The unfinished symphony of business


“The conductor of the orchestra doesn’t make a sound. They depend, for their power, on their ability to make other people powerful.” Benjamin Zander

I can still remember the first time I ever played in an orchestra: it was daunting, exciting and humbling all at the same time, I was apprehensive yet curious. What if I play out of tune and they hear it? But what if I don’t, and it sounds fantastic? It really is great to feel part of something that is bigger than you. There is a sense of expectation about what you can create and accomplish together, even if it is messy and not always easy – that’s just part of human systems! We may all have similar needs in terms of belonging and connection, but how we express them varies greatly. The helpful analogy of an orchestra when thinking about business remained implicit to me until I took the time to really try and decipher the messages and understand how I could translate them into my professional life leading teams and building collective systems.

 Intense and intentional listening

A conductor must guide but not choreograph an orchestra and listen to what is, and what isn’t, being played. If a member of the orchestra simply sits back and disconnects when they are not playing, they step out of the system and out of the symphony. They can of course come back in at the right time, but are they still in the flow, that mental state of full immersion and focus for peak performance? I think of this as ‘curious mastery’ – your ‘inner game of work’ – which is where the magic lies. Listening to your ‘inner leadership team’ is one of the most powerful ways to make sense of the outside world. It can be as simple as taking five minutes every morning to check in with yourself and question your perspectives and the stories you tell yourself. And we all love a good story – they make the world go round and create real connections that bring empathy, awareness, human emotion and mutual respect. As a more conscious form of listening, how often do you step back and ask what story it is that you want to tell?

Listening is a key leadership skill, particularly in a world that is on the go 24/7 and obsessed with always being busy. I call this the intention/action gap. For example: you sit in a meeting, fully intending to listen to what people say, and you do – you are interested and respect the person speaking, but you don’t really hear the words. You listen to reply so that you can quickly move on to the next item. Being busy is comfortable, rewarded and seen as efficient, but are you truly connecting with your team? Probably not. Although your intention was to care and connect, you have lost your focus. So what would intent listening actually feel like and result in?

The power of collective focus

One of the hardest things to perform is chamber music, played without a conductor. You really have to listen very deeply, be completely present and fully accountable for the notes you play and when you play them. You listen more and more intently to convey the aim of the music. Each member of the group may interpret it differently, or, to continue with the orchestra analogy, you may want to use a different playing technique or play at a different tempo. Working together in organisations is no different. You need to listen to and hear all the voices because only then can you really get the full picture of what is happening across all parts of the system – outside your immediate ecosystem and particularly amongst the diverse and more marginalised voices. Wisdom is often found in the quieter voices and the group will not reach its full potential until every voice is heard. This means orchestrating things to move at a steady pace and be agile enough to react to unexpected changes.

Music also sparks emotions and varying perspectives from different parts of the brain. In this context, it is helpful to think about your team and ask: Who are we playing for? What do you want them to feel? How should you orchestrate the vision? What relationships do you need that you don’t currently have? We should always strive to know what others are playing.

Systems thinking is a must in today’s business landscape; to excel in the digital age means improving our ability to learn, pivot and collaborate. We must recognise, build and nurture bonds alongside that which brings us joy. This sense of joy and purpose should be woven into all our daily thoughts and interactions. Building a more human-centred workplace involves unlocking the emotional layer of the team culture and creating collective momentum towards achieving a shared objective. This doesn’t mean that the individual employee or leader doesn’t have a place or a voice. Just like in an orchestra, people must invest at an individual level, and we are looking for collective excellence, not perfection. We must listen empathically, manage our emotions and remain open-minded.

Relationships are key

Research tells us that interpersonal relationships are key to creating inclusive spaces and collective intelligence, as Richard Claydon points out in his future of work intelligence model, which offers five different ways to understand how intelligence manifests in an organisation (click here to listen to the podcast where we discuss this and more).

The fourth level, collective intelligence, is where we find different perspectives, social and emotional intelligence, and more creative, productive thinking. Relationships are the glue that hold systems together – like a spider’s web – to form structures that are strong and resilient despite appearing fragile. They are designed around the strength of the whole, akin to leading communities and teams or playing in an orchestra. Orchestras have clearly defined roles and responsibilities. Conductors are often musicians, but they don’t actually play. There is ‘freedom in a frame’ that allows the creative space to expand and give way to cohesive individual expression. You may have lots of highly skilled individuals, but unless you listen intently to them and connect them with others, the collective oeuvre will not work. Just as conductors help manage these interconnected sounds, reading emotional fields is a key skill of any leader whose facilitator role is instrumental (excuse the pun!) in bringing about sustainable change in human systems.

Practice, discipline and flow

When running pilots for ‘teal’ organisations or flatter, more networked agile structures, the discussion about organisation design and ‘roles and responsibilities’ always takes centre stage. We often hear misconceptions like ‘there’s no structure’, ‘I won’t have a boss anymore’ or ‘everyone is free to do what they like’. But this is to completely miss the point about the strength of these designs: the roles, responsibilities and structure are even more important and more clearly defined, thereby creating the resilience and, paradoxically, the agility of the system.

Another important systems skill is adaptability – being able to understand the positions of others and change your own accordingly, both figuratively and physically, or being able to understand and enact a different position outside a rigid, hierarchical structure. This approach is vital for success both as an individual part of a system and the system as a whole. Rehearsals are an important and valuable part of the equation. Individuals must listen to their own impact and decide how they want to be heard. This must then be translated into collective action. ‘Compare and compete’ must be replaced with compassion, curiosity, and, above all, the discipline of developmental practice.

Thank you for reading.

If this resonates with you please share your thoughts in the comments, and subscribe for more thoughts on human systems. 

You can also find more subjects like this in my podcast, Let’s talk Transformation, available on Apple PodcastSpotify, and Google Podcast.

If you’re looking to build and lead agile ecosystems differently, check out our Human Systems Practitioner course :

Suzie Lewis

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