I make my living working for an organization that is used as a metaphor in business writing all the time – the symphony orchestra. Most of the time the orchestra metaphor is used as an example of a high functioning team made up of specialists in pursuit of excellence.
Sometimes it is pointed to as an example of the limits of hyper specialization and silos (because, for instance, the timpanist cannot offer much to the cellist in terms of solving playing problems and vice versa).
Today the metaphor is a little out of fashion and, as more than one observer has wryly noted, as a metaphor for organizations it is probably most enjoyed by those who see themselves as conductors of organizations. Nonetheless, as it relates to organizations I am pretty confident that the metaphor of the symphony orchestra will persist.
Because the show – the performance work that an orchestra does – is a pretty amazing feat of human coordination. It’s a stage full of people, putting years of training and practice on display in a complex and often dazzling dance of sound over time – all in order to tell a story together.
It really is, as I sometimes call it, ‘the human coordination show’. But behind the human coordination show of an orchestra are real organizations with all the challenges of complexity and human fumbling that any organization faces. Sometimes these organizations are high functioning, sometimes they are not.