The Power of Voluntary Cooperation
Ann K. Brea and Mark Burgess
Leadership is a huge topic. It’s how we get from a world of ad hoc outcomes to one with verifiable desired outcomes — and at the scale of an organization or even a country! How to begin? Some dwell on human qualities, but what if there were a deeper angle, which wasn’t about skilled individuals at all, but rather about how groups cooperate?
Scaling a business is probably the first cliché you’ll hear as an entrepreneur. Even before we get to the politics of business, and its varied personality types, we need to think about how we scale cooperation — from lending a helping hand to orchestrating complex processes between ordinary individuals. Getting people to work together isn’t as straightforward as it seems. And how it scales is a subtle story.
Terms like authority, legitimacy of decision-rights, and other ideas pop up, as if you could stake a claim on leadership. Some individuals do try, if not by competence then by charisma. But there’s something deeper going on in cooperation— something that concerns relationships between individuals over time more the individuals. The question of securing the “rights” to lead is a complex issue and actually something of a red herring — because even if you have somehow procured those rights, it doesn’t guarantee willing cooperation. Trust, after all, is not cheap.
There’s a simple case that illustrates these points nicely: music.
Music is an activity where skilled individuals come together to cooperate in the production of something that none of them could do alone. Musicians have to promise cooperation in space, in time, in role, and in listening to each other for mood and phrasing — otherwise the result could be disastrous. Disrespect musicians, and you won’t get them to put on your show. They have to give their time, their skill, and their feeling to the outcome.
Even when musicians use modern studio techniques to multitrack music (playing all of the instruments by themselves) they have to take on different aspects of the composition, yielding the absolute “right” (self-granted) to act individually and ad hoc for each voice in turn. In other words, they have to suppress different skills and desires, and emphasize different promises to coordinate the final result. That’s creativity.
There’s a time and a place for everything, just not in a composition. Otherwise music and art would be indulgent chaos. Sometimes improvisation works, but rarely at scale. In music, the goal is to submit oneself to a collective performance.
Of course, playing with a handful of musicians is very different from playing in a 200 person orchestra. And running a small startup is different from running a 200 or 2000 person company.
It’s not so much about who decides, as who is willing to yield!
In a small ensemble, instrumentalists can improvise jazz just by listening to each other and responding (see figure above). They know and trust one another, having built a direct relationship over time. In an orchestra, the scaling is harder.
A hundred musicians (see figure above) can’t all listen to one another to second guess what happens next. Rather, they coordinate weakly by listening to the whole and by watching a conductor. They coordinate strongly with the music itself — i.e.with the unfolding outcome, directed essentially by the written score. No one forces them to play together. They come voluntarily and give up the freedom to choose, so that they can all coordinate and play their separate parts in the score. It’s not the army. How the score was chosen, and how it was put together is a different issue. It could be a collaboration or a single act of an individual.
The role of the conductor in an orchestra is widely misunderstood. The conductor is an appointed leader, but does not direct musicians in what and how to play — the score does that. The conductor couldn’t possibly maintain a relationship with each member of the orchestra to make that work. At best he or she can give a few hand signals, when to start, when to play a bit louder, etc, addressing each of the roles of instrument groups. But the conductor trusts the musicians because they promise their skills voluntarily, and they have history together. They promise to suppress the urge to show off the full range of those abilities for the duration of the performance — to play only what is written, what has been designed. Their subordination to the outcome is entirely voluntary, and the conductor simply helps them to get on with it. That’s leadership.
No single configuration — transform by context
The configuration in which the whole orchestra plays together isn’t the whole story either. Before playing together, each player may need time alone with the music. Now the strongest relationship is between the player and the score, ignoring all the other players. This is how the player builds trust in the plan and in self. “Can I even do it?”
Later, in group rehearsals, the main relationship shifts and trust is built by rehearsing with others who have also practiced alone. This rehearsal is not for the individual, but for a new and different level of coordination: with the other players and with the conductor. By repeating and rehearsing, they build a relationship to and trust in the collective.
If you think that sounds wrong, watch the orchestra before the performance begins. There the players are on stage, tuning their instruments and playing phrases in last minute rehearsal — -all out of time and coordination. The result is a cacophony of random notes. Then the conductor comes in and they fall silent, taking on their new role of reduced freedom.
American composer Elmer Bernstein taught classes to businesses during his career, in which he developed the orchestra analogy in detail. In the same way as a conductor, a business leader can’t afford to micromanage everybody in an organization. But there still has to be trust that the participants (employees) will play their roles at the right moment, with a minimum of oversight. They can do it by forming their own relationships to the whole — not by burying themselves in their own performance. Everyone has to keep an eye out for the collective outcome.
The conductor is the most visible figurehead, because he or she plays a singular role that stands out to the casual observer. But the conductor is not a controller.
Small jazz groups are where players go to show off. You don’t try to show off in an orchestra. Playing as a single organism is about keeping oneself in check, not about indulging in displays of daring and prowess.
Some like to call this self-management. But it’s more self-restraint than it is self-made decisions. The discovery is this: coordination is about discipline, not about individual freedoms or rights granted. Unfortunately, when the leaders of companies lose sight of their own role, they may overstep that role. They sometimes come to take compliance for granted — to see themselves as more than a service to the whole performance. If ego runs riot, leaders may abuse their power, and fail to listen themselves to the very performance they are conducting.
Now we are heading towards a larger subject — about “authority”. But that’s for another time.