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High-Performing Teams: Lessons from the Symphony Orchestra

Morag Barrett, October 23, 2017

High-Performing Teams: Lessons from the Symphony Orchestra

I recently wrote a Leadership Moment that described the leadership lessons from the orchestra conductor. There is no doubt that an orchestra conductor plays a critical role in the success of any group. The Broomfield Symphony Orchestra has continued to grow stronger under the guidance of our current conductor.

However, the orchestra itself is also a great example of a high-performing team. If the conductor were to step away from the podium, the performance would continue. The team would adapt and work together. Here are five traits that help this high-performing team excel:

1. Focus. Orchestra members are provided with all the information they need to perform their part. Each instrument has a personal road map in the music to focus on and individual parts show us when to play (speak up), when to be quiet (listen), when to move quickly (allegro) and when to slow down (largo).

High-Performing Team Action: How aligned are your team members? Ask your team to list the top three priorities for your group for the remainder of the year. 

  • Is everyone clear and aligned regarding the purpose and goals of the team?
  • What might the team need to stop doing to ensure success?


2. Roles and Responsibilities. The orchestra has clearly defined roles and responsibilities and ensures that each one is filled appropriately. You can’t have an effective performance if a role is not filled; the performance would be rather flat if there were no cello section or the flutes were missing. We can only play one part, our part, at a time.

High-Performing Team Action: Ensure your team members understand their individual roles and responsibilities, as well as the collective skills of the team. Identify any potential gaps and decide how these might be addressed. Sharing career histories, past roles and experiences will allow everyone to identify the talents in the team and better understand how and when to tap into these.

  • Do you have the right combination of roles, knowledge, skills, ability and experience on the team?
  • Is everyone playing in their best role to the best of their ability?


3. Learning and Practice. The weekly rehearsals are only part of the equation. There is also the individual rehearsal time we all do to ensure we can perform our piece to the best of our ability. Yes, occasionally we will try to “wing it” and sight-read our part. However, nothing is better than practice, and nothing beats the guided practice in a group rehearsal.

High-Performing Team Action: Becoming a high-performing team doesn’t happen by accident. It is a result of deliberate action and learning. Invest the time to discuss the following questions with your team members and take action to improve the individual and collective performance of your team:

  • What’s working well or getting in the way of our success (individually and collectively)?
  • What can we do (individually and collectively) to move this team to the next level?


4. Relationships. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the importance of relationships to an orchestra’s success. Even when accompanying a solo performer, it is the relationships within the orchestra that ensure collective success: listening to each other, adjusting our individual volume and dynamics, the give and take that ensures a performance that the audience enjoys.

High-Performing Team Action: Building effective relationships at work is the key to individual and team success. It means going beyond the transactional – simply doing your job – and means you have to pay attention to the transformational aspects, the interpersonal dynamics that bring people together.

  • What are the rules of engagement for how we will work together?
  • How do we ensure the right level of candor and debate?


5. Celebrate Success. The conductor shares the success of the performance. Once they have taken an initial bow, they turn and invite the orchestra to stand and share the spotlight. The team celebrates the accolades together.

High-Performing Team Action: How does your team celebrate success? When did they last acknowledge their colleagues and say “thank you” for their contributions?

  • What are the key milestones and measures of success we should celebrate?
  • How will we recognize and applaud individual and team success?


How well are your employees playing together? Are they playing in harmony or are they slightly out of tune? Whether you are considering your team at work, or a social group that you are part of, I hope that these five lessons and 10 questions help you build your high-performing team.


Want to read more from Morag? Check out this excerpt from her book
The Future Proof Workplace.

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