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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Hodges

Decision Making Over Time: "The Musician's Way"

Decision-making can be musical. I can see several questions emerging in your mind as you read this. The purpose of this blog is to outline times in history when music came into decision making. It also examines how even decisions about engine maintenance come down to a matter of tone and feel. Finally I describe how, in the middle of a corporate negotiation over 'who gets paid what', musical processes materialised which helped inform the decision.

“One all-important purpose lay behind all the strenuous efforts of the Chinese to align their music to the principles and proportions of cosmic order. This purpose was that, through the God-alignment of music, all consciousness and life could become aligned to that same celestial order.” (David Thame: The Secret Power of Music: The Transformation of Self and Society Through Musical Energy) Interest in Jazz and other forms of musical creativity as organisational metaphor seems to imply that the way musicians work together is a relatively recent development in organisational theory. To underpin the validity of music and music improvisation as a significant contributor to the development of organisational management it is worth observing that for four thousand years the Chinese system of government and understanding of power was influenced by music and its underlying structures.


Chinese Emperors were considered to be the earthly embodiment of heavenly power; literally the embodiment of the Logos (sometimes defined as the principle governing the cosmos or the source of this principle). “He who succeeded in harmonizing the discords within his mind, emotions and body could become a more perfect embodiment of Cosmic Sound,…He who embodied the Logos was inevitably exceedingly wise, moral and just; hence he was the most fitting to rule.” Emperors had their own tone, referred to as the ‘yellow bell’, which was both the fundamental tone of all music in China and also a reference to the Emperor himself. There is a clear implication here that he who controls the nation’s music successfully leads the nation. But what kind of leadership and what kind of music did this imply? The focus on just one universal fundamental tone implies a degree of control which may ultimately lead to the stifling of both musical and economic creativity. On the other hand, too much innovation would imply a risk of anarchy. The answer seemed to be to allow composers and performers free expression within a pre-agreed framework; a framework that was designed to relate directly to the Logos. The resulting performance was underpinned by supportive but not restrictive structure, and the overall piece was characterised by the freedom to improvise. If the relationship to the Logos changed (via the Emperor) then the fundamental and its structure could also change. Great efforts were made to ascertain the correct Universal Fundamental or kung. If the Cosmic Sound changed then the Emperor’s note could also change to ensure universal harmony. It was clear that awareness of the harmony of the nation, both governmentally and spiritually was a key criterion for successful leadership in China. David Thame attempts to relate China’s economic success over four and a half millennia until the beginning of the twentieth century to China’s inability to protect and maintain its musical culture. China’s protectionist policies had successful upheld a consistent cultural identity until the Ch’ing Dynasty (AD 1644-1912) during which more and more outside influences began to invade China’s cultural boundaries. Ultimately western music could not be integrated into traditional art and ultimately could only subvert or supplant it. Culturally and politically the Emperor’s power progressively failed and was supplanted by other outside influences. Whilst Chinese power and culture was declining over the period of the last Chinese dynasty, one of the branches of the Christian church in Europe, the Quakers (also known as the Society of Friends), had developed a form of both worship and business decision-making which was inherently improvisational. Their ‘improvisational’ process was developed by George Fox a little under 400 years ago and is still materially the same as it was when it first came into being. The Society of Friends talks about ‘the gathered meeting’ which can normally be observed during the act of worship known as the Meeting. The meetings are characterised by silence punctuated by moments of inspiration where a member will stand up and ‘lead’. ‘Leading’ in this sense means externalising verbally ‘the voice of God’ who is speaking through them. The process is intuitive and can, on some occasions, achieve a special state of bliss that improvising musicians would also recognise and enthusiastically hope for when the music reaches a certain level of ecstasy. The Friends’ business meetings are run on the same lines and are designed to promote decision-making not on democratic lines, which for the Quaker would feel like creating inappropriate levels of group division, but utilising an intuivitive group free improvisational speaking process with a level of rules that enable all who want to, to speak to the subject and where decisions are only finally taken when a consensus as been reached. A 'leader' would from time to time attempt to summarise the current views to ascertain concensus. If this wasn't achieved then the meeting continued until it did arrive at an acceptable to all outcome. The participants agreed up front to respectful listening and were, if necessary, reminded of this. In many ways this is reminiscent of musician's deeper listening. Agreement itself was felt as if 'beyond words' hence there being a sense of the spiritual even in a Quaker business meeting. Agreement was felt and was not allowed to rest on merely the 'logic' of the discussion. The Quaker Meeting process points to one form of music improvisation on which researchers have not yet laid great emphasis; intuitive group free sound improvisation. Intuitive group free improvisation allows both amateurs and professionals to combine together at the level, in some sense or other, of equals. In so doing, it takes the discussion beyond the indirect learning opportunities of metaphor and into the realms of the learning available when learning goes beyond simple knowledge acquisition and into the realms of the relational. Thus far only the metaphoric relationship between business improvisation and musical improvisation has been used to develop a possible theory of organisational improvisation. Various forms of musical improvisation have been identified as having value as metaphors. Jazz, music therapy and Indian music have much to inform the improvising organisation but they lack the direct access to performance that intuitive group free improvisation has available to it. This is because these three forms of improvisation require performance skill that the vast majority of people unfortunately lack. It should be mentioned that ‘theatrical improvisation’ has merit in that it can be practised by anyone but as a form is focused largely on what can be called ‘serial improvisation’. Serial in this context means one-after-the-other words, which creates the possibility of inventiveness and spontaneity but only at the level of language and not at the level of simultaneity in which most work-groups exist. Musical improvisations, jazz, Indian & therapeutic, allows for concurrent activity and are therefore better metaphors. If there is a form of improvisation to which most members of the business organisation have direct access, then experiential forms of learning and development can emerge. Music improvisation groups would be seen as woefully inadequate if they were only to theorise and talk about improvisation. There is no validity in this for performing group. They have to be able to do it. So any theories of organisational improvisation ought to be capable of becoming more valid by the practice of direct performance. The improvising organisation should therefore be seen as performing in a way just like its musical equivalent does. To know the improvisational experience in a similar way to the music improvisation group’s experience has additional gravitas. If this is possible, it creates the likelihood of developing awareness of an organisational ‘in the moment’ feed back loop similar to that available to the music improvisation group which could make it easier for organisational groups to self-organise and self-lead. The music improvisation group knows whether it is working or not by the sound that it makes at any one present moment. This is such a vital element of the improvising musical group that its equivalent needs to be found for the organisational improvisation. It is the ultimate intention of this research to identify this improvisational sound in organisational terms. Robert M. Pirsig in ‘Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ might be referring to the organisational sound when he refers to motorcycle maintenance being measured by ‘peace of mind’. “It's an unconventional concept,” I say, “ but conventional reason bears it out. The material object of observation, the bicycle…, can't be right or wrong. Molecules are molecules. They don't have any ethical codes to follow except those people give them. The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn't any other test. If the machine produces tranquillity it is right. If it disturbs you it's wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed. The test of the machine’s always your own mind. There isn't any other test." This seems to imply that there is something missing from an organisational theory that relies only on mechanical parts descriptions and their assembly methods. In the production of improvisation music, it is a given that at the micro-level many events are simultaneously occurring. Perhaps, organisationally, they can be described, or perhaps not. The attempt at ‘nuts & bolts’ description misses the point of the creation and that what results takes on a life of its own. Perhaps it is Persig’s ‘tranquillity’, or maybe it’s ‘satisfaction’ or ‘beauty’ or ‘quality’. The important thing is that at the organisational macro-level there is something beautiful or mysterious or divine that is the true indicator that the organisation is not only functioning well but is operating truly optimally. The 2005 Amsterdam negotiation referred to in other blogs, which this author facilitated, combined both the conditions of reality and the sublime. The ‘real’ issues that needed negotiating were nothing more mundane than a concern over remuneration. Contracts being won in one country and delivered in another were not seeing the compensation being fairly distributed between the various players. This situation had maintained itself over the previous years by reaching agreement on payments on a deal-by-deal basis. The company, in every sense a global organisation, had recently reorganised itself from a structure of country divisions to separately owned national franchises. Ad hoc internal agreements could no longer be applied and a more rigorous, legal and fair internal contract across all entities needed formalising. Any agreements reached between the various entities not only had to stand the test of internal fairness but also had to conform to US, European and worldwide antitrust legislation. The situation was further complicated by the different standards of legislation and also separate and different terms within the previously negotiated national entity contracts that were potentially incompatible. By any stretch of the imagination this problem was recognised as extremely difficult to solve with complex and potentially irreconcilable concerns needing to be taken into account. My client’s position in the organisation made him best placed to grasp the ‘nettle’ that no one else in the organisation wanted to touch. He had led the process earlier in the year at a conference in Beijing where negotiations had commenced but ended without resolution. It was agreed that continuation would occur in Amsterdam later in the year and this author was asked to co-facilitate the 2-day event. The initial planning for the event was not exceptional although the conditions were recognised as tough. The participants were well versed in the issues and would be guaranteed to commit to achieving a result. Chaos could also be easily anticipated which may exacerbate already delicate relationships. Additionally, facilitator bias needed to be addressed to avoid accusations of having a vested interest in the UK’s position appearing to be inappropriately preferred. The group also needed to become aware of a ‘no agreement’ position as a possible outcome that would, from some quarters, be perceived as failure even though it would actually be an entirely legitimate outcome. It was obvious that the recent restructuring had made the possibility of not reaching agreement much more likely. The presence of a representative from the company’s law firm would ensure that we didn’t step into dangerous anti-competitive territory. Laced throughout the course of action would be the varying terms of some of the individually negotiated contracts where maintaining the status quo (no agreement) would be the likely conclusion. To succeed, a process would be needed which could cope with the issues outlined above. The negotiation procedure would need to have resilience, be well grounded and carry academic weight. For this reason the negotiation model based on the work of the Harvard Negotiation Project was chosen. This model is universally recognised having been utilised successful by a substantial number of corporate organisations. It is well tested and carries the necessary credentials. It has the capability of binding and holding the participants whilst remaining fluid and flexible. It also offers the possibility of a safe stream of interactions that allows risk taking and the expression of contention. It would enable the promotion of careful listening and the awareness of others’ positions and their contribution. It presented a recognisable holding form offering a shared forum, permitting diversity and cultural flexibility, and ultimately inspiring confidence that by entering the process the participants might have a likelihood of a workable agreement. The biggest fear was the risk of a gladiatorial battle where current positions would be shored up and remain even more strongly held. Some established positions had already emerged in previous meetings and communications. The USA was certain to lose revenue because many contracts were negotiated on their territory and they would need to give ground. The UK was, on balance, in a similar position but with some potential losses and some possible gains. Switzerland stood to lose heavily because of its strategic position as the territory with many global holding company head offices but very little business activity being performed. Most European countries were likely to gain but would need to avoid anti-trust issues. India and other Far Eastern entities were currently in weak positions because most contracts were not negotiated on their territory. France had a new MD who had been in the job just over a week who would need to be brought quickly up to date with the issues. The anti-trust lawyer could easily declare ‘no agreement’. The time across the two days was divided into six forums that were intended to drive the creativeness of the group towards decisions at the end of day two. The first forum was intended to make available to the participants a sense of there being clear path to follow and most importantly, that a result would be escapable. However, there was awareness that by the time the negotiation had arrived at the beginning of day two the process would inevitably become less structured and more fluid. The following two forums, which were staged opportunities designed to provide space for everyone to be heard and listened to, were strongly facilitated to provide a sense of safety and fairness. The first of the two offered a brief platform for each in turn to state their case. The second reversed the procedure by giving space for each participant’s case to be presented by another member of the group. The fourth forum offered an opportunity to creatively sketch possible outline solutions based upon what had been presented to the group so far. Note that 'wild' ideas were encouraged. Partial solutions were considered good too. The anti-trust lawyer would be asked to hold himself away from the discussions but keep a ‘weather ear’ open for possible 'legal' issues developing. The group would also advised that all options/inventions were to be perceived as 'without commitment' as they were not to be considered offers at this stage. There was to be no horse-trading during this exercise! The fifth forum would require craftsmanship skills, as it would focus on pulling the disparate potential and partial ideas together. The final phase was to be a kind of Finale that would examine all the offered solutions in terms of the initial positions and underlying requirements exposed on the previous day the consequence of which would be a closing signing ceremony and final group photograph. Ageement was a felt feeling, something which easily carries on beyond the closure of the meeting. What arises from this position is a continuance of connection and an enhanced sense of commitment to each other. Participants left with a true sense of being a part of something not just a cog in a wheel.

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