Chord’ial management

You might be quick to conclude from an image of orchestra conductor waving his baton as one who is in absolute control of his musicians. But it’s not so.

Henry Mintzberg, respected writer on management, decided to spend time with Bramwell Tovey, artistic director and conductor of Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, in order to explore how orchestra conductors came to be a popular metaphor for managers today. Instead of finding in action the words common to management books like ‘control’ or ‘directing’, he found a glimpse of what he called ‘covert leadership’ which, in fact, means:

” managing with a sense of nuances, constraints, and limitations….This is the role of the covert leader: to act quietly and unobtrusively in order to exact not obedience but inspired performance…”

(Covert Leadership: Notes on Managing Professionals by Henry Mintzberg, Harvard Business Review, Nov/Dec 98)

Whatever the media image of an orchestra conductor might be, hardly does this conductor really control. Though there might be control evident in the system or structure but all the structure and system comes from the profession itself, not from the manager. This kind of inbuilt structure makes certain rituals (like stomping their foot after a good solo rehearsal) a unconcious event for the musicians. Drawing a parallel to management of software development, that kind of tacit understanding which makes ritual (say, testing) happen is markedly absent. In music, when it comes to directing (another overused word for managers) – the experience was far from giving orders, even comments made during rehearsals have to be aimed at sections rather than at individuals.”

Lest one wrongly assumes it to be powerlessness, Mintzberg adds: Taken together, the various constraints within which the orchestra conductor works describe a very common condition among managers-not being in absolute control of others nor being completely powerless, but functioning somewhere in between.

Again before one hastens to point to ’empowerment’, he says:

Empowerment is a silly notion here. Musicians hardly need to be empowered by conductors. Inspired maybe-infused with feeling and energy-but not empowered. Leaders energize people by treating them not as detachable “human resources” (probably the most offensive term ever coined in management) but as respected members of a cohesive social system. When people are trusted, they do not have to be empowered.

He ends up with the note:

“…you may learn from this example what a good deal of today’s managing is all about. Not obedience and harmony, but nuances and constraints. So maybe it is time for conventional managers to step down from their podiums, get rid of their budgeting batons, and see the conductor for who he or she really is. Only then can anyone appreciate the myth of the manager up there as well as the reality of the conductor down here. Perhaps that is how the manager and the organization can make beautiful music together.”

Though the parallel between music and management is oft repeated, this particular paper bears to stand out from being a cliche. Still, some opines that even classical music is not a suitable metaphor for agile management which thrives on improvisation. Jazz, here, suits better.

Itay Talgam, in his brilliant TED talk, shows with video snippets the effect of ‘doing without doing’ and how

‘..suddenly out of the chaos, order. Noise becomes music’.

In this talk Talgam explains that when Karajan was asked about his mode of conducting he said “… the worst damage I can do to my orchestra is to give them a clear instruction. Because that will prevent the ensemble, the listening to each other that is needed for an orchestra”. Conductor Klieber not only creates a process, but also the conditions in the world in which this process takes place.

Benjamin Zander, leading conductor for Boston, London and Israel philharmonic orchestras; talks in his book the ‘The Art of Possibility‘ about exploring the facets of hidden possibilities. Coming back of software development, isn’t this exactly what agile methodology trying to do – to rein in inherent uncertainties with the ‘art of possibility’?

Though most of us gotta serve somebody, we can always try to take a sad song and make it better.

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