What is your ‘fantasy ambition’?

Mine is to be a musician. So when I agreed to sing a few pieces at my old law firm’s annual client function, I was secretly hoping that I would be ‘discovered’ and my career in music would take off. But the reality turned out to be a bit different.

What happened instead is that I learned a valuable lesson about collaboration.

Music is the ultimate collaboration.

While I would hesitate to call myself a musician, I have dabbled in a few small musical projects over the years. As much as I have enjoyed the experience of making music with others, I have gained immeasurably from the lessons I have learned about the process of collaboration.

So what can we learn from musicians that will help us to collaborate more effectively in the workplace?

Musicians trust each other implicitly

The client function was an elegant affair, as law firm events usually are.

As part of the organising committee, I’d hired a jazz band to play throughout the function and was somehow roped in to sing a few pieces with the band. The first few songs went well – we received an enthusiastic round of applause before the guests went back to their conversations. My confidence growing, I decided to take requests (a very bad idea). One of the Partners asked for ‘Moondance’ by Van Morrison, and I was only too happy to oblige.

I started smoothly enough, but as the chorus approached, and the melody got higher and higher, I realised that I’d made a huge mistake. I was singing it in the wrong key! With every phrase, I was becoming more and more convinced that I wasn’t going to be able to hit the high note in the critical line: “Can I just have one more moondance with you, my love?” A couple of bars before we arrived at the peak, I turned to the pianist with a look of sheer horror. He accurately read my expression and launched into an inspired solo that replaced my line and turned the performance into something quite unique.

Phew.

The best part? No one even noticed. And I immediately learned how much trust exists between musicians – that a simple glance could communicate a cry for help that was honoured immediately.

Where does this trust come from? If I had played with this band before, I would have said that it was based on our personal relationship. But I suspect it had more to do with the band’s professionalism and commitment to the performance.

Similarly, we won’t always get along with the people that we’re working with. That shouldn’t stand in the way of us building deep and lasting trust based on our own professionalism and commitment to a common vision.

Musicians respect (and embrace) diversity

It’s relatively easy to work with people who think and behave the same way that we do. More often than not, we have to work with people who are different (people who think that we’re different!).

In the face of diversity – of education, skills, gender, culture, age, personality – it’s tempting to devalue what others contribute and see them as the problem. But what if we could harness those differences to make something better?

That’s exactly what musicians do when they come together as a band.

Having acquired a taste for jazz, I took jazz piano lessons for a while and that’s how I discovered the ‘magic of jazz’ – the ability for one musician to try out an idea, develop it, and then pass it on to another musician to build upon it. So the trumpet might play a few notes, and then develop it into a riff, and before you know it the whole band is jamming around a central theme. The beauty is in how a seemingly random collection of notes can evolve in the space of 10 or 20 minutes to become so much more than it was when it began.

How do they do this? Apart from their technical skills as musicians, there’s an enormous amount of respect required to engage in this aspect of jazz effectively – respect for diversity and the benefits it brings.

And diversity isn’t something that musicians just put up with. Musicians need diversity to create harmony.

In music, the concept of ‘tonal range’ refers to the range of pitches that a particular instrument can produce. If two instruments are in the same tonal range, it’s hard to distinguish one from the other, and the music loses its texture. When the instruments in a band operate in different tonal ranges, they can complement each other to build a wall of sound that is much more interesting and complex.

In the workplace, the most effective teams are the ones that not just respect and embrace diversity, but seek and nurture it. In doing so, we gain access to a wider range of skills and perspectives than if we maintain the status quo.

Musicians listen – they really listen

Arguably one of the most beautiful instruments ever created is the human voice. So put 60 of them together and you’ve got 60 times the beauty, right? Not quite.

Before the ‘jazz years’, I developed my voice as a member of my high school’s A Cappella choir. For the uninitiated, ‘A Cappella’ means ‘without accompaniment’, which in this case translated into 60 or so teenage girls trying to sing with some sort of cohesion without an accompanist to keep us in time or in tune. And yet the sound we produced collectively was quite extraordinary.

Surprisingly, I learned that the key to choral harmony is less about the vocal skill of the individual choristers and more about their ability to listen to each other. Only by listening would you know whether your voice is blending well with the voices around you – in terms of pitch, tempo and tone.

The ability to listening to others while steadily holding your own part takes great skill and practice. It starts with knowing your own part well enough that you have enough attention left over to listen to the other parts. Then you have to practise those parts together to become familiar with the timing and pitch cues that bring the melody and harmonies into alignment. And you have to care more about the performance of the group than your own individual contribution – putting ‘we before me’.

In the workplace, our ability to listen to each other and adjust ourselves accordingly is essential to working collaboratively. What’s the point of having a team of individual superstars if they can’t work together and support each other? Nobody likes a diva!

Music requires commitment

Finally, it takes commitment. While humans are social creatures, effective collaboration doesn’t just happen because we want it to.

When I was 14, I wrote a business plan for a pop group. It was scrawled in blue texta on a piece of reinforced loose-leaf paper in between my English and History notes. Unfortunately, none of my friends could play any instruments. After a year of piano lessons, I’d been kicked out of the Yamaha Music School for repeatedly ‘forgetting’ to practise my scales. Needless to say, the group never got off the ground.

Collaboration starts with an intention – and then it takes commitment. Commitment to practising the ideas described – trust, respect, embracing diversity, listening. And commitment to the team.

The payoff will be music to your ears!

What have you learned about collaboration from other team activities – whether in the area of music, sports or otherwise?

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