Back in June, we commented on Peter Cook’s Academy of Rock and associated book Sex, Leadership and Rock’n’Roll. We were honest enough to admit that we hadn’t read it at the time, and pleasantly surprised to receive (positive) comments here from Peter. Our interest appropriately stimulated, we were off to Amazon for a copy. Given our initial dialogue with Peter, we also decided that – rather than a traditional review – a ‘Q&A’ style interview may be more informative and interesting for our readers. Peter’s answers to our questions are shown below: a guest contributor, you can also read Peter’s responses to the Don’t Compromise Personal Learning Profile. And now on with the show …

Q1 As a member of book club, one recent novel – about a modern choral singing group – left me floundering, as I don’t sing and I don’t know this school of music at all: the references were a hindrance. Yet – because we partly learn by associating new ‘information’ with something already known – training events and materials frequently draw on analogies to explain a concept or its importance. Do you find that your analogy – rock and roll specifically, but music generally – can similarly be a handicap for some participants? I’m thinking both of those who feel (or have been led to believe) that learning shouldn’t be ‘fun’, and of those with no interest in – or ear for – music.

A1 There are a small minority of people that either are disengaged with popular culture or are completely unaware of music and this certainly offers a minor handicap. However, it is no different (and probably less widespread) to the wide range of people that are almost immune to business and management theories. We keep the ideas about music to a novice level – in practice we find that most people can understand the idea that all music consists of some structure and some improvisational elements.

I’d agree strongly with the notion that people learn best by building new ideas on the scaffolding of more familiar ideas and this is the way we have approached the work. There are essentially two ways into the book; conventional management ideas, mostly on the left hand pages, or the ‘populist route’ – mostly on the right hand pages. No ‘ear for music’ is needed.

Q2 In the book, you comment – comparing an award-winning team with a less successful one – that “A sense of humour does not appear as a line on the company balance sheet, but clearly this intangible asset makes a critical difference in this and many other examples”. You’ve already commented here that your conferences tend to ‘”dumb up” by challenging some of the academic jargon with a purer and simpler language” and your book urges organisations to help and encourage employees to ‘bring their souls to the office with them’. How far do you think some organisations have fallen pray to the ‘all work and no play’ adage, and do you think this is as bad a recipe for the ‘work’ as it is for the ‘play’?

A2 We are at a very serious time on the ever changing business roller coaster and it would appear that many organisations have their hands to the grindstones. Talk of fun at work has all but been excluded in some financial institutions. If this continues, we will see burnouts and business meltdown through the slavish pursuit of work rather than a healthy balance of work and play.

Just yesterday, I was challenged by a bank manager at Nat West, who felt that they had been unfairly treated for having to appear to have no life after the banking crisis. He pointed out to me that bankers need to celebrate success and create great places to work just as much as other businesses and he was looking forward to the day when the banks don’t have to hold their heads down in shame and can proudly admit to enjoying their work again.

Q3 Your book starts with a comparison between orchestras (scored, tightly arranged, highly disciplined but inflexible), jazz (freely improvised around loose – or even absent – structures) and rock’n’roll (underlying structures, but freedom to improvise and respond in the moment). Later, you contrast organisations with clear goals but unclear means with those with clear means but unclear goals. Much as the metaphorical ‘perfect soundtrack’ is a matter of matching music to mood, the latter benefit from Z-A thinking (improvisation – rock and roll – leadership), but the former from what you call an ‘A-Z orchestral management approach’. Do you find your approach and model accordingly works and fits better with some organisations than others?

A3 Yes, indeed. Like all models, they have a range of relevance. In this case, the message is most widely understood by those companies who are concerned with making creativity and innovation part of their everyday experience.

However, it’s also rather surprising that I constantly get calls from local government and some large ‘public’ organisations, such as the United Nations and the Metropolitan Police, who are attempting to get their employees more engaged. Normally, such organisations are managed as ‘orchestras’, but it seems that they have detected that their workforces will no longer ‘listen to their arias’ and feel the need for more participative approaches to work.

Q4 As you explore in relation to innovation and renewal, even the most successful bands break-up, having exhausted their creativity, their cultural timespan (to borrow a song title, they were ‘Acceptable in the 80s’ ), or – perhaps more frequently – their willingness to co-exist. Alternatively, they wind up on the nostalgia/revival circuit. Do you think even the most skilled and astute businesses can have a natural lifespan? And given the music industry’s collective failure to spot the Internet coming, could traditional business teach the music industry something here too?

A4 I think traditional businesses have more to teach the music business than vice versa,  and I deliberately steered clear of using the music business as an example to other businesses. It simply is not a good model, being mostly concerned with squeezing value out of a limited lifespan of a band with the majority being ‘one hit wonders’.

One can draw some lessons from this however. Given that the music business has an incredibly long tail of one hit wonders and people who do not reach fame in any sense of the word, it also has a very small number of evergreen artists who change what they do and keep their audiences (e.g. Bowie, Madonna, Prince).

Businesses too often fail because their recipe goes out of date with their customers or they have a one product/service wonder. There are valuable lessons to be learnt re changing your business offering and retaining your customers from these examples. I hear that the Swedish company Stora has been going for 700 years. No rock act can claim this of course, as they are built around the personalities that created them, so I doubt we will see ‘The Rolling Stones II’ after Mick and Keef pop their clogs! No doubt some clever marketing manager will prove me wrong! 🙂

I would not want anyone to attempt to learn business and management from the music business. In my experience, apart from the apex of the industry which the U2s / Stones’ of the world inhabit, many of the people who call themselves managers in the music business would not get a job in management in another sector. I have bitter experience of music management incompetence when I worked with a ‘one hit wonder’ in an ambitious attempt to fly a jet around the world on a once in a lifetime rock’n’roll experience. I suffered a net personal loss of £100 000 with plenty of transferable lessons about how NOT to manage a project of this magnitude. More on this at www.academy-of-rock.co.uk/tour

Q5 Going back to the question of ‘willingness to co-exist’, a whole section of your book is concerned with relationships. It strikes me that groups of (rock and jazz) musicians choose members because they ‘fit’ – there’s something intangible called ‘chemistry’ at play in the group’s interactions – while organisations tend to choose new members on the basis of abilities and knowledge. The pattern is more like employing session musicians – people called in a temporary basis as they provide a needed skill, but where ‘chemistry’ isn’t seen as important. Given that session musicians often think of their ‘real music’ as the work they produce outside their sessioning careers, isn’t there a lesson here for businesses?

A5 Funnily enough I was performing with a session bass player who deputises for Anastacia, Celine Dion, Cyndi Lauper and a few others last night. It’s absolutely true that he tells me that he enjoys letting his hair down with me just as much as when he is performing at the 02 or in New York (he says it’s more fun, there are more opportunities for mistakes and so on!).

However, what comes across strongly from this character is that he is a very natural connector – indeed, he is not the stereotypical sterile session muso. It would be wrong therefore to assume that he does his other work as a duty. He certainly does have a great deal of chemistry when it comes to working with these stars, as he is hired repeatedly. His playing skills are not in question as a session player, but the ‘x factor’ that gets him repeat bookings with these characters is his great personality. He sees being a session musician as a craft and applies just as much passion and commitment to this when working on a temporary basis as he does at home and on the jamming circuit. I sense that this gives him a personal advantage as compared with the clinical stereotypes in the field of session players.

Q6 A question about discipline – and restraint. I remember a section from Brian Eno’s “A Year with Swollen Appendices” where he despairs of one of the shortcomings of one production client – the band James – and their lack of structure. As one of the band has commented on working with Eno in a subsequent interview “One thing we all learned came from him jamming with us, which he does in rehearsals sometimes. He would always play these really basic keyboard lines and sounds because he wanted to limit the options; with unlimited options you never decide on anything. He forced us to use our creativity to come up with something really good […].” Applying your analogy to most organisations, who should be playing Eno’s role? HR? Senior Managers? Line Managers?

A6 I met an editor for the Financial Times book imprint some years ago who said that she wanted something with ‘resonant simplicity’. It took me a while to think through what this meant, but you have reminded me of this with Eno’s point. Eno is what we in the personal development trade call a great ‘reflective practitioner’ – he listens and sees what is needed rather than what he wants to do – this is why he is both a musician and a producer. If there is too much divergence (lack of structure) then some level of convergence is needed. In music this is often achieved by someone offering a ‘motif’ e.g. a basic keyboard line.

If a band has one day to make a record, someone needs to make some tough decisions if they are to walk out of the studio with something that can be listened to. The same applies to meetings – if a meeting is a freeform jam session, you may have a great time diverging but there may be no outcome / result or decision. Someone must provide the same skill to help people converge and decide. This puts the word management into the phrase creative management.

As to who should play Eno’s role, it cannot come down to any one function. All people at work need to learn that there is time for creativity and an equivalent need for structure. It cannot be placed in any one function.

As an example, I took the role of producer for a rock band that was formed from the staff of a Housing Association, who were producing a single for a Cancer charity recently. This required me to operate in a similar way, making sure everyone was involved and that they enjoyed the experience, but also helping them to take the tough decisions needed to record all the material in just one day. The skills of coaching are ones that ASK will be very familiar with. You can listen to the results at www.academy-of-rock.co.uk/teambuilding

Q7 Musical success – particularly financial – can be measured in CD and ticket sales, merchandising revenue, downloads, MySpace and Facebook friends … there are endless metrics, most of them available in real-time. Checking income against recording, touring and promotional costs is eminently possible. Learning and development, as an industry, finds it difficult to demonstrate ROI. While your approach is memorable for being a fresh and strikingly different approach, how do you ensure your work with organisations has a lasting, positive impact? And how easy is to prove cause and effect in cases of (forgive us the pun) ragas to riches?

A7 You now get my on my soapbox. It simply is NOT possible to prove cause and effect in the learning and development business as it is a multiple cause and effect environment. I speak as a numerate scientist who is dismayed at attempts to use ‘digital’ scientific methods on ‘analogue’ business and HR problems. For these reasons:

  • A learning intervention is often part of a wider set of business / HR interventions in a complex adaptive system. Generally speaking, organisations do not run ‘clinical trials’ i.e. do the work on one half whilst leaving the others untreated as a ‘control’. Business, in general, is not a university or a laboratory. Complexity means that there is no single cause and effect.
  • There is usually a time delay between your intervention and the result – sometimes this can be years. Whilst this occurs, many other factors can come into play to assist or hinder the uptake of learning from a particular intervention.

That said, I am conscious that clients need something to justify their spend on such things. The best system that I can recommend is a thoughtful application of the Kirkpatrick framework (an oldie but nonetheless a goldie). In some senses, the least important element of the Kirkpatrick framework is the 1st one – ‘response’ – it is, however, a trainer-centric measure of whether people like you and is easy to manipulate. I like to focus more on level 2 – ‘what people learned at the time’. I put a great deal of thought into ways to tease this out quite soon after an event. This usually involves ensuring that people are clear on what is intended to be learned at the outset via a clear business proposal, which is articulated in various ways before and during an event.

Much more important are the 3rd and 4th measures of ‘application’ and ‘impact’. I think you can successfully use sampling approaches and structured storytelling to extract this kind of intelligence a few months down the track of an event. At this point, people are also usually able to make a judgement about the contribution that the event made towards the achievement of the results – they can say to what extent the intervention contributed to the achievement of the result rather than caused it.

This gives you some ‘analogue’ answers to an ‘analogue’ question and satisfies the decision makers at most organisations I’ve encountered. Anyone who tries to tell you that they can pinpoint the exact ROI from a ‘soft intervention’ is either a liar or stupid. I tend to avoid people in organisations who want me to make daily checks on how people are utilising the learning from one of my interventions! 🙂 

Q8 I might be misinterpreting your analogy, but there’s a widespread hope that music can at least help to change the world. Certainly it has a long tradition of protest, going way back into folk music traditions around the world. In mainstream organisations, however, dissenters don’t tend to get positive receptions: organisations either block their ears, or find ways of silencing the dissent. A well-thought through alternative is probably a better proposition than simple protest, but how much do you think organisations might benefit from paying closer attention to their in-house protest singers?

A8 Almost every good business book says something like ‘value your mavericks’, yet we know that it is hard to hear views that are dissonant with your prevailing wisdom/paradigm. It cannot be overstated and I have simply contributed to the ‘volume’ of voices that have echoed this requirement.

Some businesses have heard the message loud and clear, such as Google, Unilever and Pfizer. Anyone that is prepared to use a coach is predisposed to learning from difference. Some organisations are smart enough to use their non execs wisely or invite customers and/or children in to comment on the company.

Q9 We’re all human, so we’re all capable of being shallow or superficial – especially when there’s no motivation to be anything else (or anything more). In your top 20 tips at the end of the book, you note that ‘Style always overwhelms substance.’ Given the number of things that organisations – and the people within them – can (and do) pay little more than lip service to, how concerned are you that we too often fail to notice your important caveat – ‘Once you have substance sorted, go for style every time’ – and what’s your top tip for avoiding that pitfall?

A9 Look in the mirror and ask yourself ‘is what I’m doing going to be here for longer than five years?’ This may not be sustainable development, but in a fad ridden universe, anything that lasts longer than a year may have longevity!

Ask also ‘Is this just for me, just for others, or a healthy balance of my own needs and those I serve?’

Q10 Finally, not quite Desert Island Discs, but not far off! We’ve taken on board your scepticism about ‘One Vision, One Mission’ and company anthems (to continue your analogy, the warning song would presumably be Elvis Costello’s ‘Night Rally’?). But if you could encourage people to listen to eight songs they could learn the most important lessons from … name the songs – and the lessons!

A10 OK – here we go – some of these are deadly serious, others very tongue in cheek – I’m afraid I could not be limited to eight songs 🙂 

Pink Floyd: Another Brick in the Wall – the lesson being that we will not be programmed to learn what others want us to!

Prince: Planet Earth – Prince may have his more superficial moments but these are some of his finest lyrics on the serious topics of environmentalism, politics and so on – the song is pretty good too.

Imagine you could rid the Earth
Of anyone you choose
Which ones would you need the most
And which ones would you lose?
Do we want to judge another
Lest we be judged too?
Careful now… The next one might be you”

Billy Bragg: To have and to have not – a song about personal empowerment

John Shuttleworth: Up and down like a Bride’s nightie– no deep and meaningful message, but a telling story of DIY disappointments! 🙂

Madonna: Hollywood – an interesting pappy song but which speaks of the conflict between style and substance. Madge has worked this theme though other songs, comparing the superficiality of celebrity life with the need to be a whole person. Whilst I’m not about to feel sorry for the plight of celebrities, its interesting that she reflects sometimes in a self effacing/critical way on the system which she exists in.

Lou Reed: Caroline says – a harrowing tale of the dark side of human existence – not for the faint hearted, nor the album Berlin from which this song comes.

The Sex Pistols: EMI – a case study in mutual manipulation?

Bill Nelson/Be- Bop Deluxe: Axe Victim – an interesting insight into the torment/conflict that surrounds many performers/artists – Bill Nelson is a very interesting artist who I know and had a love/hate relationship with the music industry, eventually leaving behind all it had to offer financially in pursuit of his art. He probably made the right decision and continues to be prolific – you can sample his work at www.billnelson.com

Sylvester: You make me feel (mighty real) – purely for its uplifting feeling – nothing more nothing less – some will even argue that I should be shot for placing this next to Bill Nelson, but true musicians can appreciate music whatever genre etc. it comes from even if it is not to their personal taste.

Aretha Franklin: R.E.S.P.E.C.T – hearing this song does more for me than reading the words respect for people on a values statement!

Kylie Minogue: Better the Devil you know – the clearest treatment of the problem of what the business academics call cognitive dissonance I know!

Rolf Harris: Smoke on the Water – just because its there!

By the way there is a ‘top 20’ list of these in the appendix section of Sex, Leadership and Rock’n’Roll.

To finish, here’s a video clip – made by the participants – of the Housing Association staff rock band, BedRock, recording their Cancer charity single.

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