Sunday, August 18, 2013

Life Sustaining Rock 'n' Roll! What Organizational Science has to Learn from the Rock Camp.

Life Sustaining Rock 'n' Roll!                              
What organization science has to learn from the Rock Camp

Anika and Chris
Anika with Glam Rocker, Chris

To call the David Fishof's Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy Camp fun is like saying that Hell is hot!  If it were any more fun, all of the campers would get arrested!  Suffice it to say that the opportunity to learn from and perform with the all-time great progressive rock band,Yes, and to have Alice Cooper's friend and lead guitarist, Kane Roberts, as your counselor and then to top it all off with a absolutely good-enough performance in front of 300 screaming people at a swanky nightclub in Las Vegas is something arguably better than dying and going to Heaven for a lifelong rock fanatic like Michael.  (Plus, as you can see, Anika made some nice new friends too!)  

So, the fun side was outtasite!  But, that wasn't all. Unpacking the Rock Camp experience, it's clear that much of what made it great is completely consistent with Art of the Future's thinking about Life Sustaining Organizations, and that's what we want to comment about here.

Our book, Life Sustaining Organizations -- A Design Guide asserts organizations can attract and hold positive, resilient people capable of understanding the macro forces shaping the future; people who can deal creatively with whatever life circumstances those forces produce.  The organizations that do so are "life sustaining".  They celebrate the vitality of the people who work for them, their products, their relationship to the physical spaces they occupy, and their place in nature.  

Our observation of what works in organizations and what doesn't led us to identify five interacting elements of a life sustaining work system or organization of any type:


  1. Creative, cool, competent and capable people (as defined by the standards and cultural mores of a particular industry or social milieu) are attractive.  People want to be around them.  They draw people like themselves and students and interested parties of all sorts.  Building a cadre of great, talented people is Job 1 for a life sustaining organization.
  2. Working environments frequently ask us to leave part of ourselves behind and to treat much of what is going on in the world outside the organization as exogenous to the concerns of the work system.  Whole systems thinking is another feature of life sustaining organizations.  They want as much of the whole person to show up for work as someone is comfortable bringing through the door.  They want teams and groups of teams to function in a skillful and learning-oriented fashion.  They want the total organization to act like a living organism, not like a machine of disconnected parts.  And, they know that the organization exists in the context of the natural environment and that environment is presently under stress.  
  3. Life sustaining organizations emphasize design integrity. As with nature, nothing can really be "off" or "ugly" in the context of whole system.  Every choice has an aesthetic component.  Does it incline the organization toward beauty or irrational inconsonance?  The world's largest technology company is an example where such design considerations are paramount.
  4. Life sustaining organizations don't over-complexify.  Like a good architect, they look for elegant solutions.  Shedding divisions that have nothing to do with an organization's core mission can be an example of seeking elegant solutions.  Solar power looks like one of the elegant solutions to the present energy crisis.
  5. Finally, life sustaining organizations ship.  They sustain themselves economically.  The produce results.  They survive and flourish.
The Rock Camp is an extremely successful business venture with a variety of business lines all dedicated to eliciting the participants' creative spark and interest in music.  Fishof has a long way to go and will probably become an ever more networked and influential guy in the music business.  

Kane Roberts
Kane Roberts, fan of Anika Savage
In its counselor corps, the Camp brings together some amazingly cool people who are also incredible musicians.  As mentioned, Kane Roberts was Michael's counselor.  Seriously, everybody loves Kane.  If you do a Google search on the guy, you can find pic of him using a machine gun styled guitar and weighing in as a completely buff 240 muscle man.  He's made plenty of money as a heavy metal performer and song writer, probably more than enough to have retired 20 years ago.  And, it also turns out, that he was trained at the New England Conservatory of Music and that he can play a multiplicity of instruments in a wide variety of styles.  In fact, one of the greatest moments of Michael's experience at Rock Camp was trying to turn Alice Cooper's "Schools Out for Summer" (on which Kane played lead) into a Chet Baker style jazz ballad.  This guy can play and sing whatever he want with whomever he wants.  And, probably most important, he has a very well-defined sense of humor, he's extremely skilled at relationships, can quote Joseph Campbell fairly extensively and has a thought-through educational methodology that totally cooks.  Special guy, huh?

Right.  But, so is Rudy Sarzo, a counselor who's played with everyone from Ozzie Osborne to Quiet Riot, and Joe Vitale --drummer, flautist, keyboardist and singer-- who's played with The Amboy Dukes, the Eagles, Crosby Still & Nash, Neil Young, etc.  Mike Pinera, the "Mr. Rogers of Rock 'n' Roll, who --if you can actually believe that a mere mortal did such a thing!-- played lead guitar on "In-A-Ga-Da-La-Vida".  And, let's not forget about the fabulous Shanti Lleone or AJ Johnson or Johnny Lust or Gary Hoey and other members of the staff who were too numerous to name!    

Rudy Sarzo
Joe Vitale

Mike Pinera


Michael and Shakti


Anika and AJ Johnson

Gary Hoey


Johnny Lust







And that's the point.  These were all exceptionally talented people who really knew their chops, had a fabulous work ethic and were terrific fun to hang out with.  While these creative people formed the core of this life sustaining organization, each participant camper was strongly encouraged to bring in all aspects of him or herself into the picture, including dimensions that are normally left out of a person's behavior at work.  Many people felt "liberated" by bringing more of their whole person into the effort.  

The Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp also embodied the other characteristics of a life sustaining organization.  Each newly formed band was an exemplary demonstration of what we mean by whole systems thinking.  On Sunday afternoon, five people complete strangers come together [with only a tiny bit of vetting by the Camp staff] and by Tuesday they have become a team, delivering professional performances in front a live audiences at the MGM Grand's Rouge Lounge in Las Vegas!  Getting that done requires a lot of honesty, self-disclosure, vulnerability, experimentation, hard work, attention and laughter.  (Of course, the Camp doesn't click for everyone.  In fact, each attendee has to sign a lengthy agreement that holds the Camp harmless if one of about fifty different predictable problems --e.g., hating the members of your band-- comes into reality.)  While the Camp demonstrates whole personal and whole institutional characteristics, on the whole environment front, the Rock Camp meets the challenge by uniting all participants into the world community of musicians and the realm of  the creative arts more generally.  In that way, it is a poetic experience for all concerned, a huge bonding with vitality and life.  I would say, however, that there is no ostensible connection to nature at the Rock Camp, and, in that way, it is not life sustaining. Set in Las Vegas, a desert with 108° heat and a vast commercial area with no natural oases in sight, this is not an environment that's conducive to appreciating the condition of the planet, especially since the level of carbon consumption -- between constant air conditioning, scant public transportation and the risk to life and limb faced by anyone who trying to walk anywhere other than the Strip -- combine to put one in a completely artificial, life-negating context.  Plus, a lot of musicians still smoke.  So, that this is one of the Camp's flat spots in my opinion.  

Regarding the principle of design integrity, it would be hard to imagine giving the Camp a higher grade!  Seriously, it is a beautiful thing to practice a song over and over and over again until every note, every transition, every moment in rhythmic time feels truly perfect.  Plus, interacting with musicians like Steve Howe, lead guitarist for Yes, was a profound reminder of why aesthetics are so important.  Everyone who has done anything they know is excellent in any realm will understand this.  

The Camp manifested simplicity and elegant solutions in a variety of ways that made it easy to live there.  Others might find this an odd comment, but the fact that there was no emphasis on formal networking at the camp made it much easier to interact with people and simply concentrate on one's music.  In many team building settings, there is a tremendous amount of energy and time spent of having people get to know each other, complete with name tags, milling exercises, discussions of where one ranked in birth order, etc.  At the Rock Camp, I never even got to know the last names of people in my band.  It wasn't really important to do so, although it would have been fine.  I learned somewhere along the line that one of the people I got to know a bit was a co-founder of Oracle.  In the world outside that might have been a big deal.  Inside the camp, it added nothing to the fact that he was nice man who could play the guitar quite well.  Stressing the networking opportunities at the Camp would have been easy to do, but, in my opinion, it would have detracted from the focus of the experience.  If you met people who became life long friends and collaborators, nice.  If not, fine.  Not part of the Camp's purpose really.  

Finally, the fifth principle of life sustaining organizations, the Camp produced results.  What do I mean?  One video is worth way more than a thousand words: