The Harmony of Workgroups: Lessons in Teamwork from Music

This week I’m participating in a music gathering in Lunenburg Nova Scotia (The Boxwood Festival). Becoming immersed in music for a few days raises some points about work and especially about working together.

First, playing music on your own is simpler than playing music with others. To begin, you have to agree on what to play. That decision may involve lengthy conversations with months of preparation or in a session choosing to join playing the tune that someone has started to play. But however the group gets there, music only happens when people find agreement. We’re talking about harmony here.

Second, when playing alone, pitch isn’t quite so important. Playing a bit flat or a bit sharp to ideal pitch is irrelevant to a solo player. For a group, however, beautiful music requires a consensus on pitch. Even a 90% majority fails the test. Fortunately, the world has a consensus that 440 constitutes A (except for the A-415 Baroque crowd who reside in a world of their own). The world has created a lot of technology to help individuals and groups to find the proper pitch. There’s even an app for that.

Third, there is tempo. Getting to the end of the tune before everyone else brings no prizes. People have a tendency to accelerate the tempo, a habit that can move a tough piece from being manageable and sounding good to a frantic pace, enjoyable to no one.

Music groups use two methods to hold things together: leadership and listening. Larger groups employ conductors whose role is exclusively keeping things unfolding effectively. But the fundamental method in groups large and small is listening. Listening means attending closely to what others are doing. Careful listening allows musicians to merge their efforts. Listening enables musicians to influence one another and to be influenced by the approaches and efforts of others.

So, whatever does this have to do with workgroups?

Harmonious has literal meaning when applied to musical groups. It is equally apt when applied metaphorically to other types of groups.

Working as a group member entails relinquishing some autonomy. It’s a trade-off: on one hand giving up independence; on the other hand, gaining the impact that is possible with coordinated effort of competent people. Working alone is easier, but limiting, nonetheless.

The point of having a workgroup rather than separate individuals is to combine their capabilities to produce something greater than individuals can produce on their own. That quality requires a shared vision (agreeing on the tune), coordinated effort (intonation), and getting things done when others need it done (tempo).

As with music, the methods are primarily leadership and listening.

Points to remember:

  1. The primary job of leadership is group harmony. The issue is how well the elements fit together.
  2. Listening is essential to influencing others as it is to being influenced by others.
  3. When the efforts of two people are out of tune with one another, both need to adjust until they find a shared meeting point that works well with the rest of the group. Lone victories are not real.
  4. Timing is essential.

How harmonious is your workgroup?

Have you agree on the tune you’re playing?

Are tuning problems resolved in a compatible way?

Is your timing impeccable?

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