Building Teams is Like Composing Music

Published: September 27, 2022

For the past few years, our consulting team has been employing music composition as a tool for personal, family, group, and organizational wellness support. It works for a simple reason. The trajectory of a song’s development parallels the path of a team’s growth. So, whether it’s a coaching client expressing their career challenge with song lyrics or a corporate leadership team broadcasting their mission with a marketing jingle, building teams is like composing music.

Effective teams share common qualities. While they sing in harmony, they also value the novelty that arises from dissonance. They strive toward a common vision, but understand there may be many paths to get there. They learn to listen and, adjusting on the fly, improvise. And like a beautiful piece of music, they follow the arc to resolution. That’s when they write their next tune.

Here are a few principles to keep in mind the next time you need to assemble a team:

Genre: Speak the language of your audience. Leaders in manufacturing communicate in different voices than their counterparts in healthcare or higher education. If you fail to write your song in the taste of your listeners, they’ll likely skip ahead to the next tune and, more importantly, miss out on your message.

Vibe: Teams have personalities. When you mix the traits, backgrounds, moods, and priorities of a group of people together, you don’t just mix many souls. You create a new soul – the soul of the team. That new soul has a vibe like none other. If you happen to add or subtract a teammate along the way, the team’s soul changes.

Lyrics/Message: When our creative team composes a marketing jingle, we always begin with the organization’s core values. We ask employees to provide examples of these values in action. These words and stories become the lyrics. The music is then designed in whatever mode expresses that mood. The resulting song is the team’s brand.

Rhythm: Each team moves to the beat of its own drummer. The rhythmic undercurrent can be driven by many things – the urgency of the project, the style of the leader, or the team’s emotional state following a success or a failure, to name a few. Moreover, the rhythm can change. In music, this usually happens with intention. With teams, a change in cadence can be both expected and unexpected. It’s what you do next that counts.

Instruments: Complex projects demand a unique blend of talent. Like a multiple-circle Venn diagram, each part has both distinct and overlapping features. Strings and horns may or may not sound good together, depending on the goals and direction of the team. Either way, someone has to keep the beat.

Chords/Melody/Structure: The lifespan of a team is composed in movements. Within each movement is a sequence of events. Some set the stage. Others give context. There are periods that ascend and times that descend. There’s a gradual build and, eventually, the celebration of accomplishment. Blended together, these elements tell the team’s story.

Tension/Resolution: In most team narratives, obstacles are natural outgrowths of creativity. The way that problems get solved moves dissonance to harmony. Relationships, like teams, are not supposed to be just a walk in the park. Struggle has purpose. It propels growth.

Mix/Release: Before the team’s output can be delivered, it needs a final edit. An objective ear can experience the whole separately from the parts. The little tweaks make big differences. Invite new voices to the conversation to abate confirmation bias. You’ll know when the product of your labor is ready for launch.

There are only seven notes in a major musical scale, yet they can be combined in seemingly infinite variations. What makes good music is subjective and dependent on taste. What makes good teams, however, is a series of choices about your mission, the collection of collaborators most likely to be successful, and how to maximize the dynamics of their interactions. We are all composers.

Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst University where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.