Chiltern Music Therapy are an organisation striving to make Music Therapy the thread in everyday life. Harnessing the power of music and sharing the fascinating science behind their work, they support over 2500 children and adults every year, across England. By providing over 200 Music Therapy services to organisations across the health, social care and education sectors, they also raise funds to provide an individual and family bursary scheme and pilot project scheme so that any individual, family or charitable organisation can have access to Music Therapy when they need it most.

Every organisation reaches a point where change is necessary. It is sometimes essential just to keep a business going, or it is needed in order to provide a new service or product, or it might be a purposeful decision that an organisation makes to take a step towards a different future. 18th months ago, we made our first tentative steps into researching something called Self-Managing teams and reached out to Jane Pightling at Evolutionary Connections. Through discussions with each other, lots of reading (we recommend as a starter!) watching Ted talks, and listening to Podcasts, we realised that the future structure of Chiltern Music Therapy did not fit with a traditional top-down hierarchy.

Despite being a non-profit organisation, we had been going through the very common ‘growth’ problems that a lot of SMEs face – as the organisation grows, so does the bureaucracy, need for managers, complicated processes and systems. This traditional system, is, for many of us, truly ingrained from years in educational systems and early career structures. It feels ‘normal,’ so we accept it and the majority of us will not think to challenge those systems or look elsewhere for alternative solutions.

The joy of an organisation like ours, is that our team is our most valuable asset. Over 50 individuals; therapists, musicians, creative and professional people, who understand the importance of care, kindness, listening and responding. How we treat each other within the organisation, simply has to operate in the same way that we support the people who receive our services.

The change has been difficult, there is no denying that. But the practices and approaches that being a self-managing organisation use, are that each of us has to challenge ourselves, question the status quo, and look for solutions to problems, rather than reporting issues back up the chain of command.

Chiltern Music Therapy online social enterprise uk
Moving services online during lockdown

Our move into being self-managing does not mean simply giving people autonomy, or getting rid of managers and giving staff extra responsibility instead. It means changing everything we do, from the inside out. Ensuring that everyone has a voice, not just those in the prominent or more visible positions, means that the services and sessions will be improved and designed by the most important people – our clients and our team.

We began our change in earnest, in August 2019, by taking apart every role that existed within the organisation and looking at the tasks involved, through an alternative perspective. What roles needed to be accountable for which parts of the business if we weren’t to be constrained by traditional roles such as HR Manager, Administrator, or General Manager? We tentatively designed our first few ‘circles’ in a move away from ‘teams.’ We created roles with some strange but infinitely more interesting titles but through our coaching with Jane, saw that a lot of the same work was still happening by the same people, albeit with different titles. Time to review and adapt again.

Jane’s concept of: Communicating & planning, Implementation, Reviewing & learning, Checking against direction & purpose became our cornerstone.
Over the course of the year, we tried out many things, some were a success and we are still developing today, and some were a failure, which we learnt important things from. Aaron Dignan’s analogy of needing to sail a boat across the ocean and whether you would choose to steer only once, or every five minutes, struck a chord with us. We did away with annual plans, annual strategy, annual reviews and instead took on a completely flexible approach of listening and responding to the needs of the business, to echo how we work as Music Therapists and Musicians.

The new self-management model has already helped us achieve so much in the time we have been developing within it. When the pandemic struck, only 2 months after we had begun to integrate the new structure into the full team, we found we were able to work together in a way that just wouldn’t have been possible before. As all our services began to shut down, the team weren’t waiting for instructions from senior leaders or managers about what to do, but instead were discussing ideas, concepts and news ways of working. Within a week of lockdown, the whole team had met, and had come up with a long list of ideas to support the people we work with, forming small project groups to go and trial the new concepts. It was through this, that our ‘Making Therapy Digital’  scheme was created and rolled out, alongside training courses in digital Music Therapy, that saw a global audience of over 350 people attend. The impact for our clients, their families and our services was immediate. Cancelled sessions began online promptly and we were able to get technology out to individuals who would have otherwise been unable to access online sessions, through our iPad and iPod Pharmacy scheme. Our sessions are a life-line for many of the most vulnerable and isolated people in our communities

New meeting formats have meant ideas continue to be easily generated, we can quickly and easily change our systems and processes to meet the changing needs of our clients – from our referrals processes to the pilots project we run to those most in need. Everything we have achieved this year, has come through our self-managing structure; ideas from people within our team, suggestions from our clients, across the country. When people have true autonomy to bring ideas, try things out and safety to succeed OR fail, then amazing things can happen. We learnt how to harness the creative side that we all have, for the benefit of the clients and families we support.

Chiltern Music Therapy first-self-management-workshop social enterprise uk
The first self-management workshop

Catherine Watkins, Development Lead said: “Self management has been a huge journey for me and our whole organisation and it is still very much ongoing.  Most of all, it has meant having to rethink my own ways of working and relating to others in a work context.  At times it has felt exhausting and directionless, at others empowering and liberating.  It has made me realise how much I subconsciously looked towards hierarchy and leadership to shape and make decisions.  Now I am on a pathway of embracing a sense of individual accountability and developing the confidence and trust in myself and others to take action and make things happen.  I feel the big achievements are yet to come as we take brave decisions to embed this in the organisation and move away from traditional concepts, we are literally on the cusp of realising the fruits of a hard first year in this new world.”

Katie Shuster, Communications Lead said: “I was skeptical at first about how it was going to work, I’d never really heard anything like it. However, we were always told to just go with it and “trust the process”. 18 months later and I’m sold. We used to have 3 hour long management meetings every Monday morning and they were horrible. Now we have short tactical meetings where everyone’s voice is heard and we actually achieve things. We are all held to account and we can just get on with our jobs. Everyone should experience a tactical meeting, you’ll never go back!”

So how does Chiltern look from the inside now?

  • Inspired by the Buurtzorg Model we have 3 Pods of around 15 staff each who are working towards creating their own referral and scheduling systems according to the location, capacity and skill set of their Pod.
  • We have an Outer Circle, which both the Directors are a part of, alongside other members of the team – the circle coaches and guides the other Circles and Pods, rather than being a system which predicts and controls.
  • We have a ‘Life’ circle which supports the wellbeing of the team as well as supporting the contractual and employment aspects of each member of staff.
  • We have a Delivery Circle, which supports the growth of the Pods – still providing some administrative support as well as a lot of coaching and guidance in ensuring that services and sessions are delivered to the high standards that we are proud to offer.
  • We also have an Advance Circle which ensures that we keep growing in innovative ways, including provision of our pilot projects, music technology programme, research and evaluation.
  • Our Fundraising Circle has adapted and grown to bring in additional fundraising expertise through staff and expert volunteers to support us financially as we navigate through the next year.

We made the decision to cement our self-managing structure by a move to employee ownership, which we will complete this Autumn. Ensuring the human stories and voices of our clients take centre-stage in our continuing development, through empowering and giving our whole team the trust and accountability they are more than equipped to take on. We look forward to seeing who will join our network of champions in the months and years ahead, sharing what we learn and most importantly continuing to be advocates for the incredible impact that Music Therapy can have.