Orchestrating teams to make beautiful outcomes

An orchestra is comprised of individuals and sections that work collectively to deliver a harmonious performance.

Modern orchestras have up to 100 members arranged in sections – woodwind, strings, percussion, brass and so on. These sections can also have sub-sections – for example, the strings section has violins, violas, cellos and double-bases. Each section typically has a leader who is part of the orchestra leadership group and represents their teams.

Some sections of an orchestra are larger than others. For example, the strings section is the largest, with up to 70 players. The violins are the largest sub-section within strings. Because of this, the first violinist is a critical leadership position and is physically located close to the conductor. The first violinist is the main liaison between musicians and the conductor. Amongst other things, they’re responsible for understanding the conductor’s ideas and communicating them to the rest of the orchestra; tuning the orchestra before rehearsals and performances; and assisting with managing the orchestra management. Learn more about the first violinist.

Some instruments are only played by one or two musicians, so they’re very small sub-sections within a section. An example would be the oboe or bassoon within the woodwind section. Some sections are small but have a big impact, like the brass section. Some people multi-task, playing several instruments within a section. The flautist can play several different types of flute within a single performance. And percussionists are often expected to play multiple instruments. That’s because some percussion instruments are used for just one or two notes in a performance. The triangle is a perfect example here.

Some instruments are seen to be more “prestigious” or “important”. Even within the orchestra, it’s quite common for there to be rivalry and politics between sections – just like any workplace. Ultimately, however, the music won’t fulfil its potential if every instrument and every player doesn’t contribute.

In a world-class orchestra, every musician is an accomplished professional. They’ll have studied the score and will intimately know their part in its overall delivery . The section leads will have practised with their own sections and with the entire orchestra repeatedly until it their parts are innate. As such, each member is aware of their own part, their team’s part, and that of their colleagues, so they can simultaneously and seamlessly switch between their own individual performance and listen for their cues within the wider performance.

Professional musicians within a world-class orchestra have studied extensively and know how to interpret a musical score to understand and convey the story it tells. Even so, they understand and are aligned to the conductor’s accountability for the vision for the entire performance. The conductor is the steward of the composer’s creation and is essential to

the success of a performance. Every player brings their own purpose and passion but respects and collaborates as a team.

Every performance is different – every audience is different. They may be unaware of the nuances, but the audience can tell if something is missing from a performance. There’s no room for complacency or taking the music for granted. Each new performance deserves the same level of care, professionalism and passion, because each new audience deserves to hear the music as if it were the first time the orchestra performs it.

Every performance is the culmination of vision, culture, values, technical skills and hard work combining in a moment of sheer beauty. For musicians, the reward is more than just their salary. It’s the concordance of purpose, achievement and recognition – individually and collectively.

Now, let’s apply this approach to a business environment. How can we find parallels and inspiration to apply to our teams and organisations?

Every task, no matter the size or time taken to complete, contributes to the successful delivery of a company’s vision and purpose. Some tasks can be done by many people; some require specialist skills. Some people can do many tasks, and others are specialists who do only one task. Some teams have a higher profile than others in an organisation. There are internal politics between teams and competition for prestige and influence. However, the company can’t fulfil its true potential without each team member being aware of their own role, their team’s contribution and how they relate to colleagues in different functions to deliver a great outcome.

Each customer interaction or outcome deserves the same level of care, professionalism and passion as a finely tuned orchestra, because it’s typically their first experience with an organisation. The customer doesn’t care about how it all came to be, they just want the outcome that suits them.

Leaders, like conductors and first violinists, are stewards of the company vision, strategy and customer outcomes. Success depends on a leader’s ability to interpret and translate the strategy for their teams. It also depends on how a leader enables and empowers their teams to apply their technical expertise to unlock both energy and loyalty. Employees want more than a pay cheque. They want to feel there’s a purpose to their task, that they’re achieving goals and are valued and appreciated for their work – individually and as part of a community.

It sounds familiar, huh?

So now you know a little about the roles and mechanics within world-class symphony orchestras, let’s think about how they can be applied to your work or business situation.

The following questions can help you reflect on how to begin the journey towards making beautiful music. Oops, I mean business outcomes! You can answer them individually or in a group exercise with your colleagues.

For the whole team


Describe your team

Are you part of a large team? Is it part of a larger division in the same function? Or are you a member of a smaller, specialist team? Does your team need to be able to multi-task or be able to be expert at just one thing?

Try to relate to a section within an orchestra as a guide. For example, “I’m in a customer-service call centre. I am one of eight teams that take inbound billing enquiries. I’m like the strings section because I’m one of the largest divisions in the company”.

Or, “I’m a pricing analyst in the finance team. I have a specialist role, only one or two of us are experts within the company”.


How does your team fit in with the broader organisation?

Do you understand how your team contributes to the overall outcomes of the organisations? This is about more than KPIs or a balanced scorecard.

Be a descriptive . For example, “I’m in the sales support team. I help the sales team work with customers as much as possible by doing their administration and support tasks. I help the company maximise its revenue by ensuring the sales team can spend as much time selling as possible.”


How valuable is your contribution?

How do you know? How can you find out? A useful exercise is to complete the statement “If I (or my team) didn’t exist, then the following things wouldn’t happen ….” Against each task, complete the exercise by noting why those tasks are important. Now you can take this list and reverse it into value statements.


How do you and your team interact with other teams?

Do you know what’s important to them? Have you ever shared what’s important to your team? This is your opportunity to do so.

If you’re a front-line or middle to senior leader, have you ever tried to answer the questions above on behalf of your team? Have you sought to meet with other leaders or peers to work out how you connect with each other and how you contribute collectively and collaboratively to the overall business outcomes?

Do your own team objectives align to these outcomes? How do you know that they do?

As a senior leader, (aka first violinists and conductors), can you answer the questions above for yourself? How have you facilitated any of the above with the teams under your charter?

Do you know each of your teams and what they do? How well do you know this? Do you know them equally well or some better than others? If so, why?

What actions can you regularly take to enable your teams to connect and discover how they are performing collectively? Do you have a cadence of regular catchups with your teams – individually and collectively?

What steps do you take on a regular basis to demonstrate and reinforce the value you see in your teams’ contributions?

I can help you unlock the power of your people and create sustainable operating systems. Get in touch to learn more.

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