Thursday, February 17, 2011

An Agile Orchestra

I've started talking about an agile orchestra in the last few weeks and I thought I'd describe a little further what I mean.  In computer science and the IT industry, we've developed a new set of processes for building things called agile processes.  Agile processes involve small, focussed teams working in a series of short sprints of activity towards achievable goals.  (I'm generalizing, but trying to pull out the most useful aspects.)  Teams define a finished product (not necessarily a final product) they would like to achieve within 2-3 weeks of work and each team member identifies daily (or very short term) goals.  Progress is monitored in daily meetings (often called stand-up meetings, because they're short and nobody is allowed to sit down) where members report their progress on their last goal and identify their next goals.

Agile processes within IT are still in their infancy, only 10-15 years old, but evidence is mounting that this is very effective for certain kinds of activities.

I think orchestras should adopt agile processes for their day-to-day management.  Rather than striking committees from board members, staff and musicians; and rather than hiring people for single purposes (e.g. a marketing director), small teams of board members, musicians, and staff members should be created for specific goals. Goals could be as small as producing the next concert or as large as creating a new series and putting in place the processes for managing the run of the series. In all cases, experts should be included (e.g. someone with marketing experience if they're developing a marketing campaign), but it should be recognized that all team members will have something significant to offer within the context of the orchestra.

One of the major benefits to this would be the break-up of the standard artist/management/board divisions.  Board members and staff who would work closely and daily with musicians would appreciate the insight, creativity, and commitment of the artists.  Musicians would also benefit from a greater exposure to the inner workings of the orchestra.  Voices would be heard; no single musician would be overburdened by non-musical work; stronger relationships across traditional boundaries would be established; and much-needed assistance could be provided to the management staff in smaller orchestras or those that are trimming costs.

Some overall management of tasks would still be required, and certainly that's a place for the AD, GM, and board (which should, I believe, be in part comprised of musicians). But this oversight can be reduced considerably with a strong, shared story about where the orchestra is heading (perhaps codified as a detailed strategic plan).

Some of the processes in the LSO and Berlin orchestras resemble agile processes.  Similarly some of the work in the Memphis model.  Memphis, however, still retains the strong board/management/musician boundaries -- they're just broken down for specific projects.  What I'm talking about is more extreme.

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