I want to write about two sublime examples of human beings at the peak of their abilities – individually and collectively. They know why they are doing what they do, pour joy and passion into how they do it, and attract undying and enduring loyalty from their devotees as a result.

They are at the pinnacle of human achievement, never failing to enthral us each time they perform. The secret to their success is the insight that organising (of any kind) is a performance art and that risk is an integral part of that… 

Then I want to pose the question: How can our business and government organisations be more like that – where dedicated allegiance to a higher purpose, liberated by mutual respect, trust and precision, takes us beyond what we thought humanly possible into an amplifying spiral of abundant value?

Mozart’s gift was to write music that is perfection in its simplicity – astonishing at the level of craft, yet embracing a certain inevitability in its surface unfolding. Take any piece by this composer and listen to it performed by the Australian Chamber Orchestra – one of the most critically acclaimed ensembles in the world. In each intricate sound architecture there is not one note too many, nor one too few. Change a harmony and the work will be diminished. Displace a single phrase and the whole structure may fall. Yet the true genius of the man, if contemporary accounts hold credence, is that he wrote down such exquisite music as if it were already complete in his head. In effect Mozart composed the entire architecture of sound events, dynamics and relationships prior to committing it to paper. 

What is even more extraordinary, from an organisational perspective, is that the tiniest and most subtle alterations in expression, including spontaneous nuances of tuning, timbre, tempo and dynamics, can be accommodated within the score, allowing Richard Tognetti and his players in the Australian Chamber Orchestra, to add their own vitality to the music with no loss of authenticity. We still hear it as Mozart. This is an astonishing example of creative synergy at work in spite of a 300 year gap between invention and realisation. 

A Mercedes Formula 1 racing car is similarly engineered for perfection. Using sophisticated computer modelling, carbon composites and instant recalibration, each car is fabricated to be as fast and as agile as possible, within an established set of rules from which the team must not deviate, in pursuit of a ruthlessly self-evident goal. 

Here impulsiveness and unplanned interpretations are excluded. There is no room for error when a pit stop, involving the fitting of four new tyres and a meticulous refuelling, can take less than 2.8 seconds when there are competitors trying to exit the pit lane ahead of you. How is that possible? The answer is precision. Every aspect of the car’s performance, every component from chassis, tyres and engine to aerodynamics and transmission, plus every facet of a team working harmoniously as one, must combine in a performance that is as near flawless as humanly possible, from beginning to end.

Most company Boards would like to believe their staff capable of working together in ways where well-rehearsed practices lead to inspiring results and legions of loyal customers. Most would yearn for the impeccable speed, agility and synchronicity achieved by the Mercedes motor racing team. And many would give anything for the joyous vitality and productive culture of the ACO in their company.

But what would this take in practical terms? Is it simply too fanciful a proposition to be considered in the dog-eat-dog world of business? Certainly not. No industries are more intensely competitive than motor racing and the arts. Is there wisdom in these two examples that could be applied to the benefit of almost any enterprise? Certainly. More pertinently, if that is the case, what are the most crucial lessons, and how might we use them to create organisations that verge on optimum effectiveness, are exciting places to be, and that generate socially beneficial, culturally desirable and economically efficient outcomes for many? 

We could start by noting a significant divergence between the two examples, differences that are often ignored, glossed over, or misunderstood by executives who use sporting or musical metaphors without a great deal of thought as to their relevance in a particular situation. 

Mozart’s music is a complex adaptive system. Its genesis arose from a creative impulse over 300 years ago that continues to morph over time. Here is a dynamic system within which an infinite variety of purposes co-exist and require aligning, where there is zero organisational redundancy, and where many tiny, spontaneous, nuances can be incorporated in real-time without any loss of effectiveness. Indeed these tiny changes may enhance the overall performance without in any way, shape or form, detracting from the embedded aesthetic structure. These changes can even intensify our experience of the piece. In live concert music there can never be a performance which exactly replicates another. Actually that is the point. Generally speaking artists embrace spontaneity and shun predictability.

The Mercedes racing team is an example of a highly complicated system. It differs significantly from a complex adaptive system. Here, there is no unintended variety. Surprises introduce unacceptable risks and hazards. Predictability is deliberately sought and variation, of any kind, is the enemy. There is a single dominant goal – to finish the race intact, quickly, and faster than the other cars. To that end each element must fit perfectly into the overall schema in ways that support two individuals – Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas – by giving them the best possible chance of achieving the desired result. Meanwhile repetitive practice is considered to be the most effective means for enabling the team to function as a single, finely-tuned unit.

So what lessons can be learned and applied from these two examples? How can we re-envisage the task of organising in ways that aspire to create systemic vitality and viability as a platform to launch enterprise brilliance? There are fundamentally two strategic leverage points within human systems that can alter energetics in ways that lead to improved performance and outcomes. They are (i) designing the whole enterprise, including its teleology, for abundance, and (ii) configuring people, ideas and relationships, to consciously unleash entrepreneurial energy. Liberated people are the alchemy of change.

Design in Abundance

There are several aspects of resilient design worthy of reflection. Most importantly for those who work in business is the need to comprehend that many of the factors which constrain business excellence are precisely those used to liberate it in other domains. Here are the most notable of these factors translated into corporate terms:

  1. Manage the business ecosystem

Most executives have been conditioned to focus just on that part of the business for which they are uniquely responsible. Most cannot even entertain a whole-of-enterprise mindset, so fixated are they on improving their own patch. Nowadays conventions such as these are genuinely perilous. 

Instead of always trying to optimise enterprise revenue, profits, value and productivity, efforts that almost invariably lead to unacceptable trade-offs at the expense of some other parties – particularly staff and customers – the business ecosystem, of which any enterprise is just one part, must also be considered by all those in strategic roles. 

Indeed envisaging the business ecosystem as it is supposed to function (in other words its ideal state) should be a daily practice for every strategic mind within the business. Without this knowledge, regularly updated, people will act unilaterally and blindly, market opportunities may be missed, operational risks will escalate and even the most resilient strategy will start to unravel. 

But for this ideal state to be apparent, some kind of visual depiction of the system, in conjunction with a simple narrative explaining why specific performance outputs are desired, is vital. Many business organisations believe ensuring process capability will result in effective organisational performance. It will not. There are two reasons. 

Firstly, processes that are optimal in closed environments, can cause unforeseen tensions and even functional crashes when interacting with other optimal processes in the broader ecosystem. Secondly, focusing purely on process detracts from a deeper understanding of an enterprise’s unique role in the broader community and this, too, will constrain performance. 

It is the interface (of relationships, alignments and flows) between processes that matter, as well as how these blend to generate shared value. This is a simple fact of life, yet routinely ignored. The moral is to understand and embed your higher purpose in the business. Always start with this design in mind – just as Mozart did during his lifetime and just as Mercedes team manager Toto Wolff does today.

  1. First ensure viability

An organisation must be viable before it can excel. Viability infuses an enterprise with the potential for brilliance. Comprising both strategic and operational clarity constantly revitalised by relevant system-wide information, processed and conveyed in real-time among its members, a viable enterprise works seamlessly and silently to achieve its espoused purpose. 

Free flows of strategic intelligence across the enterprise are vital. Without it members of the enterprise may well act in ways that are undesirable. If the string section of the orchestra is playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No: 23 and the wind section is playing Concerto No: 24 the result will be an excruciating cacophony – although the individual playing may still be technically true in both instances. It is only information provided by the Manager of the orchestra that prevents such silly occurrences. Yet this kind of absurdity occurs in companies all of the time when the higher level purpose, roles and activities are not made abundantly clear. The lesson is to ensure viability through assuring economies of flow and an environment that is transparent rather than closed to such information.

  1. Improving productivity can be misguided

Attempting to maximise the productivity of the workforce in an orchestra or a racing team, or indeed in any service-based enterprise, can backfire. In organisational systems there are two levers that can lead to improvement. The first focuses on identifying (and then developing) those capabilities, inherent or to be acquired, that are likely to bring success. The second attends to, or removes, any factors (referred to as system constraints) that are resulting in failure, or poor performance. 

Both of these levers require a profound knowledge of the system – a detailed forensic diagnosis, including why the system functions as it does – before actions aimed at improving productivity can be successfully implemented. This is especially the case when a few minor modifications are proposed. 

As circumstances and external conditions are fluid and demand constant adjustment and recalibration, the foundations for performance excellence, especially continuity and viability, must be achieved and sustained in other ways. In the Mercedes team each member is responsible for a specific set of tasks and outcomes. In order to achieve these outcomes the team comprises exactly the right number of people; each of them a single point of accountability. This clarity of task removes indecision and uncertainty, particularly in moments of danger, while enhancing consistency. 

The lesson is to approach strategic design from a whole-of-system altitude and to focus on what practically matters – not on abstractions, invalid assumptions, or theories.

People are the alchemy of change

Highly-committed, highly-skilled, smart and talented people, working together at the very edge of their capability and potential, are essential for peak systemic performance and for the transformation of any business. Depending upon the requirements of the score, an orchestra comprises just the right number of professional musicians with the requisite degree of innate talent and honed skills. The Mercedes team, too, will have not one person too many, nor too few, for that would put the entire operation in jeopardy. In any human enterprise there are a few critical imperatives to keep in mind:

  1. We rarely exceed our own expectations 

Putting a cap on what might be possible, by setting targets or insisting on a particular course of action (excluding unethical conduct of course) does not work well in the context of striving for excellence. It can even make life more dangerous than it needs to be when imposed on a Mercedes racing team. This is why an expression of what is possible must remain forever open and fluid; while an explicit covenant of what is not acceptable must be evident and actively enforced. Only then can we surprise ourselves and others by lifting performance to unthinkable levels, taking us beyond what was previously thought possible. The lesson is to unshackle team potential rather than stifling it.

  1. Individual contributions matter 

Mozart’s music remains an idea on paper until it is brought to life by the 18 musicians comprising the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Likewise, a Mercedes racing car can be seen as an impeccable combination of engineering know-how and competitive aesthetics. But it must be driven to its limits in order to realise the intentions underlying its design. 

Assuming an organisation has the most appropriate talent available to it – smart, self-motivated, willing to learn, collaborate and adapt – people must be given the means whereby they can excel. Often this entails removing a raft of rules and regulations that are superfluous and can stifle innovation, without putting at risk the viability of the whole. It also means ensuring just the right number of people are working in the business on just the right activities. No more and no less. This is the enabling energy we call leadership. It is the role of Richard Tognetti in the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Toto Wolff in Mercedes, and the directors in any business enterprise. 

  1. Practice and rehearsal are essential 

Individual skills and collective proficiency must remain in an advanced state of vibrancy in order to achieve excellence while avoiding potential hazards. Although esteem and self-confidence must never be allowed to falter, hubris must not take over. It is the ever-present comprehension that a small error can lead to catastrophe that keeps performers on their toes, to the extent that their attentiveness does not lapse, even for one moment. The lesson is the need to gradually raise the stakes by increasing performance expectations over time so as to avoid drift, disinterest and demotivation.

  1. Variation is always present

In the context of provisioning for system improvement, variation is always going to be an issue. As we have noted in our two examples, variation differs in type and impact. Encouraged at some level within the orchestra, it cannot be tolerated in Formula 1 racing. The tendency in business organisations is to adopt practices that ignore any variations inherent in the demand for services and to usher in excessive controls instead. Unfortunately this has the reverse effect of what is intended. Forcing workers to meet a range of non-critical standards leads to them using their ingenuity to meet the standards – which is not the same as fulfilling customer needs. 

Where operational control is put entirely in the hands of managers – the conductor in the case of the ACO – creativity will stall while performance will become stale and second-rate. The lesson is to avoid codifying method. Reinforcing management control over a talented team is discouraging and invariably dampens performance. It also leads every team member with a hammer to see every problem as a nail. 

Co-incidentally the same lesson applies to fools who use tools that are entirely unsuitable for the task in hand – like the widespread use of ‘lean manufacturing’ tools in service organisations where ‘waste’ is not the same as in manufacturing contexts, and where ‘duplication’ – undesirable in manufacturing – can be a vital part of fulfilling customer needs in a service enterprise. The questions we should ask in these situations are: Who invented this tool? What problem were they trying to solve? Do we have the same problem here? 

On time and change

In addition to the lessons we can learn from companies like Mercedes and the ACO, both of whom organise themselves in ways that enable optimal performance, two important elements I have not yet mentioned have to do with time (and timing) and design philosophy.

It is pretty obvious that both the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Mercedes are acutely aware of time and how they can use it to their advantage, in a variety of ways, but invariably matched to the conditions in which they are operating from one moment to the next. It is the essence of their business after all. They know that planning requires a far more measured tempo than preparation. Practice takes that up a gear. But performance is on a different plane altogether. For when the lights flash green, or the baton descends in the spotlight, the situation becomes electric. Everyone is on edge as time blurs and the ordinary is transformed into the extraordinary.

Neither the race nor the concert can go on indefinitely of course. If our life lacks variety, particularly if we constantly work in performance mode, with all the tensions, physical stresses and high levels of concentration that entails, we quickly become worn-out through exhaustion. Such a frenetic pace is impossible to sustain for lengthy periods. 

The opposite is also enervating. Contrary to conventional wisdom, many organisations suffer from change fatigue not because of the speed of change per se but because of frequent changes in direction or management whims, a lack of any continuity in the leadership, and the feelings of futility and tedium arising from these. 

Changing the timing and pace of various activities helps to sustain high levels of performance. Bursts of concentrated activity can trigger innovation while providing a degree of focus that companies who insist on regulated, undeviating routines can never experience. Anticipation, too, is a great motivator. Indeed in some cases, anticipating an event can be more pleasurable than the event itself. Knowing that, why do so many organisations remove all sense of anticipation from their consciousness of time and timing? 

The capacity to mix up the pace of change is often missing in organisations that insist on adhering to old-fashioned management controls as their rationale for managing risk. This is sad, not just because our conscious use of time is the epitome of artistic and sporting endeavour, and therefore one of the pinnacles of human achievement, but because shrewd timing can sharpen attention, increase morale, and sustain high levels of performance for indefinite periods. 

Finally a brief thought on design ethos or philosophy. The ACO and Mercedes both design for abundance or sufficiency. They view the architecture of the whole system and sustain effectiveness from that perspective, enabled by economies of flow – how things work seamlessly together. They look to increase skill levels and stay at the leading edge of their activities. 

This habit is in stark contrast to many business organisations that provision for scarcity. Motivated by insufficiency, executives focus primarily on numbers – lowering costs, reducing the head count, and eliminating duplication. They will enthusiastically reduce staff numbers without any knowledge of how this might impact the whole. They will analyse parts of the system their informants regard as critical and allocate funds to optimise those. Meanwhile the whole system becomes dysfunctional and slowly deteriorates over time. 

The lesson is clear. The ethos of scarcity cannot exist in the arts or in sport as it suffocates innovation and depletes performance. A sense of abundance rules in these domains, as it should in business.