Aligning our sights - what Indonesians taught me, part I

Posted by Marcus Hammarberg on April 10, 2014
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I have now been in Indonesia for about 4 months. There's so many new impressions and things that I've seen, learned and experienced that I'm starting to forget them. Some is bad, some is good, some are ugly so I thought that I would write them down.
The first thing is some sort of alignment that is repeated almost everyday. In almost all workplaces that I've seen or heard about. Like a routine checkup on what is important here. I've actually experienced that before, in a very different setting.

In this post I'm planning to tell you a couple of short stories and episodes, to then try to see what this could look like in my "normal", more western culture. I hope it will be interesting and useful.

I have now been in Indonesia for about 4 months. There's so many new impressions and things that I've seen, learned and experienced that I'm starting to forget them. Some is bad, some is good, some are ugly so I thought that I would write them down.
The first thing is some sort of alignment that is repeated almost everyday. In almost all workplaces that I've seen or heard about. Like a routine checkup on what is important here. I've actually experienced that before, in a very different setting.

In this post I'm planning to tell you a couple of short stories and episodes, to then try to see what this could look like in my "normal", more western culture. I hope it will be interesting and useful.

Gothenburg Brass Band

I had the great privilege to play in the top brass band in Sweden for about 2 years. The height of my musical "career". This was an amatuer group in such regard that everyone played in the band on the spare time and nobody got paid. Many of the members were professional musicians (and there we were 4 people who just tried to keep up...) which meant that the standard was super high. Great great fun. 

There's lot to say about them and the way they approach excellence but I'll leave it for the sake of brevity. Let's me focus on a single thing that they were very particular about; the warmups. 

Every rehearsal and before every concert they played hymn tunes. Oh hymn tunes on a brass band is balm for you soul, but that was not the reason they did it. Not only, at least. Most brass bands play hymn tunes at the start of their rehearsals. 

The reason we played the hymns are to align the band, making sure the basics are in place; do we breathe together, do we play in tune, are we making a pleasant sound, are the phrases aligned? Playing in a band is a team "sport" - we were focusing on the team-work of the band. 

What surprised me a bit at first was the seriousness that the Gothenburg Brass Band approached the hymn tunes with. We kept on playing them until it sounded awesome. Even though there were other, much more complicated music, to be rehearsed. 
I especially remember before a big concert in New Zealand, 2005. We had 30 min of dress rehearsal to our disposal. We spent 27 of those on playing simple, simple stuff - like hymns. Then we talked about the hard stuff and went off the stage. 

Their reasoning was; "there's no real reason doing the hard stuff when we haven't aligned on the simple things, the basics first".

Indonesian morning gatherings

I now work in Indonesia - that's a big change. I also work for the Salvation Army - that's another big change. Every morning we gather the entire office (80 people circa) for a morning prayer. (Stay with me atheist friends, there's nothing particular Christian about this post). The program is simple;
  • Someone tells what's happening in the office today, who is aways etc.
  • We have a short devotional, where someone shares their thoughts on a Bible passage
  • We sing a song that goes nicely together with the devotional
  • We pray for people working for the Salvation Army institutes and hospitals in the country, as well as another country in the world. 
Typically the whole thing is over in about 12 minutes. Sometimes... when we need to align more, maybe... it can take up to 30 minutes. I've come to value these gatherings immensely. 

For a long time I thought that this was a Salvation Army / church thing. It feels "churchy", does it not. Therefor I was very surprised when I started to walk my kids to school (when their school started) to see other workplaces doing the same thing:
  • The military police office gathers every morning
  • The local bank branch gathers on their court yard
  • The awesome noodle place in the corner of our street hold a short stand-up, including prayer, before the start serving
  • The school that my kids goes to gather the kids on the school yard before the day starts. 
The program seems to be the same:
  • Anything special happens today?
  • Make sure that we are aligned on "what is important to us", by someone making a reflection on our values
For a school that would be "we are here to learn more", the military are "here to uphold the law and protect the values of Indonesia".

Every workplace seems to have this kind of alignment meeting at the start of their days. It's nice and powerful, I think. 

What about us?

First, with "us" i mean my normal working place; the IT-industry in a western setting. 

Normally we do standups. Talking about the work at hand. That's all good and one of the small but powerful things you can do to increase transparency, foster a feeling of collaboration and start working together as a team. 

But how often do you talk about your values. Yeah, the ones on the wall over there. Those beautiful words, you know. Like; "bold, open and professional". In many organizations I've been in we have talked about them as often as once a year. 

From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Campfire
In order for them to mean something we need to live by them. And we can share how we live by them by telling the stories (thanks Tobbe for this insight). It's like sitting around the campfire and tell each other the stories. What if we took a couple of minutes with the group  (company, team or floor - take your pick) and shared what those values meant among eachother? What if we did that often? 

I think that would make us more aligned on why we are really here. In Gothenburg Brass Band speak: "getting the basics in place before we try to do the complicated stuff". Made sure we checked in with our basic values before we started to execute them. 

One way of doing this is to use the "value words" as we tell the stories. This great tip comes from Turn the Ship around, that I highly recommend. 

It doesn't have to be long either; "yesterday when we did the rollout I saw that Carl displayed boldness ...", "when I think about transparency I think about the time when we ..." or "What if we could show professionalism towards our customers today by ...". 

Final words

This is just my current thoughts. I already now here some of my friends objecting. Loudly. Towards any form of structure :). That's fine. I don't want to enforce anything of this, and I'm sure there's hundreds of ways to do this. But I do think that sharing the stories around our values, frequently could make for a very well-aligned team, that have their basic values aligned. Who knows what they could do... 


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