Are your group meetings feeling stagnant? Are you playing the same music, dancing the same dances, or singing the same songs? Do you feel that going to practice is feeling more and more like a chore? Is attendance fairly low (or dropping!)? Are you feeling bored? If you answered yes to any of these questions, it may be time to clarify the mission of your group.
“A Mission? For an amateur group?” you ask. Yes, even the low-key amateur group you’re happy with could probably do with a mission statement stating that being casual is indeed its mission. Why? Because often times members of the group–both newcomers and long-time members–have expectations of the group that may not match what the group is actually doing or is planning to do. They have false hopes that things will change or are frustrated about the fact that things should be different. I think it’s better to let them know how it is and how it will be, so that they can start their own group if they’re not happy. When your group’s effective mission and stated mission are congruent, much of the unseen emotional tension in the group will ease.
But that’s just when you’re happy with the group. When you’re unhappy with where your group is, figuring out what your effective mission is can help alleviate the feeling. Once the mission’s on paper you can see what it is you’re unhappy with, reshape it to something that excites you, and figure out ways to make it happen.
A Group In Transition
When I took over Cyngabar (formerly the Cynnabar Collegium Musicum), I only had a vague idea of where I wanted the group to go. I wanted to improve the quality of the group’s singing, to improve the singers’ sight-singing abilities, and to polish our older songs, but I didn’t really put it into words thus the execution ended up being mediocre at best. By not articulating what I wanted I couldn’t really get help since I was the only one who (somewhat) knew what I wanted. After three or four months it was clear that we as a group needed to decide on a mission for Cyngabar and find ways to execute that mission.
We spent the bulk of one rehearsal in February discussing what to do going forward, and since then the improvement has been quite dramatic. The mission we decided on was that Cyngabar should primarily be about education within the group. That is, singers in the group should come away from rehearsal feeling like their singing has improved and they have a better understanding of the music we’re singing. Secondary to in-group education is performance, which should be concentrated within the SCA. To execute the mission we did things like move to a quarter system, record pronunciations, and I spent some time working on my confidence skills since I was holding us back.
It’s been about 9 months since that discussion, and the group’s improved quite a bit. We’re learning new, difficult music faster and with a lot less strain than before. Also we’re either getting more flexible or I’m getting better at explaining what I want the group to do.. or both. I’ve also been studying Renaissance Music so that I can better apply the history to our performances. If we didn’t have that discussion back in February, I don’t think Cyngabar would have improved as much as it has. Having a mission that we actually follow has really made a lot of difference.
I mentioned this earlier, and I’ll say it again: when your group’s effective mission and stated mission are congruent, much of the unseen emotional tension in the group will ease. People know what to expect and it’s refreshing to not have to figure out how the group actually works vs. how people say it works. Moreover when it comes to brainstorming ideas there’s no confusion over what should be suggested. If this idea’s a little fuzzy, here’s an example to clarify:
Let’s say the official mission of Cyngabar was education, but in reality we didn’t show any care about the history of the songs we sing. If I were to ask the group for suggestions for how to improve the performance of a piece, there’d be some tension and confusion. Should we apply the same rules as we would to a modern song (effective mission)? Should we do some research on performance practices and make a decision based on that (official mission)? Inevitably there’d be at least one person who makes a suggestion with the official mission in mind and another with the effective mission in mind. Since I never specified which side I was looking for, suggestions from both sides are appropriate even if they’re incompatible with each other.
I’ve witnessed this sort of thing happen in several different groups (Polish Folk Dancing, Swing Dancing, Early Music, Engineering) and it tends to get ugly… especially in amateur groups. At least in the workplace people will try to be civil because they don’t want to get fired, don’t want to be labeled as “doesn’t play well with others”, see that working together is more useful than being right, or some combination of the three. In amateur groups there isn’t a built-in fear-based incentive to be civil, so a lot of times people won’t be. So why not nip it in the bud and make it clear that the official mission is the actual mission? As long as your group actually lives out its mission, no one will question your statement.
How to Make Sure Your Effective and Official Mission are Congruent
A good way to find out what your effective mission is, is to ask people in the group what they think the mission is. The more conscious the person the better, because an unconscious person may state the official mission not realizing that there are always two missions (effective and official). It’s similar to a mother who tells her teenager to follow the speed-limit but habitually exceeds it herself. When the teenager confronts her about it, she gets confused and defensive. The official rule is to follow the speed-limit, but the effective rule is to drive however you’d like. The teenager gets this, the mom doesn’t. If the person seems contented in spite of being unconscious I wouldn’t worry about trying to awaken them, though. As long as he/she isn’t causing trouble there’s nothing to be done, really.
What if you don’t want to ask everyone they’re opinion? A more targeted approach is to only ask someone who seems unhappy with the group. If he/she states the official mission you can ask how the group can improve or what it’s doing wrong. If he/she states a different mission try to determine if that’s the effective mission. Ask for examples. Then come up with ideas for how to get the group back on track.
Missions are important. They give groups focus and help them grow in the direction they want to grow. By divining a mission that everyone’s happy with and by living it out, you’ll find that life in your group (whatever that group is) will keep getting better and better. ^_^