The Art of Possibility

November 20, 2007

I eventually got around to reading the Art of Possibility on my recent trip to the US. Here’s an extract from the Amazon blurb.

Ben Zander, conductor for the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, and professor at the New England Conservatory of Music, was faced with the same problem every year for 25 years: Teaching students who were in such a chronic state of anxiety over the measurement of their performance, they were reluctant to take creative risks. One night, he sat down with his partner Roz Stone Zander, a therapist, to try to find a solution. They decided the best approach would be to give everyone an A, at the beginning of the course. The A was not intended as a way to measure someone’s performance against standards, but as an instrument to open them up to new possibilities.
This didn’t mean students could slack off for the rest of the semester. Students were required to write a letter that began with “Dear Mr. Zander, I got my A because…” and they had to describe in as much detail as possible, how they came to achieve this “extraordinary grade.”
In writing their letters, Zander said students must “place themselves in the future, looking back, and report on all the insights they acquired and the milestones they attained during the year, as if those accomplishments were already in the past. Everything must be written in the past tense. Phrases such as ‘I hope,’ ‘I intend,’ or ‘I will’ must not appear.”
Zander asserts “the A is an invention that creates possibilities for both mentor and student, manager and employee, or for any human interaction.” The A allows teams to accomplish what is possible, and reduces “the disparity in power between them can become a distraction and an inhibitor, drawing energy away from productivity and development.”
Zander doesn’t say what happens to the A when his students don’t pull their weight. His point here is to help people we work with to remove the barriers that block achievement–and to embrace the mindset of giving an A, by letting go of rigid mindsets that keep people pegged.
Zander applied this kind of thinking to his conducting and it transformed him from being a dictator, to an orchestrator of collaboration. This approach opened the door for musicians to speak more freely with him about their concerns — about the way a piece of music ought to be played, for example, and he discovered that “the player who looks the least engaged may be the most committed member of the group.” This new openness in communication had a huge effect on the morale of the orchestra, improving the performance of both conductor and players.

It’s a nice variation on Appreciative Inquiry and one of the most useful things I took away from the book is Zander’s invitation to stop thinking in good/bad splits and ask the question ‘Did I make a contribution?’ I’ve asked myself that question on numerous occasions over the past month or so – it’s such a forgiving position to take – the answer is invariably ‘yes’. It’s also useful to ask if I experience others as making a contribution and the answer to that question is generally ‘yes’ also. The invitation is really about focussing on ‘good enough’ rather than on ‘the best’ – a little bit of the reality principle mixed with a soupçon of humility – I like it.