One of my colleagues shared this metaphor and I was mesmerized by it, expanding into this vignette. They suggested that if we could pretend that teams are playing music, we could imagine the kind of music that we would hear.
A team that’s persevering toward a milestone, gritting teeth and buckling down is likely playing a march: methodical, brash, simple rhythm that keeps them awake and aware of the pace. Bloody calluses be damned — as long as you’re putting your foot in front of the other, you’re doing your part.
A well-organized team that builds intricate products plays a symphony: multi-faceted, polished, nuanced. There might even be an operatic diva whose voice makes your heart ache from beauty, bending reality and capturing your imagination. Everybody knows their place and time, structure rules everything.
Some teams don’t quite know how their work will come together, but their shared faith in each other, backed by centuries of collective experience, hints that it will be marvellous — and fun. This team plays jazz. Unpredictable, mercurial, brilliant and yes, sometimes frivolous.
Each kind of music asks to be held differently. If I only know that I am a second violin, it might be tough for me to endure a grueling march and be anxiously reaching for a non-existent score in a jam session. I’ve yet to learn how to pick the right marching boots, or let go of the rigid structure and fixed identity.
This metaphor gives me a new lens. When in a new environment (which is often in my line of work), I look around and listen. What music is the team playing? Who is not playing the same kind? Where are the confused marchers stomping on the delicate filigree of the symphony? Where are the sad jazz musicians making monotone sounds in service of a march? Frustrated divas trying to find their opening in the effervescence of jazz? In each mismatch, there’s an opportunity — a starting place for gaining more coherence.