Organisational Determinism

The one-eyed expert is monarch

Some years ago I attended an interview for a music officer job with a regional arm of the Arts Council.

My experience was, I thought, pretty good. Decade (from my teens) immersed in music and concert management. I felt comfortable in my knowledge.

“So,” asked the local chairperson, “What do you play?”

“I don’t,” I replied.

Undeterred she asked again, “Yes, but what is your instrument?”

“Err… french horn, trumpet, bass mainly guitar and percussion”

I had played all these instruments at school and university, but not beyond and, working with opera companies and orchestras, I had a point of not “competing” with the professionals after whom I was looking.

“What are you performing at the moment?” she continued.

Rightly or wrongly, I decided at this point that I was not going to get the job.

“Well… I am working on some Quebecois folk songs with a colleague from the LPO.”

This was partly true. My friend Jean-Christopher and I enjoyed new music and had recently been listening to La Botinne Sourriante.

“And where will you be performing?” She eagerly continued.

“Probably in the foyer at the South Bank Centre”

The programmer there was a friend.

The interview continued. It ended. There was a lunch for all the interviewees, which I found oddly inappropriate and which I did not attend.

I didn’t get the job.

Yet I am still curious as to why the Chair assumed I was a professional musician?

And what made me play to her fantasy with my own?

I have experienced this form of Organizational Determinism on other occasion.  As an OD consultant for a very large cultural institute, I was often viewd as an expert on art, curating and the care of objects.  As a governor of two primary schools, I was assumed to have worked as a teacher.  And now, managing a short project for a large fire service, many people assume I have slid down poles, ridden in fire engines and can give expert advise on smoke alarms.

“Ask James. He knows all about…”  I might know something, but I don’t know all.

This positive regard is flattering to an extent, but also an invitation to play the expert, to take on the authority, give wise and definitive council.  In the land of the blind, the one-eyed is monarch.

This can also occur in organisations themselves. As the world’s greatest fire service, museum, orchestra it is all too easily to assume the mantle of world’s authority.  I have seen this happen in a gallery where being surrounded by great art and being part of the creative industries, led to an assumption of inherent creativity paradoxically leading to less creative action.

If fire-fighting is the core purpose and expertise of a fire brigade, then “fire-fighting” can become the cultural response to all work – projects dragging towards a deadline when a flurry of on the spot activity will help get the job done, probably not very well and with not a lot of learning.

Being good at being expert needs a healthy regard for inexpertise.  To grow one needs to learn and tapping the uncertainty of inexpertise is the fire-ground of learning.  Too often I’ve heard the outcome of research or inquiry by an external consultant as “telling us what we already knew”. So what was the point?  You’ve haven’t learnt anything other than what you already assumed to be the truth.

Returning to the interview, why did I play into the music fantasy?

I was being playful and mischievous and perhaps I wanted to please just a little bit.

“Play” and “Mischief” – aren’t those elements you’d like from a consultant?

I would baulk a bit at “wanting to please”. I’d re-frame it more positively as “getting alongside” or “building collaborative relationships”. Pleasing is not a bad thing in itself, as long as it doesn’t lead to one-eyedness.

Rather, it should allow one to safely bring the mischief and play that might just lead to
something new, something different and something useful