The Enliven! Blog

Helping Harness Human Capacity

Pianists, collaboration and organizational improvement

The world of classical music is undergoing a transformation that has spin-off value for organizations which are trying to improve.

The musical transformation involves the art of “collaboration”. Collaboration refers to the interaction between musicians, for example, between pianists and the singers they play for. In the past, the term for the pianist was “accompanist”, and the singer was the “soloist”. The new term for the two individuals is “collaborating artists”.

Is this just so much artsy jargon? Indeed no. This change of words is built on a much deeper shift involving roles, relationships, reaching out and results. This shift is instructive to organizations as well.

Introducing the concept of collaboration changes the roles of the two musical parties. In the past, the pianist tended to be treated as a second class citizen. His or her job was to be in the background, to be subservient to the singer. The singer received the majority of the applause. The accompanist might hesitate in offering musical input when preparing the performance, since their role was not given equal weight. Pianists were often not treated with due respect, e.g. not being given their musical parts sufficiently in advance. In a collaborative setting, both parties are equal partners, worthy of equal respect, and equally invited to creatively invest themselves in solving musical problems

Introducing collaboration also changes the relationship between the two roles. Once the two parties are established on equal footing, each with ideas to contribute for mutual consideration, a new level of teamwork and camaraderie begins to develop. The joint contribution of the spirited two is greater than the sum of the parts.

The introduction of collaboration as a role and a relationship, for example between music students, also serves as a model for the music department where the students are being taught. If students are being coached to collaborate, why would professors not reach out over the walls of their particular specialties to make cross-disciplinary contributions? Does it not stand to reason that collaborative collegial critiques would sharpen and deepen the educational process? For example, maybe the music theory teacher has some insights for the music history teacher, and vice versa!

The result of a thorough collaborative approach is a well rounded student. Students are empowered by an increased breadth of skill and understanding. Their learning takes on enhanced relevance as they sense they are being prepared for the real world, where soft skills like collaboration can make all the difference in working with people and capitalizing on opportunities. The transformation of relationships, roles and efforts paves the way for successful endeavors.

And how does collaboration relate to organizations? An organization seeking to improve will establish true collaboration among its personnel. Regardless of rank, persons will be seen as having ownership of the organization and a vested interest in excellence. A collaborative spirit will encourage each person to give of their best, while supporting the best of others. Persons, led by the leaders, will let down the walls of their departmental silos which so easily get built up to protect individual’s sense of value, in order to create more value for the organization as a whole.

Good questions for an organization to ask might be: “Where in our organization do we have truly collaborative relationships? Where are we encouraging some people to play subsidiary roles, falsely devaluing their own contribution to make a few people into stars? How can cross fertilization help us to achieved our mission? Where do we need to create a climate of trust so that it is acceptable to reach out into the domains of others in the organization?”

A good question for a leader to ask is “Am I truly encouraging collaboration, or do I want people to be ‘yes-men’?”

Collaboration = roles, relationships, reaching out >>> results!

Leave a comment


I recall a play I was in during Grade 3. I was a magician. One of my key lines was “Questions, questions, whose got the question?”, or words to that effect.

I recently encountered two good articles about questions. One of them, written by a pastor, suggested that a healthy organization needs to get down to brass tacks and ask the “why” questions. Another article, by a team facilitator, suggested that “why” questions close down conversation and that “what” and “how” questions are better for provoking discussion.

Both observations are true in my experience. I believe, however, that the “why” questions are the highest form of inquiry. I agree that they can be difficult and they can turn people away. Are there ways to ask “why” which are accessible to those of us who don’t consider ourselves philosophers or deep thinkers? “How” does one ask the “why” questions?

Let me suggest some practical ways to ask the “why questions”. One set of questions proceeds from the rational brain. A business or service might ask “What is our value proposition?” If a tutoring organization, for example, identifies its value proposition as providing a high quality teaching service to help students who fall through the cracks, it has identified at least part of its “why”. This definition may be further sharpened by contrasting its value propositions with those of similar organizations. For example, the tutoring service may choose to provide its services to new immigrants, as opposed to non-immigrant clients.

Another way to get at “why” rationally is to ask “What is the reason we exist?” Or, “If we weren’t a player in the field, what would the game be missing? A camp, for example, might identify that it is the only camp near a major population centre which offers an overnight campout experience. The rational approach can also lead to questioning assumptions. Is the stated purpose still relevant, sufficient, meaningful?

The rational act of clarification can also be helpful in answering the “why” question. What is not our “why”? The camp above might identify that it is not in the family camp business. Another clarification is to discern which category of human endeavour an organization is pursuing. Is the organization, for example, a social service or a business. If it is a social service, does the organization relate to families or individuals? Identifying the customer segments one serves can also cast light on the “why”. Is the local medical clinic primarily serving the needs of the local people, or the province? And it can be helpful to separate “what” and “how” from “why” we do what we do. The clinic may use the best in technology and have good collegial relations, but as a medical clinic it is still about providing for the health needs of the community.

The emotional brain also offers a unique perspective on “why”. The question “what was the passion at the beginning of our operation?” can open up a connection to the deeply held motives of the founders. A church, for example, might have been founded as a renewal effort focusing on education and outreach. The related question “what is the passion now” night lead to new discoveries. Perhaps that same church is now, in fact, passionate about worship. And moving to the non verbal side of the equation, what does the logo say about purpose? Why, for example, does the Tim Horton’s logo, which could be described as outdated, communicate so well that the purpose of the store is to provide a refreshing break for a legitimate treat?

Other emotional approaches might include examining the story of the organization. Where has it shifted direction, or run aground, or thrived? Where has it taken key decisions? These may relate to the “why” question.

Perhaps the “why” question is uncomfortable because it touches on values and idealism. But values are foundational to any enterprise. Schools, for example, must believe in helping children grow. That is not to say that we don’t need a dose of reality to make our “why’s” attainable. We may not be able to give each child all the gadgets that assist education, but we can enthuse them about learning in a loving environment.

The “why” question may shut down conversation in a setting where quick answers are needed. But it is essential for the health of an organization. What are some other ways of asking “why”?

Leave a comment

Diamond in the Rubble

My wife and I enjoy backpacking in the mountains each summer. This year was no exception, as we feasted our eyes on some of the most spectacular sights the Canadian Rockies have to offer. We added Snowbird Pass in Mount Robson Provincial Park to our collection of visual gems visited.

We also lost a gem on that trip. At some point, the diamond in my wife’s wedding ring fell out. Perhaps the ring’s claws had worn down. Any vigorous activity or contact with rocks or trees could have jarred the stone loose. There was no point in searching for the diamond, as it would be impossible to find such a tiny jewel amidst the gravel and grit of the trail.

I was grieved to think of a precious stone hidden forever under the rubble of a mountain trail. This led me to think about personal accomplishments. Our achievements can also quickly and totally disappear from sight. What if my most cherished achievements don’t outlive me, or don’t even accompany me to my later years? Could they be buried by history? Could they be lost as the context changes?

I am comforted by the teachings of Jesus. Jesus taught that truly important deeds will be remembered and rewarded. Jesus said that the jewels and diamonds that will attract his attention are selfless acts such as giving drink to the thirsty and clothing to the naked. Even if we forget having done these things, perhaps undervaluing their importance, Jesus will remember that these deeds sparkled for Him. Moreover, these deeds, when done in love, will flow out of a life dedicated not to achievement, but to Jesus himself. The output of those who have chosen to devote themselves to Jesus is like diamonds sparkling in the sun. Those diamonds won’t get lost!

Leave a comment

Step Up a Level for Perspective

We all know the feeling of stress when we face a pressing, complex, emotionally laden problem. An all too familiar weight of descends when forward progress, sense of equilibrium or hope for the future are threatened. In such situations it is hard to “breathe” enough to sort out the situation.

At times like this, a new perspective brings a breath of fresh air. But where does that perspective come from? One helpful source is the mental act of “stepping up a level”. When one is able to divert one’s attention from the single case-nature of an organization’s turmoil, and to survey the landscape from a loftier vantage, a fresh, calming breeze can blow.

Where does one step up to? It can be helpful to step up to a “systemic perspective”. This systemic perspective focuses on the broad industry or group of which one’s organization is part. One looks down from above, as it were, on the particular problem at hand. This distance provides some perspective.

Let’s say, for example, that one’s organization is a charitable ministry working with children. The aim is to recruit as many children as possible into the organization’s life giving programs. Current recruiting techniques are maintaining but not increasing enrolment levels.

What can be done to reach more children? Shift to the systemic level! One might also call it the abstract level. Ask “What are the logical recruitment options for organizations in our type of ministry?” I have found this to be a question which removes the pressure to find an immediate solution and creates a bit of space for creating and considering new options.

In the children’s ministry example, one might identify a number of categories of recruitment options. These categories in turn suggest specific actions. Categories for recruitment activity could logically include: word of mouth (parents, siblings, teachers, other children); internet (websites, video, music, animations, facebook, twitter); events (parties, reunions); telephone (calling blitzes, strategic calls); media (radio, newspaper, TV); give-aways (T shirts, water bottles); signs (on buildings, roadsides), contests, endorsements, etc. , arts (drama, poetry, visual).

Having identified the categories through a mental scan, one could do google research to augment the list. Having built the list, one could proceed with a rational sequence of prioritizing recruitment methods.

The “step up” is key. I have suggested it is helpful to look at the broader context of which the organization is part. Perhaps another way to move a “step up” is to invite observations from a variety of people, ranging from passionate to dispassionate, informed to uninformed. People of religious faith can certainly pray for a sense of perspective. Or perhaps some special time needs to be set aside, either for a working retreat, or a retreat to vacation land! In any case, the move up to perspective is like hiking on a mountain. When one reaches the top and looks back, the twisted, forked trail makes more sense than it did a few hours ago, when the twists and turns represented a myriad of choices.

Have you ever used the concept of “stepping up to the next level” to solve problems? How did that work for you?

Leave a comment

Precious Notebooks

I am known by family for certain unusual habits. One of them is my penchant for “precious notebooks”. I have strong preferences for the size, shape, and layout of notebooks in which I journal. Another precious notebook I carry is my pocket pad, in which I record ideas which come to me at random times.

In this notebook habit I am not alone. Great minds have been known to use notebooks of one type or another. The composer Beethoven, for example, wrote musical sketches in his notebook. These sketches were the germs of magnificent symphonies. The Canadian author W.0. Mitchell used a technique similar to recording an idea in a special notebook. He taught would be authors about drawing from the “well of experience”. He encouraged writers to jot down phrases, images, ideas as they registered in the mind. These scraps become grist for the writing mill when embarking on a story or novel.

Many persons have found fruit in the practice of capturing their “aha” moments. Research has shown that the “aha” moment is in fact a specific form of intelligence. Just as Archimedes had an “aha” in the tub as he pondered the principle of measuring volume through displacement of water, so we all have flashes of insight. These insights touch our work, our relationships, our problems. We would do well to record our surges of insight in a precious notebook of some kind. Or, if we choose, we can do as one wise client does, and wait to see if the thought comes back. If so, it has passed the test of memorability, and is indeed worthy of recording and follow-up!

We are smarter than we think. We are as smart as we think! How do you capture your aha moments?

Leave a comment