ms. Hagner, “Did you miss having a conductor make decisions?” She smiled, “I did not miss one today.”
(Part 2 of "Maestro Complex" is here.)