We’re thrilled to introduce you to the winners of the HCI Human Capital M-Prize on Leadership.
This is the story of BIZZARTS, a concept that was born out of the conviction that art can make an important contribution to the business world, both economically and creatively. What started out as an attempt to support the music ensembles financially, turned out to be a powerful learning experience that takes us into uncharted territory of learning.
On a BiZZarts session a management team comes in with the vague expectation of being entertained for an afternoon - some of them expecting a jamming session, others expecting a kind of break from the strategy meeting they participated in before noon. Little do they know that they are going to experience an awakening of leadership and communication skills that gets transferred to them through music. When you consider that nine out of ten participants has never played an instrument or even attended a concert, it's amazing that the simple and direct insights that are triggered still resonate with them one month after the session.
Here are the key take-aways from this story:
- Management education goes deeper when it is experience-based;
- Music is a vehicle that allows us to discover things that we are unable of articulating and knowing otherwise;
- Simple habits like tuning of the instruments, the way musicians communicate and how they put themselves in service of the performance turn out to be experiences that really stick with managers;
- What sets BiZZarts apart from other management education is that the learning is triggered, not transmitted.
In 2009 Dominique Dejonghe and Frank Debruyne founded BiZZarts, arts-based learning. Initially their objective was to gain some extra income for musicians in order to be less dependent on sponsoring and grants. They soon discovered that the rehearsals of top-notch orchestras and ensembles represent an unprecedented source of deep learning for management teams.
The structure of a BiZZarts session is fairly simple. Management teams who visit the rehearsals are given an introduction on the metaphor of music and are given a maximum of 5 cues to observe during the rehearsal. Next, they reflect on how this setting is representative for their working environment as they prepare to present their findings for the musicians and conductor.
When they finally present their findings to the musicians and the conductor there is always magic in the air: managers, engineers and tough business people who have never listened attentively to a piece of classical music in their whole life are expressing their deepest respect for the creation of art that they have witnessed that day. But the opposite is also true: well-respected conductors are stunned by the level of detailed observation and reflection that they discover during the presentation.
An unforgettable experience for both business people and artists. Learning as it should be!
There are two specific triggers at play in this story and they come from a radically different angle:
1. Management training is dead.
- Let's face it: we don't need another classroom training to cram 180 slides into our heads;
- What we need is real learning that sparks something from within.
2. Orchestras are strangled by the very grants that keep them alive.
The life of an orchestra is a constant battle between the commercial power of popular culture and being true to the intent of the composer.
You may think it’s extreme, but in a certain sense both worlds are in trouble. The surprising part is that none of us would ever imagine that they represent an opportunity for one another. By partnering businesses with orchestras we create a relationship that both parties can benefit from.
Instead of getting carried away by a timeline or a list of benefits and metrics we intend to share some breakthrough learnings that three different groups of managers went through.
To understand what this travel is about, have a look at the below video of Leonard Bernstein. In the below video Bernstein explains his passion through the expressivity of music and the ability of people to respond to that.
He talks about music as a sense-making language, a compelling story that communicates things that are beyond our reach. Later, he adds: "It is metaphor that most produces knowledge.(…) Metaphor is the power plant of poetry and music. It can name the unnamable and communicate the unknowable."
When we have a closer look at the origins of the word metaphor we see that it is composed of two parts:
- ‘Meta’, which is the Greek word for ‘beyond’, and
- ‘Phore’, which originates from the Greek word pherein, meaning: ‘to carry‘
When we say that music is a metaphor it means that music can carry meaning beyond the literal and the tangible. In other words, music is a vehicle that allows us to discover things that we are unable of articulating and knowing otherwise. This may explain the lifting sensation of a rehearsal and the discoveries we did with these management teams.
Dull libraries on leadership, knowledge management and communication come to action right in front of you. It all happens as the musicians perform their scores at the rehearsal.
During a rehearsal one can witness how preparation, tuning, adaptation and continuous exchange of cues results in good performance. The moral of this story isn’t hard to fetch – but it may be hard to swallow for those of us who have their MBA education tattooed all over. Any rehearsal reframes the question: Why does management education exist? None of these musicians has ever studied, examined or attended a course in communication, teamwork or feedback. Yet they are absolute masters at it.
Tuning of the instruments
This is the first part of any teamwork of musicians – be it a rehearsal or a real concert. They tune their instruments and make sure everyone is on the same wavelength BEFORE they start playing. Have a look at the video below. These musicians are saying: hey this is my bottom line – what is yours?
In management speak: they are setting up a service level agreement (SLA). And they do it BEFORE they start to play. There is a lesson in there: an SLA is negotiated upfront to create a common understanding about services, priorities and responsibilities. Tuning is not a quick-fix for a troubled relationship in the middle of the play: the relationship is tuned upfront. And yes: that makes an awkward and unusual sound.
Once the instruments are tuned, the ensemble is ready to kick off. For the first time they play the scores that each musician has carefully prepared at home. For the first time they hear how they sound within the group. Have a look at the fragment below to see how that works.
You will note that the ‘project leader’ behind the harpsichord defines the context and shapes the meaning of the piece they are performing (at 00′:30″). Although every musician knows the scores and plays outstanding as an individual, they now feed-back to one another how they can make teamwork happen (as of 01′:30″). Note that during the break one of the musicians revealed to me that: "The most important instrument during a rehearsal is actually a musician’s pencil!"
There you are: outstanding performers rely on each other in order to adapt their scores for the benefit of team performance. In this setting it would be absurd if they didn’t. Yet, where I come from I see most of the good performers touting their horn so loud that the team performance suffers. The musician later added: "You feel when it’s your turn to say something." And that’s exactly what it felt like: this was no feedback as we know it; what I witnessed was feed-forward. Not as a task or an obligation, but rather as a game bringing the performance forward.
This is where the communication rubber meets the road. After individual preparation, tuning of the instruments and adapting the scores for team performance it is time to give it a go. I invite you to look at the below fragment twice: once with the sound on and once with the sound off.
There are two things that you can see clearer when the sound is off.
- First, the musicians don’t stop communicating when they perform. Continuously they look up from their scores to exchange cues.
- Second, as a result of this exchange you can actually see the resonance among the musicians.
Although they are all playing their individual score you can see that they are in resonance. One of the musicians saw this resonance as a growing process as he reported: ‘during the intense days of rehearsing you kind of grow into the performance’.
Example 2: Jos van Immerseel and the outstanding instrumentalists and singers of Anima Eterna Brugge as they are rehearsing a piece of Monteverdi.
Beyond Charted Territory
Jos van Immerseel talks about a No Man’s land that becomes tangible during the rehearsals. This is where the conductor and the musicians constantly dialogue and fine-tune, all the while respecting one another’s area of expertise. After all, they are exploring uncharted territory.
We could see how van Immerseel was building context by reminding the musicians of the story and the intent of Monteverdi’s play. At the same time he was allowing the musicians the space to tap into the secrets of their instrument. As a result, the dialogue consisted of the musicians suggesting different options to get as close as they could to the intent of the composer. In a sense the conductor and the musicians where continuously handing over the leadership to one another in the search for refining their performance. Entering No Man’s land means going beyond the defined roles of who is the leader and who is the follower. The one who can bring the team closer to a better performance at that very moment is taking the lead. Informally, and most of the times: unconsciously.
Getting Out Of The Way
Later, van Immerseel revealed that conducting is a double balancing act: "On the one hand I need to balance the No Man’s Land by respecting the musicians. On the other hand I need to be in service of the composer by ensuring we get as close as we possibly can to the original form as it was intended." To put it in the words of Jeff Jarvis‘ book What Would Google Do? (one of the major business books of the past years in my opinion), van Immerseel gets to practice the principle of ‘Getting Out Of The Way‘.
The surprising part is that the rehearsals made it clear that ‘getting out of the way‘ does not equal ‘disappearing into the background‘. In van Immerseel’s case it means committing to the relationship with the musicians by feeding the story and the context instead of being right.
On the other hand it means making a case for the original composer by turning down suggestions for contemporary interpretations of the piece. Getting out of the way is an active thing, as van Immerseel explained: "A leader who says “let’s have a vote” is not leading but avoiding his responsibility."
Taking Management Thinking Beyond Darwinism
Jos van Immerseel takes the respect for the original composer very serious and has an appreciative perspective on the guru’s of the musical world: "Art needs to be liberated from a Darwinist mindset. We need to accept that there is no progress in art. Bach is no better than Monteverdi. Picasso is no better than Carravagio. They are different, not better."
As a thought experiment, consider what would happen if we would be liberated from a Darwinist mindset: Kennedy is no better leader than Alexander the Great. The new CEO is no better than the previous one. Or let’s assume that the latest model on leadership of Harvard Business School is no better than Taylorism in the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. They are different because they respond to a different context and timeframe. As a result we may end up with a more complete view of leadership - one that does not discriminate. Different. Not better.
Example 3: eavesdropping on the very first Beethoven’s Pathetique rehearsal of the prestigious I Solisti del Vento ensemble, together with their experienced coach Etienne Siebens.
When the managers of a car assembly plant of 2400 people tell you that they just saw their leadership model in action, that’s when you know you are on to something… Have a look at the below video and – apart from enjoying the music – have a look at the exchange of communication cues and the resonance among the musicians.
It was striking how this ensemble demonstrated the difference between true communication and non-communication. Their coach explained it as follows: "Good communication is like breathing together. If you look close enough you will see that these musicians are constantly looking at each other for cues and resonance. This is how they communicate."
But the most important part of their communication is the ‘why’ part. The musicians communicate well because they have a shared purpose, which is to bring the most authentic interpretation of Beethoven’s Pathetique.
The managers of the car assembly plant could easily relate to that: we communicate in order to build the perfect car. Seems like having a higher purpose helps to improve communication. Francis Pollet, the leader of the ensemble explained it by stating: "We are all soloists, and yet we are capable of listening to each other because we are being in service of something bigger: the great master Beethoven. But we could not have done so without growing into that attitude."
Rehearsing is Growing
‘Communication’ and ‘Community’ have a lot in ‘Common’. Got it? Rehearsing is about being there, being present and being involved in the discussions about the interpretation. As a result the musicians resonate with one another. Unfortunately, 1+1 does not make a top-performance. Instead, you need 1+1+blood+sweat+tears+time together.
Pollet continued by explaining that the rehearsals are more important than the performance. Rehearsals are moments of truth. As they are a project-based ensemble, the rehearsals are restricted to an initial budget and time is precious. Therefore it is important for each musician to be present and to live every minute of every rehearsal.
Trading Places Improves Resonance
One of the practices that Etienne Siebens often uses as a coach is to scramble the physical position of the musicians. We experienced one of those scrambles where musicians had to trade places. Next, they had to play the exact same piece as they did before the scramble. The result was astonishing and the difference could be heard and felt by all people in the room – including the non-musicians like myself.
Siebens explained that this is a technique he often uses in order to improve the most important part of communication: the listening part. Time for us to wonder what a scramble would look like in our environment – whenever we sense that there is something wrong with the communication. Instead of pointing fingers, we could trade places and play the scores from a different perspective. I’m pretty sure that would make sense and improve the resonance.
The Hunt for Leadership
The most puzzling part came when the managers had to debrief about the leadership they had observed. There was no way that they could pinpoint the ‘one and only’ leader of the ensemble. Was it the lead-player? Was it the coach? Was it an opinion leader among the musicians? There was no uniform answer. It looked as if we had made another visit to No Man’s land.
The leadership and the decision-making was constantly switching thanks to direct communication and listening. This is the most amazing thing about observing this ensemble: you can almost see and hear communication and leadership as it happens – but you can’t attribute it to a single person or a single level. Is it an attitude? Or rather a process? Difficult to tell – but it did happen right there in front of us: informally and unconsciously.
By now you will have noted why we refer to Bizzarts as 'experience based learning'. The experiences reported above would not have been possible without participating to the rehearsals. Of course, our gut feeling told us that there was a lesson in there and that same gut feeling tells us that we have only seen the tip of the iceberg.
When we get to the question that keeps everyone awake in the world management education, it gets even more difficult. We tend to search for measures of improvement on different levels.
- We want to measure satisfaction of the participants
- We want to measure the extent to which they have learned something in terms of an increase in knowledge or capability
- We want to see if the behavior of participants changed for the better once they head back in the workplace
- Finally, we want to see a positive effect on the business or environment resulting from the participant’s performance
The problem with dashboards is that they can only measure the dimensions we have agreed upfront. This is clearly where BiZZarts runs into trouble. But let’s also have a look at what we get in return. First of all, it turns out that the learning experience is present for both: managers and musicians.
When participants are asked one month after the session which insights they are still using, some of them report that they are paying more attention to the tuning part of their meetings. They often refer to preparing for important meetings as ‘tuning of their instruments’. One participant reported having become a better listener: ‘I tend to look for resonance first, before jumping in with my part of the story.’ Yet another participant managed to be more attentive of his leadership style: ‘In some occasions I now see that it is not my role to lead, but rather to make it possible and safe to enter the No Man’s land where creation takes priority over the rank of a person.’
Musicians, from their end, report that they are surprised of the details that business people pick up during their observations. Most of all they are made aware of skills that they are taking for granted: mostly their listening skills, the way they handle feedback, and the sacred use they make of that precious rehearsal moment. Business people are jealous of the level of focus, attention and devotion they so tangibly experience during the rehearsals.
Let’s be honest: there is no way we are capable of measuring any of the above improvements as accurately as we can for other management education. As we stated in the beginning of this story, the structure of a BiZZarts session is fairly simple. There is a reason for that: the process we intend to happen is one of learning (from the inside out) instead of training (from the outside in). The real value of BiZZarts is in the experience we have awakened in a person or a team, rather than in the knowledge that we have transferred.
- The prestigious B’rock ensemble
- Jos van Immerseel, the outstanding instrumentalists and singers of Anima Eterna Brugge
- The prestigious I Solisti del Vento ensemble, together with their experienced coach Etienne Siebens.
- Tomas Wallaert for enabling and facilitating the session for the car assembly plant
- Dave Sims for coaching the editing of this article.