Managing Self

Posted by jlubans on December 05, 2012

While I was in NYC last week, a couple of friends talked to me about the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and its organizational model. One asked, “Surely, the model cannot be applied anywhere else, can it?” Another friend, as we talked about this conductor-less group, queried “Isn’t Orpheus self-selected?” In other words, was not Orpheus born that way, a natural grouping of like-minded people?
So, can the model replace hierarchical groups?
A good question and I am going to try to come up with a more rounded explanation than my usual response of fitting the Orphean model to professional groups, like a legal, media, or medical practice or, in my realm, a medium to large-size academic library.

20121205-Opheus Chamber Orchestra-2481.jpeg
Caption: Orpheus in performance at Carnegie Hall; Like Kilroy, I was there in the first Tier, Dec 1. (Used with permission.)
In fact, the question was on my mind while listening to that evening’s glorious music (Prokofiev, Barber, Mozart ).
As the reader knows, I often write and teach about Orpheus. Chapter 6 of the book is “The Invisible Leader: Lessons for Leaders from the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.” That chapter describes in detail many of the attributes of the orchestra, including the claim that Orpheus demonstrates more leadership than do hierarchical organizations. Which of course it must since there is no conductor, no single leader – each musician takes responsibility for the whole piece, not just his or her part.
And, my most recent explanatory blog entry about Orpheus is here.
Well, what happens when a hierarchical organization adopts the Orpheus model? What changes?
Here are a few of the differences, some characteristics and features. This is a preliminary listing, derived from my years leading self-managing teams and from my decade of observing Orpheus. If you have some aspects to add or delete, let me know.
- A greatly scaled back administrative group. The former departments, now self-managing teams, take on many of the responsibilities of divisional vice-presidents. While reduced in numbers, the administrative office still provides organization-wide services, like professional development and learning. Also, accounting continues centralized. There is an external-facing Leader with an overview of the organization but this is a leader in the Taoist tradition: "The best leader leads least".
- No performance appraisal. Stop cheering, please! Simply, it is not needed in effective teams.
Discipline is needed less because there are few if any administrative rules and regulations that contribute to problems and get in the way of real work and productivity. Teams are self-managing and they counsel, coach and discipline as needed.
- Less closed-off office space. Instead, most people use open workstations and cubicles. Conferences are held in former corner offices (with views) out and in. The architectural idea is to make collaboration easy.
- A supportive support staff. Non-career staff are there to assist teams, offer input and ideas, and largely to implement the work of the organization. Support staff are responsive and responsible; they are a working extension of the organization’s mission, helpful to one and all, inside and outside the organization. Support staff facilitate information requests and connect outsiders with insiders.
- No standing meetings, apart from an annual “New England town-hall” event. The annual meeting sets the budget, chooses new initiatives, and re-asserts priorities, values and mission. All other meetings are impromptu, called as needed. Whoever calls a meeting takes responsibility for research and preparation of the topic prior to discussion and resolution.
- Collaborative decision-making. If a decision involves another team, it has to include the other group and anyone else touched by the decision. Occam's razor frames the decision-making process.
- Salary equity. While not totally flat, salaries are less stratified than in the hierarchy. Regardless, salaries are competitive with markets. Seniority does matter, but most people make about the same. The leader’s salary is more but moderately so.
- Hours worked are reasonable, 30-40 per week. People set their own schedules, recognizing there is life beyond work. Vacations and sabbaticals are generous. Productivity is high.
- The “org” chart is a circle.

There you have it! None of these features require a genetic pre-disposition. (Actually, humans are already pre-disposed toward this type of organization!) All that’s needed is willingness to simplify the workplace, take responsibility and do more real work than under the old ways. If a person is at odds with managing self, he or she has the option to leave. If a musician yearns for someone in charge - a conductor, that musician should be in a conductor-led orchestra! Most re-organizations attempt, but rarely succeed, at shrinking the hierarchy. The Orpheus model is different. It reduces non-essential staffing and results in a more empowered and productive staff.

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