Monday, December 22, 2003

Jazz carols? 

I must have been infuriating at times as a child. Always wanting to know how things worked, taking things apart to see what was inside (even managing to get them back together again sometimes); bombarding people with question upon question until they refused to answer, knowing that every answer would inevitably spawn further questions. I can’t help but analyse things, so I suppose it’s only natural that I would be attracted by science and follow a scientific education.

However, that inquiring mind-set can’t be constrained within artificial subject boundaries. Although any involvement I have these days with things scientific is now just a passing interest - a relic from an earlier incarnation which I’ll bring out, when occasion demands, and blow the dust off – I still habitually look for underlying patterns and structures, forever asking why. If something works well, why does it work? What can be learned? What features can be identified and built on so that next time it works even better?

Yesterday afternoon we had our Christmas carol service at church (bear with me, there is a connection…). Saturday night I had spent a few hours at the church helping set up the lighting, trying to create a feel that wouldn't dominate the candles – cosy, warm and subdued - whilst being bright enough to read. Nothing over-elaborate, but we’re lucky enough to have a professional TV lighting director in our membership, and it’s amazing what can be achieved – when you know how, as he does - with some carefully chosen coloured gels, the existing uplighters, and just four extra lights borrowed for the occasion.

This wasn’t quite a conventional carol service – there are already plenty of them around, mostly intended for twice-a-year churchgoers who want their annual fix of Christmas tradition. We wanted to achieve something that would be at the same time familiar and fresh, presenting both the Christmas story and the human and spiritual context.

So what was that preamble about an inquiring mind all about? Like I said, I can’t help myself – I have to analyse. I know it’s not always helpful; I know real-life reasons aren’t clear cut; I know the risks in taking an over simplistic view; I know that real causes are often many and subtle, masked by easier-to-notice features; I know, intellectually, all of these things, and yet I still do it. So I wondered how it was that all the disparate parts of the occasion, both tangible – lights, decorations, music, drama - and intangible – atmosphere, message, the minds of all those involved - came together to produce such a coherent, meaningful and above all happy result. It was planned, of course, but in an ongoing, emergent way and not to the n-th degree. There was much hard work, but no whip-cracking. There was control, but by low-key networking, not by command. It succeeded brilliantly, although it was far from perfect. It was one of those occasions that, apparently, “just comes together”. People doing what was needed, when it was needed. And just in case you thought we were all a bunch of holies being insufferably nice to each other, it wasn’t entirely without its internal politics and “relationship issues” either. We’re all human, yet we can work together acknowledging and incorporating these issues.

It wasn’t until after the event, and after I started writing this, that I came across Chris Corrigan’s post of last Friday, quoting five principles from a paper “Playing the Live Jazz of Project Management”:

1. Plans are enabling, not constricting.
2. Aberrations are normal.
3. You work with what happens.
4. Order is emergent, not pre-defined.
5. Disorder is not chaotic.

The parallels between these principles and our “process” were striking. I think those guys at Project Jazz are on to something. And if nothing else, it lets me liken our carol service to jazz. Maybe an idea for next year…

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