Thursday, July 20, 2006

State of the art in teambuilding

Playing in an orchestra: a valuable bonding exercise, or noisy embarrassment?

Alex Benady
Tuesday July 18, 2006
The Guardian

My last brush with collaborative music ended in ignominy when I was drummed out of the Chatsworth Road primary school triangle collective on the grounds of incompetence. Nothing in the intervening years has caused me to question the wisdom of the school triangle tsar's decision.

But as they say in showbiz, the only thing to do after a failure is to dust yourself down and stride those boards once more. So here I am, some decades later, playing 13th viola for a 90-strong orchestra full of non-musicians who had never met until an hour before and who quite frankly make the old triangle collective sound like the London Symphony Orchestra by comparison.

We are participating in what is being billed as a "world first" in corporate training. You've heard of teambuilding exercises that involve raft building, making your own tactical nuclear warheads, butchering your own cow and so on. Well this is "Orchestrate", an exercise that uses the symphony orchestra as a metaphor for the workplace and allows musical buffoons such as myself access to real instruments, a conductor and a specially composed piece of music. Our "challenge" (as we say in the corporate world) is to learn and perform this piece. From scratch. In 90 minutes.

If this sounds a little optimistic, that's because it is meant to be. It is supposed to reflect the business idea of "stretch targets", which are objectives deliberately set to be unreasonable, explains John Bird of Catalyst, the organisers. "The main idea is to show that what seems impossible at first can be done. We wanted something that is not threatening but is daunting." Even he is daunted because, he admits, there is a real possibility it might not work.

So the first hour of the evening is spent drinking and networking. Meera Medana, human resources consultant at Walt Disney UK, says she is there to test-drive the event for her company. "I want to see if this could work with different groups and personality types - particularly introverted thinkers, whose biggest fear is embarrassing themselves."

After a couple of drinks, we are deemed relaxed enough. A curtain is pulled back to reveal a large auditorium resplendent with 90 chairs and around 30 grand's-worth of classical instruments. I opt for a violin, on the grounds that there are loads of them, so there is less potential for humiliation.

We are marched off section by section to rehearsal rooms. Our first lesson is that we are not the violin section as we had all supposed, but the viola section - the same but a bit bigger. With just an hour to learn our piece, we go straight into plucking lessons. Even this seems nightmarishly complicated. "We'll be playing mostly on our G string," says our tutor in an attempt to reassure us. Twelfth viola Jackie, a graphic designer, and 14th viola Chris, a barrister, find this hilarious and spend the next 10 minutes sniggering.

But by this time we are on to learning how to hold our bow, how to change notes and how to use the bow.

The piece we are learning is a repetitious thing written by Bill Lovelady. It has a strong rhythm and not much in the way of note changes. It lends itself perfectly to being broken down into monkey see, monkey do-type chunks, which of course is all we are capable of. In a way it feels like a con. "This isn't music, it's a simulacrum for musical cretins," I complain to John.

"Of course it's superficial. You can only learn so much in an hour and a half. But don't judge just yet. You may be surprised," he replies.

Although there are no figures available for the size of the team-building industry, it is huge. Even John admits a lot of such training is poorly thought out and purposeless. So isn't it all a bit of a con?

"No," says Eileen Arney, adviser on learning and development to the Institute of Personnel and Development. "Although some types of activity are cliched, these courses can be incredibly powerful if they help people to have insights into the dynamics of what's happening when they are working in a team."

After an hour we have the insight that we can just about do our bit, so we file off to join the rest of the orchestra. We reunite with the other strings as well as the glamour boys of the brass section and the hard men from percussion. Our conductor takes us through bit by bit so we have just 10 minutes' rehearsal as a full orchestra.

And then we play it in its full 90 seconds of glory. Blimey. We're elated. We may not be the world's greatest, but we make the unmistakable sound of an orchestra playing what is unmistakably music.

"That was fantastic," says Medana. "It needs a bit of feedback at the end to make it a useful metaphor for leadership, but I loved it. It was great being united by a piece of music, it shows you where your strengths are and how you relate to a team. I'd have no hesitation in having a lot more of our people do this."

Her reaction sums up the feelings of everybody else in the room. So, in your face, triangle tsar. I guess your stretch targets just weren't elastic enough.


At 5:03 AM, Blogger judie said...

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