Can a corporation perform well with just the workers pulling together in a democratic manner and no top managers around to call the shots? One school of thought says yes.

At a recent Tokyo business seminar some 150 Japanese business executives watched a rehearsal of a renowned U.S. chamber orchestra that prides itself on not having a dictatorial conductor and instead takes a democratic approach to music.

Cohosted by Morgan Stanley Japan Ltd. and Hitotsubashi University’s graduate school of international corporate strategy, the seminar — entitled “Learning from the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra — Organization Management in the New Era” — was aimed at giving participants an opportunity to learn from the way the orchestra, based at Carnegie Hall in New York, rehearsed using what it calls a “flat” organizational style.

The 31-piece orchestra, in Japan on a concert tour, performed and answered questions at the seminar at Suntory Hall in Tokyo.

The ensemble has won several Grammy awards and is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Since the group’s inception, it has never relied on a conductor for musical interpretation or tempo changes.

Instead the members engage in thorough discussions on how to approach the music they create, and select core leaders from each section to set the tone.

“The structure of organizations such as corporations tends to be hierarchical. But in a knowledge-based society, where creativity and innovation are of great significance, such a corporate structure does not really work,” the seminar organizers said in a statement. “We can learn from this orchestra’s democratic style.”

The “Orpheus process,” the orchestra’s democratic decision-making approach, has been studied by top business schools, including those at Harvard University and the University of Chicago.

At the rehearsal, the orchestra performed part of Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter” to show how its music is created without a conductor.

The musicians admit the process came out of the chamber music tradition, in which ensembles are small, typically with just one player to a part and no duplicated instruments.

Members of Orpheus said they don’t deny the importance of conductors, but when working with one, players often have to sacrifice or compromise their joy of music.

The Orpheus process is based on respect for individuals and self-initiative. Members take special care when listening and speaking to their colleagues, to the point of being conscious of body language. The musicians strive to keep discussions amicable and courteous, and everyone takes turns being a leader.

“No person is dominant,” bassoonist Frank Morelli said, noting members have many different backgrounds and learn from one another, expressing their opinions freely during rehearsals.

Those chosen to lead a particular set attempt to select the best options possible.

“Because there is no conductor, it seems there is no leader at first glance. But, instead, this is a system that has more leaders than any organization,” said Christina Ahmadjian, an associate professor at Hitotsubashi University.

Under this principle, the greater the participation and involvement of talented practitioners, the better the product.

Can this apply to other organizations, corporations in particular? Panelists at the seminar seemed to conditionally affirm this.

“This flat organizational structure will certainly work in mature corporations, but not in startup, venture businesses. Ventures require more of a charismatic leader to stay afloat, unless the ventures are allowed to spend billions of extra yen in (an Orpheus style) trial and error approach before turning a profit,” said panelist Hideaki Takahashi, senior vice president of Fuji Xerox Co.

“This process can be compared with life itself, but not with profit-making operations.”

This comment echoed the opinions of other panelists, who were mainly veteran businessmen.

“This orchestra is a group of exclusive, highly trained professionals,” said Hisafumi Yamada of Sony Human Capital Corp. “In real corporations, we have to begin by training new employees.”

The panelists seemed to acknowledge that for an orchestra, making good harmony is a win-win game for both the performers and the audience, whereas in the corporate rat race, rife with factional strife, the pursuit of profit is the main goal.

But the panelists agreed the Orpheus process could work for “some sub-groups.”

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