Team Performance: Lessons from String Quartets

By Karen Utgoff

As the only non-musician in my nuclear family, I have attended many concerts and recitals offered by students and pros. These range from big orchestra and choral performances to small solo events. Over the years, I have found watching string quartets especially fascinating. In addition to the music, each performance is a study in teamwork that offers a model — whether in the context of an established business, a non-profit organization, or a startup — that many business teams would do well to emulate.

The Chiara Quartet. Photo by Christian Steiner

The Chiara Quartet. Photo by Christian Steiner

A string quartet has a lot in common with teams as defined by Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith in their classic Harvard Business Review article “The Discipline of Teams” ( July-August 2005):

“A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, set of performance goals and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.”

“The essence of a team is common commitment. Without it, groups perform as individuals; with it, they become a powerful unit of collective performance.”

These characteristics are certainly true of successful string quartets at all levels.  Here are some other observations about these musical teams that inform business teams by shedding a different light on some common issues:

Challenging, shared, clearly defined, performance-related goals provide focus for team efforts. Working toward a particular performance seems obvious for a quartet — the team naturally and continuously aims for a result that goes beyond what its members can achieve individually. And, their goal is clear, be ready to perform on the scheduled day. Project-oriented business teams often find defining goals and timelines less straightforward; but it is no less essential. Defined goals and clear timetables create valuable motivators as well as a shared focus, sense of urgency and standard for measuring success.

The Chiara Quartet is one that I particularly enjoy watching, so I was interested to read about their new performance goal:

“For almost all of the Quartet’s upcoming concerts, they’ll be performing by heart.  After spending countless hours working towards playing their repertoire from memory, they now feel that the sheet music is a distraction to the performance, instead of an aid.”

For those who would like to learn more, here are some examples of the Quartet in performance and practicing together.

Team members’ specific, complementary skills enable team performance. Every string quartet needs two violinists, a violist, and a cellist. If one is missing, you don’t have a string quartet. In much the same way, business teams need members who bring specific skills to the group. Unlike a quartet, the basic mix of skills needed on a project-focused business team is not always obvious. For example, a new venture team may start out with science and engineering expertise and only later realize the need for expertise in venture finance and entrepreneurial marketing.

Well-defined roles and responsibilities help eliminate gaps and overlaps. In a quartet, essential roles and responsibilities are obvious; each member has his/her own instrument and sheet music, which defines the part to be played. It’s ridiculous to think of a musician arbitrarily playing another performer’s part or that a part would be overlooked. Unfortunately both happen on business teams if they don’t take the time to clarify who is doing what. High-performing teams work together to define individual responsibilities. This clarity is the foundation for mutual respect for individual roles and accountability but shouldn’t be inflexible, as all team members share the responsibility for achieving the team’s goals and improvising solutions to unanticipated challenges.

Good communication and situational awareness are essential if the whole is to become more than the sum of its parts. As a parent of a violinist, violist and cellist, it was fascinating to see novice quartet members learning how to be good team members. The hard part began at the first team meeting. Although each member had learned his/her part in advance, they needed to learn how to share ideas and be aware of each other before they could put the parts together and perform as a group. When something unexpected happened — a missed cue — it was the ability of the individual performers to notice and support one another that allowed them to get back together and demonstrated their strength as a team.

Many professional quartets exhibit these qualities throughout their performances with eye contact, nods, and watching each other as they each play their individual parts. Leadership shifts seamlessly from one performer to another as the piece progresses.  When a quartet seems to be four individuals playing without regard for one another the performance suffers. I don’t know if this is the music itself or the overall impression it makes on the audience. Is there something here that might help your team make a more compelling presentation to management or an investor?

For more on elements that support team performance, I urge you to check out the Katzenbach and Smith article mentioned earlier and to take the opportunity to watch and be inspired by high-performing teams from other fields.

© Copyright 2013 Karen Utgoff. All rights reserved.

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