How the humble Harmonica is gently changing the corporate workplace
Tell me about your background. What did you study? What was your first job, etc.?
I’m an Air Force kid. I spent my childhood in different cities. Madras, Hyderabad, Srinagar, Nagpur… and of course, Bangalore. I wasn’t very academically inclined. I took up Arts in my PUC and excelled in it. But everyone thought Arts wasn’t good enough. So I repeated a year, choosing the Commerce stream. I’m a B.Com grad and I have a Diploma in Journalism. I liked writing and was drawn to advertising… I joined RK Swamy BBDO straight out of college, as a Jr. Writer. From RKS I moved to Ogilvy, Lintas, Rediff and Euro RSCG before I quit and founded my own creative shop. Later went back to working for an MNC. Now, I’m an independent creative consultant, a team-building coach and a musician.
I believe you are passionate about music. How did it start? Tell us about your musical journey.
My dad’s family is full of talented people. My granddad was a teacher and an outstanding Carnatic classical flautist . He would also make his own flutes. My dad is a trained Hindustani vocalist, who also played the Bansuri. He’s a wonderful painter too. My mother was an English teacher with a deep love for Carnatic classical. So I was always surrounded by books and great music. My parents, although they could ill-afford it, let me learn the guitar as a young boy. Later, I learnt to play the tabla. This I pursued seriously for several years and even gave performances until a hand surgery put paid to my tabla days. All through my childhood years, we had a fabulous collection of music at home – vinyl records, spools and cassettes. And a wide variety of music too! From the great MS and Ustad Amir Khan to Begum Akhtar & Bhimsen Joshi; Chaurasia, Ravishankar too! And Western music like Beatles, CCR, Abba, Boney M, Elvis Presley, Sinatra… a truly eclectic variety. All of this helped shaped my musicality.
When did you start playing the harmonica? How long have you been playing? Concerts / performances, etc.
My first brush with the harmonica was when I was about 12. I had an old harmonica at home. And I had no idea what to do with it until an uncle of mine came visiting. He picked up the harmonica and tooted out a merry tune. I was blown away – that was the first time I had heard a melody come out of that tin sandwich. I started to meddle with it and quickly I figured out stuff. Soon I was playing Bollywood songs at school and winning prizes too. One day, I lost to a girl, who played the Hawaiian guitar at a regional contest. After which I stopped playing the harmonica. And gravitated towards the Tabla. But I went to back to the harmonica in the mid-1990s after I’d started working in advertising. My choice of work exposed me to a lot more music than ever before – the world of Rock n Roll, Pop, Country, Blues, RnB, etc. But I was drawn to the blues harmonica because I loved the ‘sound’ of it. I borrowed cassettes from friends and taught myself to play the blues harp. I started getting more serious about the blues around 2003-04, and eventually, co-founded a band called as Barracuda Blues Band in 2007. Over the past 15 years, I’ve played close to 200 shows, concerts and festivals. With several different bands & musicians from India and elsewhere too. The band that I currently play with is called By2Blues – it’s an acoustic trio that was also co-founded by me.
How did Harmonica Huddle happen? Whose idea is it? How did it all start?
Harmonica Huddle started in late 2013, as an idea in my head. I was working with HP then, as Head of Creative Services. As part of our stretch work, we were asked to conduct sessions that would benefit our workforce in some way. These sessions included programs like Org Behaviour, EQ vs IQ, Handling Change, Negotiation, Difficult Conversations, etc. During these sessions, I realised that all the ‘content’ we had was generic. And uninspiring. I started to think that surely there are better ways to engage people and make them better team players. I wanted to make a difference as an individual; to create something truly unique using my experiences and sensibilities. I wanted to create an environment of mutual trust, learning and growth. And an experience that had to be interesting, creative, highly engaging and meaningful. Huddle idea was born out of that thinking process.
I dipped into my experiences as a musician, and I could instantly connect the dots. I likened a band of 4 or 5 people to an organisation of 4 or 5 thousand. I started looking at what makes a band great. I found that there’s more in common between a band of good musicians and a successful corporate team than most people think. Role clarity. Team vision. Self-confidence. Motivation. Collaboration & Teamwork. Objectivity. Inclusiveness, Mutual & Self Respect… these are all universal values. Every successful team, regardless of what it does, must have some or all these values to succeed.
The harmonica is a fun thing. It breaks barriers, gets people excited and helps create amazing outcomes
I presented the idea to my boss, who loved the idea immediately. In hindsight, she probably saw something that I may not have, regarding its potential! She sponsored the first Harmonica Huddle for a team at HP. The participants just loved it. Word spread. I did a series of Huddles at HP over the next few months. In that period, I decided that I had to chase the idea more seriously. I quit my work in June 2014, to pursue the Harmonica Huddle dream.
What was people’s initial reaction? How many thought that it is a hair brained idea and it won’t work?
Before I quit HP, I spoke to several friends about the idea. Almost everyone loved it. Of course, there were a few who felt that quitting a great job to build HH was a risky thing. I was no longer ‘young’. My family took some time to come to terms with my decision. But once they saw my conviction, they stood by me 100%. I was completely driven to do this… I had pages of great feedback. And deep down I knew I was on to something special.
How did you handle the nay Sayers?
I heard people out and used their thoughts to make my offering stronger. The idea of going beyond just a ‘team building session’ came from one such chat. The naysayers were, and still are, my friends. When someone reacts in a negative way, they are coming at it from their experience. You have to understand their perspective. No matter how close or well-intentioned they may be, they can never feel even 10% of what you feel about an idea. That space is yours alone. They are not going lie awake at night thinking about Harmonica Huddle. But I am!
What sacrifices did you have to make to make HH happen?
The biggest sacrifice was my stable job. My dreams of a better house, a plusher car, family holidays abroad, etc., have been indefinitely postponed. I feel quite guilty about this sometimes. But I’ve always been this way. For me, it is vital to know that I’m adding value. I was compelled to leave my work by a vision of what I could be. What I wanted to be; the impact I could create; the difference I could make. Fortunately, I come from a family that always believed in high thinking and simple living. My lifestyle is pretty much as it was ten years ago. This has helped me cope with the upheavals. I find a great sense of fulfilment in what I’m doing. And I’m confident things will get better with time.
Who were your biggest champions & critics?
My close friends, my family, ex-colleagues. Sometimes the champions and the critics were the same people! Now, after two years of Harmonica Huddle, I’d like to believe that I don’t have many critics. The way I see it, in April 2014, this was an idea in my head. I still remember the first person I shared the idea with was my sister. Today, not only has that idea come to life but almost 800 participants have been through it. I have enough data to claim that Harmonica Huddle is a transformational experience. And many know of this concept although I’ve not focused on marketing it. Today all my clients, workshop participants, ex-colleagues, friends, musicians and almost everyone I know, are Harmonica Huddle champions. I’m proud to say that even professional coaches, trainers and LnD executives have appreciated the Huddle.
When did you go public?
I quit my job at HP in June 2014. And July 2014 was when I first went public with Harmonica Huddle.
Which was the first company for which you conducted HH?
It was HP – the organisation that I had just quit! They called me back the very next month to conduct an HH session for one of the teams. And it was a surreal experience to come back as an external facilitator.
What gave you the confidence that people who never played the harmonica would be able to do it?
Great question. The success of the Huddle is linked to the ability of the participants to be able to play the instrument to an extent. I recruited a few ‘volunteers’. Over a few weeks, my ten year old nephew, my 75-year-old dad, my sister, wife and a couple of friends signed up. I spent anywhere between 10 minutes to 20 minutes with each of them – just to gauge the learning process. My findings helped me boil things down to two different teaching methods. I tested both and homed in on the one that was simpler and served the purpose well.
What is the workshop outcome you guarantee to your clients?
One must remember that the Huddle is not a harmonica class or a music course. It’s just about using music to break inter-personal barriers. It is about creating amazing outcomes through music and experiencing universal values of great team dynamics. The program is transformational. It creates a paradigm shift in attitudes such that every team member feels empowered, valued and confident enough to make a positive difference.
Participants learn to motivate each other and create positive results
I guarantee that the team which walks out of the Huddle will be very different from the one that walked into the Huddle! Regarding energy, passion, empathy, confidence, and several other values… the workshop reaches out in powerful ways. I guarantee my clients a team that is positively charged. A team that has self-belief. Employees that are not afraid to fail. Leaders that are better at subjective ideas. Teams that can be both objective and creative. Higher quality interpersonal communication; and better employee relations. I also guarantee a sense of well-being and fulfilment that every participant feels. And I guarantee that many will go back home with a song in their heart – quite literally! And we all know, happy, stress-free employees are likely to be productive too.
What is the maximum group size you have handled?
The maximum group size has been 106 people so far. The smallest group has been 17 people. But I’m constantly innovating. And I’ll soon have a fabulous product for larger groups that will enable me to unleash the magic of music for teams of 150 people and over. So now, I can go from 15 to 500 participants; from 45 minutes to 6 hours… depending on the need, the objectives and client priorities.
Is there any difference between young / old or senior / juniors / men / women regarding the success of the Huddles or their response to your concept?
Again, an interesting question! After having a few of my assumptions thrown out the window, I now approach every session with a completely open mind. Older audiences (45 +) have been excellent participants. Younger participants often take leadership positions; often leading teams that in fact have their bosses in them. As for men vs. women, I have not found any consistent patterns. Every session is unique. I find that men are often quick to take action, but aesthetics / quality areas are where women fare slightly better. There’s one rule that always holds true: 20% of the participants are always ahead of the pack (early adapters / learners); 20% of the pack is always slightly slower. And 60% of them are bang in the middle. This mimics just about any real life corporate team scenario. The trick to getting everyone involved in the right way. And to help them understand that they can only succeed as a team.
Can you share a couple of memorable anecdotes incidents from your workshops?
There are several. Once I got into a series of con-calls with the CEO of a trading company, along with his HR chief and core team. We spoke for 2 hours (over three calls). Of that, the CEO spent one and a half hours talking about how his team is severely left brained, not creative, number crunchers and how he’s not sure if an idea like HH would work at all. Needless to say, the session worked like a charm. He openly admitted later how he had underestimated his own team, to a huge round of applause.
In one session, a team displayed palpable undercurrents of restlessness. Two of their team members sat aloof. I found out they were both ‘office assistants’, shy to sit shoulder to shoulder with senior managers. Also, there were a couple of VPs who did not seem to want ‘low ranking staff’ on the same team. As luck would have it, one of the Office Assistants was very clearly in the top 20% bracket (early learners, quick adapters). That further complicated the dynamics. But, Harmonica Huddle is about team excellence. I had to get them to acknowledge the talent within the team. And to work with that rather than against it. Bottom line: If you have a star in your team – use that star well. When the star shines the team wins.
Incidentally, I heard from this client a month ago. Apparently, the Office Boy diligently plays the Happy Birthday song on the harmonica EVERY time a birthday cake is cut in the office. Isn’t that beautiful?
In one session, we had 4 participants from Poland and China too. One of the team tasks included playing two popular TV jingles. It was team Nirma vs. team Lifebuoy. The foreigners had to play songs they had never heard before! This took the collaboration effort to new heights. First, the Indian team members had to explain the story, the brands. And then they sang the jingles out to their non-Indian teammates. It was a total riot and absolutely lovely.
Once I was doing a small session for about 20 senior execs. A few minutes into the session, the COO of the consulting firm (client) dropped in ‘just to see’. I had an extra harmonica and so I invited him to join the session. He was curt and told me that he would be gone in 20 minutes. I was OK with that. Not only did Mr COO stay for the entire 3-hour duration, but he also insisted that we eat lunch together after the session. This only points to the immersive experience that Harmonica Huddle is.
This apart, there have been several emotional moments. Based on values like Inclusiveness, Self-Esteem, etc. Sometimes, when people face their fears or realise the difference they make, or when they are openly appreciated by their team members, the whole experience becomes cathartic. Once this kind of ‘opening up’ happens there is no going back. These little moments of vulnerability can totally transform interpersonal dynamics forever.
What is the best compliment you have received so far?
There have been many wonderful and heart-warming compliments. The one I recall readily came from a team lead at HP who said, “I’ve been in this organisation for 11 years. I do not recall a single day that was as refreshing, as filled with learning and as dynamic as this day (referring to the day the HH Session was conducted).”
For how many companies have you conducted your sessions?
I’d say around 15 organisations as of now, including small, mid-level and large organisations. I’ve had sales pros, financial teams, HR groups, COOs and VPs, Chefs & mechanics, receptionists and office boys… All kinds of participants.
Have you done it in any overseas locations?
Not yet. But it should work just as well overseas too because music is a powerful and a universal concept. I’d be quite excited to take this to other countries as an idea that originated in India. Far as I know, this is the only program where a Harmonica is used strategically to create specific outcomes that go beyond just having fun. It’s interesting that being an Indian, I play a western instrument and teach universal values through the harmonica. That’s a story in itself!
You now seem to talk a lot of HR stuff. How did that happen?
Another nice question! Harmonica Huddle has evolved a lot in the short time that it has been around. A few months into it, I started getting client requests that were more specific. Like when a client asked for a session on Self-motivation. They had an experienced team of ICs with the skills but lacked the drive to get on with work. Another example was a team that was not getting along because of an internal process merger. I sat with the HR SPOCs to understand a bit about such behaviours. I would ask for time to get back to them with customised modules. I began to realise that there was scope to work with HR and to create experiences that deliver higher value.
I started speaking with HR professionals to hone in on a few common themes. And then I worked to create ‘Thematic Modules’ that are focused on specific outcomes. Now I have several Thematic Modules that are slightly different from each other. One of the popular sessions I run is based on Client Org’s values/behaviours. In this case, they share their corporate values, and I try and bring those attributes to life in the HH session. It’s very fulfilling to combine fun and learning. Recently, I’ve formed a small team of co-facilitators. So now, we are starting to enable serious feedback/debriefing sessions too. The whole effort is to truly dig deeper and use music as a serious tool for learning, discovery and change.
We run a Fishbowl Feedback Session that is designed to elicit on the spot feedback from the participants. They are encouraged to speak freely on anything that they have observed and learned. From their selves and their colleagues. We try to gauge how the session may help alter behaviour and even get them to talk about how they will change for the better.
If the client wants something even more important, then we get into a proper debriefing summary at the end to complete the loop. Especially if the mandate is to focus on certain values or behaviours.
My belief is that complex human behaviours often have simple root causes. And HH works at that level of simplicity. It’s all about people. It’s not so much about the instrument or for that matter, the music. Music is the language, and the harmonica a mere prop. It is certainly not rocket science!
What are your plans for it?
I do have plans! I certainly want it to grow to its full potential as a niche offering. I don’t think of it as a mass product simply because facilitating a session like this needs a combination of skills, attitude and an understanding of both the harmonica and the corporate environment. As the chief facilitator, every Harmonica Huddle session requires me to dip into all my varied experiences. My only plan is to keep exploring music as a tool for transformation. And already close to 1,000 people have experienced this. I would be really happy to see that figure touch 7,500 by the year 2020. I also look at Harmonica Huddle as means to my personal growth as a human being. Through these sessions, I get to meet some truly fabulous people. And I get to work with them, understand their minds, and influence their thinking. I also get to collaborate with inspiring trainers and coaches. I’m excited about how via meaningful collaborations, we can create high-impact learning experiences for clients. I think collaboration is a compelling theme in today’s world.
Apart from this, there are a couple of other ideas I’m working on within the framework of Harmonica Huddle. I wouldn’t want to reveal that just now.
How you tried doing it with government bodies?
I have not yet conducted a session for any government body. Although one quasi-Govt organisation is a client of mine. I’d be curious to find out how something like Harmonica Huddle will work in Govt Bodies.
If you get a chance to do it in the parliament would you be willing to do it?
Oh yes! It would be fabulous to put folks from different political parties together. A nice way to explore the truth that ultimately we are one big team. From one big beautiful country. Would politicians be willing to forget their ideological differences and work with each other? Just for a couple of hours? I’m not very sure, but I’m willing to be surprised. Would be happy to do a Huddle in the Parliament, should I get the opportunity.
Would you extend this concept to other musical instruments?
I thought of that. But it won’t work as well. I am considering adding certain highly portable percussive instruments but nothing more. The learning curve of other instruments is much more challenging. We’d spend an inordinate amount of time achieving very little. The harmonica, with its portable nature and unique charm, is perfect for this. Apart from playing the harmonica, I do encourage participants to be creative in multiple ways. So there’s always a little singing & clapping. I also urge the participants to find creative ways to create rhythm on the spot.
Where do you order your harmonicas from?
From a local store as of now. This is a challenge sometimes as stocks are not readily available. I now procure them in batches of 100+ harps at a time. Ideally, I would love to import directly but currently, my order size isn’t optimum for that.
How have clients responded? What awards have you got so far?
Clients have responded very well, and so have the participants. I have lots of feedback forms & videos that make me feel great. I have not won any Awards as of now – I’m not even sure if there are any that I can win! But last year, Harmonica Huddle was voted as one of the Top 10 HR Start-ups (NHRD Showcase 2015). This was a big deal because ours was the only 1-man org in that expo. And I was surrounded by funded start-ups that had large teams. Before being selected and invited to participate, I had to pitch Harmonica Huddle to 2 separate Jury panels. That included IIM profs, HR leaders and practitioners. From over 50, only 20 were invited to participate in this category. That felt great.