The Orchestra Paradox

Executives in many modern organisations often share a vision of fragmented business entities working together in harmony. Each united under the guidance of an imposing, creative, talented leader. The musical metaphor of an orchestra is often used to convey this vision. However, an organisation as an orchestra is destined to stand still.

The notion of the organisation as an orchestra is rolled out at many company outings, town halls, executive meetings and so on. On the surface, it seems like a good metaphor to use. It offers a picture perfect view of a harmonic organisation full of talented people working towards a common goal. But when we start to look at the reality that faces organisations in a digital world powered, we soon find that using the orchestra as a metaphor is not just incorrect. It’s dangerous.

Following the Sheet Music

In an orchestra, everyone is following predefined sheets of music and are doing so at the command of the conductor. In an organisation, the conductor is the leader who is responsible for the vision and for creating the path subordinates follow. The sheets of music are the rules, routines, and best practices composed by the culture of the company. This presents a homogenised view of the organisation. Everything is known beforehand and only implementation required, employees need only follow the plan set out by their leader. However, as the late Hubert Dreyfus argued, this over-reliance on predefined plans and rules counter-intuitively leads to less expertise. The result? More mistakes. We also know that creativity and innovation come from diverse backgrounds and clashes at the boundaries of communities. If, as per the orchestra, we encourage communities to simply stick to what they know and follow what has gone before. They will lack the ability to innovate. This means the organisation will not have the dynamic capabilities needed to keep pace with a transforming competitive environment. Rather, we need to encourage employees to make their own music.

Emergent Strategy

The image of an orchestra in full flight, executing classics with a perfect performance, brings forth the idea that it is the job of employees to simply execute a pre-set strategy. However, as Henry Mintzberg the business and management author of “Simply Managing” shows, this isn’t the reality of modern strategy. Take IKEA as an example. Their strategy occurred when trying to fit a sofa into a truck, they couldn’t, so understood that customers wouldn’t either. If they had tried to follow what had gone before and not allowed this idea to emerge, they would have stuck to selling furniture the traditional way. Modern organisations need to convey to employees that they have the freedom and space to challenge the status quo. If they feel like their only there to follow the conductor, then the organisation will suffer from path dependency. Instead, an organisation needs to move on from the classics to create new sounds. It won’t do so if it’s run like an orchestra

Experimental Gigging

To create these new sounds an organisation needs to move away from the idea that employees are there to implement a well thought out plan. They need to understand that once space and safety are supplied leaders will emerge distributed throughout. But this will only occur if people feel it is safe to experiment, to try risky things, and to challenge long-held routines and practices. This is hard to achieve, we work in environments that are competitive. Where it can be hard to build trust. And getting things done overrides everything else. The orchestra as an organisation only helps to solidify these problems in the minds of employees. It’s important to encourage employees to play out of tune from time to time, doing so will uncover new things, open up space to confront old habits, and create new ones. Give employees the freedom to play what they want and innovation will follow.

The Language of a Leader

Language is a powerful thing. When it comes from someone in a leadership position, it moulds how people within an organisation shape their goals and routines to achieve the outcome their leader wants them to obtain. This is why it is important we recognise how language and metaphors, such as that of an orchestra, can lead to solidification of engrained outdated modes of operating. We must look to different language in order to break these old moulds, encourage people to take risks, and bring out leadership in everyone. Frank Barrett, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, looks to Jazz as an alternative. Jazz offers us a metaphor that highlights, distributed leadership, the importance of safe spaces, experimentation, followership and more. These traits are more important in a fast-paced digital world than the rigid, structured, command and control nature of the orchestra.