Friday, February 21, 2014

Business/Economics Lessons From The Renaissance

The Renaissance. Oh, how that word resonates strongly with me. It was, at some point of my live, the single most important thing ever. It was not just a word. It was an organization. My high school orchestra to be exact but that was not just it. It was a family. It was a mission. It was a lifestyle.

Maybe it is weird for me to talk about “Business Lessons From The Renaissance” without providing some context. The Renaissance is the name of the Sekolah Menengah Sains Selangor (lit translation: Selangor Secondary School of Science) Wind Orchestra team. Formed way back in the 80’s as a marching and as a Wind Orchestra team in 2005. I joined this team in 2007 as a saxophone player. (I used to play the clarinet before changing because there are too many clarinet players and I didn’t get my own instrument).

When I joined, the team...well to be frank, sucks balls. The music room is shabby and looks like it will collapse any second. It reeked of brass polish and sweat and cockroach eggs. The carpet was stained by some liquid years ago and the AC was some AC from the 80’s. But despite that, I joined and stuck with them. Went to a competition in 2007. We got a Bronze Award (which is basically an euphemism for “Well, you guys are meh but hey, we are going to give you an award nonetheless.) Everyone cried and feel sad and stuff. We put it a lot of effort and yet, we suck.

But that changed rapidly after that. In 2008, we got a Gold award for Division Two (Yeah, the competition introduced the Division system that year). In 2009, we got another Gold AND was promoted to Division One. In 2010, we got yet another gold plus a ticket to the Grand Finale (To put into context, the Grand Finale is a big deal because your team will compete with 5-8 other teams at the Putrajaya International Convention Center which is an awesome place in front of 3000 people including sultans and high ranking government officials) AND we got Second Place. In 2011, still a ticket to the Grand Finale, Fourth Place. And finally, 2012, Champion of The Wind Orchestra Festival.

It took 5 years to change from a shabby sucky orchestra into a very well known unit that managed to immortalized its name as the Champion in 2012. That is very impressive. Now, imagine if this is a business. A start up company for example. What lessons can we learn from The Renaissance?

Swag intermission #1

1. Branding

Oh, the Renaissance took our branding very very VERY seriously. Although we were a small orchestra unit, we won’t settle down for that. So we figured out something that would make us stand out. If we couldn’t stand out because of our musical prowess, at least stand out because of our brand. Which is why, in 2008, we did a very rigorous brand building. I remembered vaguely that this was the structure of my band’s brand:

  • Orange
  • The Renaissance

In 2008, the name The Renaissance was given. I find it cool back then though many would find it cheesy. And we also decided that our team’s color is orange. Wait, what? Orange for a Wind Orchestra attire? Well screw white shirts and black ties, bring on the black shirts and ORANGE FLUORESCENT TIES THAT BURNS YOUR EYES. So yeah, that is our performance attire which didn’t change for three years. And every other team refer us as the ‘orange tie team’.

Why is this important? The brand? Well there are many importance of this move which I would like to separate into two: Internal and External effects.

Internal effects of the ‘Renaissance’ band was really apparent. By giving the band a name, its players could identify to it more and foster stronger connection and loyalty to the unit. Rather than just referring themselves as “A Band Member”, they refer themselves as “TheR”. And honestly speaking, it worked wonder. In every announcement, speeches, peptalks that we gave or were given, we use the word ‘TheR’ rather than band. Subconsciously, it forms the organization structure and cohesiveness. You are in this unit and this unit is different from the others. This is unit has a name and it is called TheR. More on that later.

The external effects would be the identity people associate with the Selangor School of Science Wind Orchestra (Oh god that is long) like you would associate McDonalds to burgers and fries, Burberry to expensive handbags, Facebook to pokes, blue background and annoying Facebook friends. The mental image that pops out when you say a unit’s name is important because at the very least, the unit will be known and associated with something rather than “Huh, who or what is that?” This is good for networking because TheR won’t be just an alien; it is a unit with an image (orange color attire) embed to it. With this, it is important to get the next point.

Swag intermission #2

2. Networks and Resources (This will be long)
Networks. It goes without saying that networks are important in the business world but in some high school orchestra competition? Not many would see that or think that it is an integral part of it. I mean, that is taking it much too seriously, no? Why would you network like a businessman for an orchestra? But then, this is one of the reason of TheR rapid progress and development.

See, in the business world, network gets you opportunities in form of jobs, promotions, self development platform and collaborations. All of these are resources that contributes to one’s growth. This doesn’t applies to just an individual; this applies to an organization too. Now, back to the orchestra. What is an orchestra without its players to make music? However, this orchestra is just a high school orchestra. The players are students whose main job is not to play music and they progress up higher in grades year by year. (Though they will be one or two person each year with innate talent or passion in music)  In other words, music is not their main motivation and they won’t stay forever after they graduated but still you want the orchestra to be good. This brings to an interesting economics problem: An orchestra needs good players to be good but to produce good players, the orchestra need to allocate resources in form of energy and time to train new players for them to reach a level up-to-par with the old players. Other than that, you also want the old players to be better than they were before. Realistically speaking, you can’t have both with maximum efficiency. It is either you train new players to be as good as the old players while sustaining the old levels or you train the old players to be better, forsaking the future where the old players will eventually leave and cause a huge gap in talents and skills.

This is where networking comes. As mentioned earlier, networking gets you connections to valuable resources. For the orchestra, networking nets us contacts to professional, semi-pro musicians for hire. If we hire these musicians to train the players, we remove some burden from the seniors to train new players and also provide an opportunity the whole orchestra to improve entirely as a unit. It is like killing two birds with one stone. However, notice that you would need ‘to hire’ these musician. It is not free. You would need resources in forms of money to achieve that.
And again, networking comes back. Another big move that TheR decided to do that is revolutionary during its time is to seek support from parents. You see, previously, a high school team rarely seek parental support, mostly because fully residential schools separate children and parents in the first place and also because these schools have so many fundings from the government. However, government fundings are not enough and often unreliable because the process takes ages. So, since 2007, TheR have been networking with parents to get donations. I remembered that we organized a ‘sneak peek’ event every time before a competition to showcase our songs to parents and to get donations. I was skeptical at first but the effects of parents seeing their children playing in an orchestra excite them. So much so that they form a ‘Parents Council’ which goal is to support their children and the orchestra as a whole in terms of moral, emotional and financial support. We will go about this later but the financial support is essential because it helps to hire these professional musician. The networking with parents worked wonders and it is until now.

Another miracle of networking is TheR’s access to opportunities to enrich the players outside of competitions. Because of the school’s strategic location near the city center, TheR often get the chance to perform in events. This performances aside from the annual competition, kept the players on their foots and ready to roll (hehehe). But is it just because it is located near the city center? Not really. It is more of the networks established. For example, in 2010, we were given an opportunity to travel 100 miles north to perform in a resort. Not only this excites the students and showing them that the orchestra is cool because you will get the chance to travel, but it is also a good platform to train the players to play and perform. The performance was no simple deal. 6-8 songs in a row will greatly challenge any subpar players in terms of stamina and skills and will definitely shape them up to be better players.
Swag Intermission #3 feat Nate

3. Loyalty
This point has to do with the above two points. Now, I mentioned earlier that once a player graduated, he or she can’t play in the orchestra anymore and thus, his or her skills are considered ‘sunk cost’, a cost that could not be returned or liquefied...or is it? See, a conventional trend for orchestra teams is to treat alumni as sunk cost. They are done with school and we should not pester them to ‘come back’ and serve. Orchestra alumni are only people who will come for competition to support; nothing more nothing less. But for TheR, alumni stayed to ‘serve’ the orchestra. So much so that they formed a group called ‘Orchestra Consultant’ to manage the band. So now with the existence of this other unit, they remove some management burden from the students so the students/players can focus on improving their music. Again, good call to allocate resources but for the Orchestra Consultant, it seems like a losing situation because they were needed to do a mountain load of work yet are not paid and solely voluntarily basis yet they still do it. Why? Loyalty.

See, loyalty is one heck of a driving force though it is not seen as a significant human force to begin with. For one, it is hard to measure loyalty but subtleties aside, loyalty drives the orchestra. Alumni were seen returning back to the orchestra after school to actually help via management or emotional support which is different for the usually ‘oh Imma gonna show ma face during comp. Good luck’ trend.

How TheR instill loyalty is really really subtle yet it works. One, it is the memory associated with the orchestra. The name ‘The Renaissance’ will resonates strongly in any orchestra members, mostly because hundreds even thousands of hours were invested into the orchestra, making it a very vivid memory to treasure and cherish. Another is the brand. The name ‘The Renaissance’ meant a very concrete image in the minds of the players. They were not in an orchestra, they are a part of The Renaissance. Added with a strong tradition of ‘The Orchestra is Family’, it adds to be sense of loyalty towards the orchestra. And with this loyalty, we can see less players becoming sunk cost and more players becoming revenue generating assets after they graduate.

Mega Swag Intermission #4

4. Specialization

I have no idea where to throw this point into the main three so I just make it a separate point. Specialization is something I encountered in Econ101. It is where to make a firm to specialize in produce one good over the other because it has higher returns in value thus more efficient. Specialization happens in TheR (Well, it occurs to me in a retrospect.) It goes without saying that everyone has different aptitude in music. It not really have to do with talent but it has to do with interest and passion. Some people are overly passionate (like me) in music while some are so-so at the very most. We can’t change it or it is very hard to do so. So, given the preferences of these two people, we can see that who do we want to specialize in where.

To run an orchestra effectively, you would need good players and good management. Without good players, a well managed orchestra will produce bad sounds. Without good management, a good sounding orchestra will collapse onto its own weight. So the decision for the previous problem is clear (again in retrospect), give the musically passionate people to focus on music. Give those who is not a management position. Hence, the organizational structure was split into two: Music department and Management Department. Music department is headed by the student conductor with family principles and section principles under him while the Management department is headed by the President along with other post such as Vice-Pres, Secretary, Treasurer etc etc. Both department works in tandem. The management will make sure that the Music department can proceed with their agendas without any obstacle and the Music Department is responsible to reach that agenda. By specializing players into these roles, you will have a not-perfect-but-good management and a not-perfect-but-good music department. It is not at the extreme of things but assuming that the preferences over these two are convex, the average of the two is much more prefered than the extremes.

A good example would be the huge leap in 2010 from a Division Two team into a Division One team who leaped into the finals and nabbed second place. During this year, the two upperclassmen classes (Form 4 and Form 5) has a pretty good synergy. Most of the Form Fivers took on a management role while Form Fours took on a music role. Both are allocating most of their resources into their own specific role. Though the Form Fivers may lacking in practice but the Form Fours are there to back them up in the orchestra. While Form Fours are scattered and disorganized, they have Form Fivers to help them manage and organize. It was a beautiful synergy that lead to an efficient year and a huge leap of success.

In 2011, however, taught a lesson to us about resources allocation. This year Form Fours were lacking in musical aspects. A huge chunk of the musical department roles were still given to the Form Fivers plus with their newly acquired management role. Since the Form Fivers in 2011 are deemed as ‘one of the best batch in terms of musical and management skills’, they were overexpecting the value of the class. These expectations overloaded their skills as they were now required to allocate resources to both management and music. And that year was not the most efficient year that we have. And after that year, thankfully, they have learned their lesson.


So yeah, four business lessons  I learned from TheR. In retrospect, I was really shocked how business-like (with applied economics here and there) my orchestra was. And frankly speaking it worked! I have no idea how to end this article but let just say I was bored and nostalgic when I wrote this.


Post a Comment