Orchestra Business Metaphors

There are a ton of sports metaphors in the business world. It’s about time that a more diverse set of experiences is integrated into business jargon, and I’m starting off with orchestra:

“All right everyone, time to tune”

Meaning: in an orchestra, you tune your instruments using an agreed-upon hertz frequency to make sure that if someone plays a note, it sounds the same as the person next to them. This is very important — almost all instruments require tweaks over time to stay “in tune”, and the agreed-upon frequency can differ slightly depending on the orchestra.

In the business world: taking the time to make sure everyone’s in agreement about the fundamentals of what’s going on will help avoid confusion later. No one wants an orchestra where some people are playing at 440 Hz and others are playing at 442 Hz.

“Listen to the conductor, watch the musicians”

Meaning: when people picture an orchestra, they often conjure a grandiose vision of rows and rows of strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion, and a conductor — standing tall at the podium, baton at the ready to give the downbeat. While the conductor can help give tips and focus effort on the areas needed to bring a piece together, as well as bring out a certain feeling or mood from the ensemble, there are a lot of ways that “leadership” is accomplished.

The concertmaster (first person in the front row of the Violin 1 section), and the entire first row in general, help set the example for the rest of the musicians in the strings section. Your stand partner (for musicians playing the same part, it’s common to have 2 people to 1 music stand) can help clue you in to the right bar of music if you get lost, and vice versa. If one section doesn’t have notes to play for many bars in a row, they often listen to the rest of the orchestra for musical cues that tell them when to start playing again. There are also conductorless orchestras, trios and quartets, and more.

In the business world: it’s important to listen to the top brass (pun intended), but your day-to-day is most often impacted by the people you’re immediately working with. Additionally, organizations don’t have to be run so strictly top-down; playing in harmony often necessitates separate work that can blend together into a unified strategy and implementation.

“No one can whistle a symphony”

Meaning: there’s a time and a place for a soloist, but grand works of art inherently require a lot of people playing in sync together to make something beautiful.

In the business world: big, successful projects are completed from start to finish by a team, and oftentimes various teams all coming together.

Maybe it’s stretching the analogy too much, but you can envision Strategy & Ops as the strings, Engineering as your elegant woodwinds, your brass as brassy sales reps, your percussion as PMs, and so on. Each section can perform on their own, but it’s a lot more meaningful when everyone comes together. A brass quintet pales in comparison to a Mahler symphony, after all.


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