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The harmonious business: why producing the best music isn’t just about playing the same tune

Last night we (that is, Ely Sinfonia) had our first rehearsal for our concert on March 3rd (Ely Cathedral, 7.30pm, by the way). How it panned out reminded me very much of the issues facing a lot of businesses.

The first thing we did was play right through Britten’s “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”. It was recognisable, but little short of cacophony.

Then the conductor began to take it apart. Section by section, we got our fingers round the notes and started to piece together the various tunes we were trying to play. And as we became more familiar with our own parts, we started to hear what was going on in other parts of the orchestra and to adjust our own playing to fit in. Sometimes one part had the main tune, sometimes another – occasionally even my own section, the violas. In places my desk partner and I had different notes to play: that, in particular, is when you realise that playing in harmony involves not just pitching the note correctly, but also moderating your tone and even the way your bow moves across the strings to create the right kind of sound. Suddenly, the orchestra was playing as one and producing really wonderful music.

Running a business can be much the same. For the musical score, read strategy. You can have an excellent vision, mission and goals and everyone in the business may know what they are but, on its own, they don’t make for success. You can have a wonderful marketing strategy and tell the whole world about your business, but unless the product matches your customers’ expectations, it won’t make for long-term success.

Similarly, each department or work group in a business can be likened to the different sections of an orchestra; the individuals are equivalent to the different players; the processes or activities undertaken in a business are like the techniques used by members of the orchestra to play their instruments. Each individual or department can be operating excellently, but it doesn’t always mean that the business will hang together as an entity.

How can this happen? Just because an activity is being done perfectly doesn’t meant that it is necessarily right for the rest of the business. In an orchestra, the whole effect can be spoiled by someone playing beautiful notes, but too loudly or in the wrong place. Similarly, one person or department in a business can undermine all the others, not simply because the wrong things are being done, but possibly because the right things are being done in the wrong way or at the wrong time.

That’s where a good business operations strategy can help. It treats the business as a complete system in which every person and activity needs to contribute in the right way at the right time. So next time you have a problem in your business, don’t look at it in isolation. It could be that you have found a symptom of something going on elsewhere. If you can find the cause and put that right, you may well find that you suddenly unblock the whole system and the whole business begins to operate far more smoothly – bringing success closer more quickly: a symphony, if you like, that’s really worth playing.

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