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Learning about integration from musical conductors

andy cooke | public sector executive | 17 June 2016

This article was first published on Public Sector Executive

Andy Cooke, a programme management expert at PA Consulting Group, explains how those responsible for leading transformational change in local government can draw lessons about integrating teams from great musical conductors.

Local government change projects have always been complex, involving many different stakeholders, and sometimes competing priorities. The devolution agenda raises the game further with new strategic ambitions, more stakeholders, new technology, ongoing financial pressures and increased demand for services. 

Those leading local government through these changes must effectively integrate diverse teams of specialists, manage their delivery with perfect timing, and exploit their skills to overcome the increasing complexities. 

An analogy can be drawn between the role of a change manager and a musical conductor. Whilst the context is very different, both must be able to lead a range of specialists and deliver harmonious performances that delight demanding audiences. 

Great conductors are not necessarily great musicians, but they are great integrators 

A great conductor does not have to play every instrument, but they must understand what can be achieved by each instrument. They must know what each instrument is capable of, how it should sound and how its musician can best make it work with other parts of the orchestra. 

Similarly, those leading major change in local government do not have to be specialists in each area but should know what skills are needed, what each part of the delivery team must achieve, how to bring them together, and ultimately how to get the best from them as a whole. 

In an orchestra, each section will have a clearly defined role, similar to a complex programme. In a project to move local services online, the IT specialists, the people in the back office, and the customer service teams have to be clear about their roles. 

However, that is not enough. If they are not properly integrated with each other, the music will not flow and there will be problems at the interfaces. The project leader must conduct the score, build the right collaborative environment and ensure the team works in harmony.  

Great integrators know how to adapt their approach 

When a conductor is preparing for a new orchestral performance, he or she must determine from the score which section of the orchestra is leading at any point. This typically changes for different passages of the music, so the approach must be adapted accordingly. 

Local government projects follow a similar pattern. The conductor must understand who leads when and what actions are most important. In a digitisation project, the constraints of a lengthy procurement process to contract for new web services may initially shape the overall delivery approach. 

At a later stage, ensuring local services remain available whilst new technology is integrated with back-office systems is likely to dictate the pace and the workload. What is critical is that those leading change ensure the timing is right for each of these phases, and plan the approach accordingly. 

Blending different skills to achieve harmony 

In an orchestra, a conductor is interested in ensuring that the overall sound is correct, that the music flows cleanly from one part to the next, and equally between sections of the orchestra. 

Within any complex change project, the leader needs to ensure it flows properly, understanding how to distribute the work between different parts of the organisation, adapting their approach for the acoustics of the environment, and building a realistic score (approach) that is integrated and flows. 

Investing time to develop their capability 

This all underlines that, like conductors, those leading change projects need a wide range of skills and capability. A successful project leader is likely to specialise in a core function (instrument) or two, perhaps project management for example. They will understand others, having spent time in other critical functions such as IT or procurement, before moving back to their core project management role to consolidate what they have learned. 

Large private sector organisations and central government can offer this career development because of their scale. These opportunities are much harder to provide in local government, yet the skills are essential to deliver complex change.

 The next generation of integration experts need the expertise to conduct an orchestra, not a quartet. Only then can they appreciate and lead the increasingly complex changes that they will face.

Andy Cooke is a programme management expert at PA Consulting Group

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