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Cooperation that sounds fantastic and delivers great results

August 6, 2013

proms2013It’s many years since I have watched an orchestra in action at a live event and I’d forgotten what a mesmorising and fulfilling experience it can be.

This particular event was the 27th BBC Prom of the 2013 season at the Royal Albert Hall and I was in the west choir area overlooking the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Peter Oundjian.

During 3 hours of performance that included one of my all time favourite pieces of classical music, Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 3, I watched in awe as the various sections and individual musicians were brought together masterfully by the conductor to create the most fantastic sound.

Having written recently about the impact my new hearing aids have had on the quality of life, this was the next big test. The majority of live events I have attended since wearing hearing aids have been disappointing and I have actively avoided performances where the quality of sound is fundamental to the enjoyment.

So I’m pleased to report that the aids functioned even better with live music than recorded versions and the richness,  depth and subtlety of sound was something I haven’t experienced for probably close to 20 years.

Beyond this musical delight however, watching the orchestra and conductor in action has got me thinking more and more about the topics of cooperation and leadership.

In some new research published this week, it is said that evolution favours cooperation and that being selfish is a short-term strategy that leads to extinction.

This reminds me of a book I read a while back called Evolution’s Arrow which proposes that

Evolution progresses by discovering ways to build cooperative organisations out of self-interested individuals

Published 13 years ago, Evolution’s Arrow was thought-provoking and insightful and argued that  “evolution is directional and progressive, and that this has major consequences for humanity”

Wherever life emerges in the cosmos, evolution will progress in the direction of greater cooperation and complexity at ever-increasing scale and evolvability. Why cooperate? Because in a cosmos where natural selection is a primary driver of evolution, those who cooperate, whether they be molecules, cells, organisms, or societies, will outcompete those who do not. Cooperative organizations are more competitive and adaptable than non-cooperative organizations, if, that is, the system is “managed” in such a way as to ensure that cooperators benefit from their cooperating and non-cooperators pay for their non-cooperating.

As the global financial crisis has run its course over the last 5 years it has been encouraging to see that organisations that are essentially cooperative in nature have thrived during tough times. This report from 2009 by the International Labour Organisation examines what it is about ‘cooperatives’ that makes them resilient in times of crisis.

During the 1840s in Britain, at a time of desperate economic hardship, retail consumer cooperatives began to be formed among textile workers as the only
alternative to emigration or starvation. They weathered many crises, including two world wars and the great depression, coming out stronger every time until by the 1950s they had 12% of the retail trade and had given rise to similar cooperative sectors throughout Europe.

After examining the history of cooperative movements and organisations worldwide, the report analyses what makes them successful

Cooperatives are guided by seven cooperative principles:

  • voluntary and open membership;
  • democratic member control;
  • member economic participation;
  • autonomy and independence;
  • education, training and information;
  • cooperation among cooperatives;
  • concern for community.

This list shares a lot of similarity with the open source software movement which, like its retailing and financial counterparts, has proved particularly resilient during recession.

However, like the orchestra I was transfixed by recently, the quality of output is undoubtedly influenced by leadership. This study from 2005 looked at how and why a conductor makes a difference.

An essential characteristic of the performance of orchestral music is that a joint interpretation is produced by a multiplicity of musicians. Depending on the work, an average of seventy players participate in a performance. The success criterion of fit between all participating in the artistic production process implies strong interdependence between tasks in the orchestra. In the interest of congruity a balance has to be maintained throughout a performance among all the members of the orchestra in sound and rhythm . A specific tonal quality, for example, can be achieved only if all the musicians involved synchronize intonation, articulation and dynamics.

If you look at web development projects holistically, then this ‘tonal quality’ is something that differentiates one technology solution from another. In the world of proprietary software development ‘tonal quality’ has been driven very much by directive leadership, with the sound that people hear being influenced, and in many instances, distorted by industry analysts. Open source software development however is often likened to the challenge of herding cats and has typically benefited from non-directive leadership.

A non-directive leadership style tends to be functional because the employees in creative fields are highly qualified and intrinsically motivated . Thus, to make best use of their skills, and to maintain and enhance their motivation, it seems adequate to leave the led as much freedom as possible . In the orchestra, as in other creative fields, the musicians are well-trained professionals with a high degree of intrinsic motivation . This raises the question of why the conductor’s leadership style is not participative or delegative, but directive.

Having spent many hundreds of thousand hours immersed in content technologies of all different shapes and sizes I would say that ‘tonal quality’ is much more about how well a solution fits a scenario in practice than all the things you ‘hear’ about it and, for me, this puts an emphasis back on directive leadership. As the study of a conductor’s role observes …

Precise ensemble playing by musicians requires not only individual mastery of the given instrument but also the ability to co-operate. Musicians must co-ordinate their movements (e.g. bowing), their breathing and the intensity of playing. To do so, they need to know the target value of the interpretation, and in implementing this target value they must not only listen carefully to the other instruments but also react directly to each others’ playing

So, before deciding to invest time, effort and money into a software solution it is well worth taking a close look at the conductor/s and whether they are having a positive or negative influence on the ‘tonal quality’ of output but also at just how cooperative the community of players is because as the study of orchestras concludes …

Directive-charismatic leadership positively affects both the skill and the motivation of orchestral musicians. The followers know the interpretation target of the conductor and want to attain it, thus feeling that their best is demanded of them. Both conditions are important for co-operation, i.e. motivation cannot substitute for skill and vice versa. If one controls for the effect of the variable ‘motivation’, the connection between skill and artistic quality declines; if one controls for the effect of ‘skills’, the connection between motivation and artistic quality also declines. Leader behavior affects the two preconditions for follower behavior about equally.


I have seen the benefits of directive-charismatic leadership in proprietary software development but also seen how motivation and quality can be impacted negatively by the profit imperative.

Personally, I like what I’ve seen and experienced in the open source environment. Here’s the type of leadership approach that resonates well with me and gives me with confidence that the time and effort I have invested in Drupal is worthwhile. Likewise, the ‘tonal quality’ of outputs like Drupal Commerce for example is testament to high levels of cooperation and the directive-charismatic leadership of Commerce Guys.

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