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The Whiteboard: The symphony model can help your business perform well, too

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Friends recently invited my wife and me to a concert at Wolf Trap. The great cellist Yo-Yo Ma was joining the National Symphony Orchestra for an evening performance. I think all of us who are interested in organizational success can learn a lot from a great symphony.

There are several elements that make a symphony performance great. One of those is the instruments.

Yo-Yo Ma plays a Stradivarius cello worth a reported $2.5 million. It may be no surprise that a world-renowned soloist has an instrument of that value, but you might be surprised to know how much the average musician in a major symphony has invested in his or her instrument. Top-quality professional instruments can easily have values running to six figures or more. There is no skimping on capital investment.

We know it’s tough to make great music without great instruments, but how often do we skimp when it comes to the equipment we need to run a great business? How often do we let machines and software become obsolete or fail to keep them in good repair?

The written musical score is another element. After all, that is the plan for the product the symphony will produce. But it is more than that. It is the central organizing theme that brings every instrument and every musician together. It is the strategic plan for the night. The score is the roadmap that every musician can follow to the goal. It makes perfect sense.

So why do so few businesses have their own “score”? How can it be so clear that we need a plan to produce a symphony performance, but we plunge ahead without one in business? How can we expect everyone in the organization to understand the goals and reach the goals without a road map? We would never think of putting a symphony together and simply tell the musicians to start playing some great music.

In business, it is not at all unusual to put an organization together with goals that are either vague or unstated and to expect the people to achieve the goals with no plan to follow. They come in day after day and do what they think is the right thing, but there is no unifying theme, no clear plan in place. We would never expect a symphony to function without its sheet music, but we expect our people to do it all the time.

Speaking of people, they are another key element in the success of the symphony. In a symphony, the goal is to have musicians who have mastered their instruments. Not people who are pretty good or do an OK job, but masters of their instruments. People become masters through years of formal training and coaching. It makes no sense to have world-class instruments and musical arrangements in the hands of so-so musicians.

What do businesses do? Some don’t skimp on equipment. In fact, many make big investments in equipment and software that is put in the hands of people who don’t have mastery of it. Far from it; they are often untrained and simply using the most basic functions of the superb tools they have been given.

I recently received a spreadsheet from a client’s employee with a number of columns of figures which were summed. The employee had used a calculator to add the numbers and then entered the sums in the spreadsheet, completely missing the fundamental purpose of the software.

That kind of thing goes on all the time. People are given tools they don’t know how to use and are left to sink or swim. Those who swim aren’t setting Olympic records. In most cases, they achieve a level of survival, treading water or maybe breaking into a doggie paddle.

The final element in the symphony is the leadership. The musical director and conductor — sometimes the same person — choose the music and the musicians. They are the ones responsible for selecting a great road map and building a team of musicians with the mastery to execute it.

The conductor leads the team, explaining the music and its nuances. He or she builds the necessary teamwork, making sure each person understands his or her role in putting together a perfect performance. You don’t have a great symphony without great leadership.

If you own or lead a business or a department, you are the musical director and conductor. You are the one who must put clear goals and a clear road map in place. You are the one who must advocate for appropriate capital investments. And, most of all, you are the one who must build a team of people with mastery of their jobs. You must find them or you must develop them.

The symphony model has been proven over centuries. How does your business or department compare?


Richard Randall is founder and president of management-consulting firm New Level Advisors in Springettsbury Township, York County. Email him at

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