John Kotter – how to approach a change process

Does your company inspire others?

The change management lessons from the Dutch Ballet Orchestra

By Frédérique Smit, &samhoud consultancy

I was recently at the UITmarkt in Amsterdam, the Netherlands’ largest annual festival that officially launches its new cultural season. I witnessed not only a beautiful performance but also the official new phase of an exceptional orchestra. The Dutch Ballet Orchestra (Het Balletorkest), formerly Holland Symfonia, unveiled its new name and profile prior to is opening performance. It opted for a distinctive profile and a clear direction with the goal of becoming the best ballet orchestra in the world. In the run-up to this revelation, I was allowed to follow the orchestra from the sidelines and observe its choices, strengths and numerous challenges facing it during this period. It was interesting to witness this as an &samhoud consultant. I came to the conclusion that the business world can still learn a great deal from organisations such as this one. Why? 

The Netherlands is currently fighting its way out of the financial crisis. Companies have had to make severe cuts in costs and staff. The pressure from the outside world is greater than ever before. Customers, shareholders, the government and society are playing an important role in this as stakeholders. And do not forget competitors in particular – they have also had to keep their heads above water and are seizing all opportunities to ensure an even greater grip on the market. Responding to this successfully and taking proactive steps demands a great deal from organisations. What choices does an organisation have to take to continue existing successfully? Or better still: to emerge stronger?

Bigger challenges compared to an average business
In this area, companies can learn a lot from the Dutch Ballet Orchestra, an organisation that may appear to share very few similarities with the business world at first sight. But if you look more closely, it is not such a crazy source of inspiration. In addition to strong financial pressure from government subsidies and competition from other orchestras, it has been a turbulent period internally with multiple management changes. While companies have had to contend with the departure of employees due to restructuring, the Ballet Orchestra lost two-thirds of its workforce. Yes, you read that correctly. And just imagine how you would deal with this as a director. There are not only fewer orchestra members; everyone has also reverted to a part-time position of 70%. In other words, 70% are contracted employees while the other 30% have to earn their income elsewhere. Due to austerity measures and the smaller workforce, people have to work together more often and faster. Departments within a company or a government organisation need to work closely together in order to offer a high-quality product or service, but this applies to an orchestra to an extreme degree. If the various sections do not play as one group at the exact moment, this is audible immediately.

Changing together out of passion for the profession
At this moment, the Ballet Orchestra is at a turning point; Piet van Gennip, its new director, has been working hard to tackle challenges such as plotting a new direction and strengthening connections within the orchestra. The high level of involvement comes to the fore during discussions, along with the consequences of all developments in recent times, such as change fatigue and the loss of colleagues. Despite all of this, a true passion for the profession is still evident. Music is what binds and captivates orchestra members. It is the reason they get out of bed each day and practise for hours on end.
This is also an important topic during an away day. Despite the busy programme, this day is organised to offer an opportunity to jointly reflect and look ahead during this crucial period. Providing and receiving feedback to improve as an orchestra is practised explicitly in order to work on issues in a more constructive manner. This remains a sensitive issue among musicians. Making music is so connected with one’s own identity that giving feedback on someone’s performance is very quickly perceived as criticism of that person. As a result of the away day, both short-and long-term opportunities are examined in order to respond to these; improvement-related initiatives, external formativeopportunities for 30% of employees and the content of the programme. In short, people truly work together to become the best ballet orchestra in the world.

The result is already audible
The end results of these efforts in the long term are still uncertain. What is already certain, however, is that a great amount of energy was generated, which was expressed in a powerful way at the UITmarkt festival. A wave of resilience, a clear vision of the future and engaged orchestra members. Change involves choosing and that is something you do together. By involving people in the process, you allow them to participate in their professional future. This allows them to convince each other instead of having to impose the change from the top down. Negative comments are heard and room is created within discussions for a constructive attitude. By looking at this as an organisation and reflecting together on personal performance, people are inspired to strive hand in hand and are aware of what they are aiming for. At the UITmarkt festival, this inspiration was the key of the magical element witnessed while the orchestra played together. And that is something granted to more organisations.


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