SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 81 - March 2004

Controlling the means of production

Leadership Ensemble: Lessons in Collaborative Management from the World’s Only Conductorless Orchestra

By Harvey Seifter

Owl Books, 2003 (pbk)


Reviewed by

William Marshall

VERY FEW people seem to talk about worker’s control and management these days. You don’t generally get it from the TUC (they put their emphasis on pressing the European Union to legislate for the Ruhr model of collaborative capitalism). However the ideas have turned up in an unusual place – America! And they have been well written up.

This is a very interesting book, well worth reading, on workers’ control and management, even though it is about New York’s Orpheus, which is the world’s only conductorless orchestra.

We are not talking here about some Heath Robinson contraption of pulleys, string and interactive parts or a complex governance formula; it is the appliance of democracy to the production process and it is bringing success.

It is a good story. For 30 years this orchestra has done without the manager who directs the performance, the autocratic and domineering conductor. That’s why, the Orpheus website proclaims, "the result remains revolutionary: an orchestra with no conductor".

When you think about it the whole idea of the conductor being the ‘maestro’ in charge of interpretation and performance, cheered by audience and musicians alike, for the work the musicians do, is an illusion. In fact it’s an important illusion, which across the whole economy affects most people’s perceptions about themselves and their ability to control their own lives. Apparently job satisfaction for orchestra people, according to one poll, is low and only marginally above that of prison guards! This orchestra just simply asked who was really producing the music and drew all the conclusions.

As they are quick to point out, being conductorless doesn’t mean they are leaderless – far from it. Everyone takes part in elections for the leaders of particular works and takes a place in the leadership. They actually have more leadership from more people; it is their operation and it shows.

They say, "what is now known as The Orpheus Process is the very zenith of democratic artistic collaboration. In the absence of a conductor, the individual musicians of Orpheus must rely on one another for repertoire and programming choices, interpretive decisions and ultimately the responsibility of successful performing and recording".

"Central to the collaborative personality of Orpheus is its unusual process of sharing and rotating leadership roles. For each and every work, an elected committee of musicians determines the concertmaster and principal players of each section. These players in turn constitute the ‘core group’, whose role is to develop an overall concept of the music. The ‘core’ then presents their interpretations to the whole of the orchestra for consideration and rehearsal. In the final rehearsals all members of the orchestra participate in refining the interpretation and execution. Members take turns listening from the auditorium for balance, blend, articulation, dynamic range and clarity of expression. In recording sessions the orchestra crowds the production booth, listening to the playbacks. This unique process unleashes the talent, vision, creativity and leadership of each member of the group".

The constant reporting back means that productions take longer to get on the road but the quality of the output is boosted tremendously.

With such an experiment now having a proven track record of success it has attracted attention and the orchestra themselves have developed a consultancy. "The exceptional results that Orpheus achieves by relying on a tremendous degree of personal responsibility are relevant to a broad spectrum of organizations in the business, academic, not-for-profit and public sectors" they say.

Of course the people promoting the model now are those most dangerous revolutionaries… er, management consultants. They like to extract some aspects for their own purposes. I saw this book given a full-page review in the Financial Times.

A number of companies have indeed adopted some practices for their own purposes. There are some who are interested in improving the productivity of a work force by giving the illusion of control and involvement. The other reason, as is made clear by Stephen Roach of Morgan Stanley (who points out that 25% of all office workers in the US are now managers), is to help more senior managers identify fertile areas for cutbacks.

However we should consider the ideas behind the Orpheus experience for what they actually are and extricate them from those who in effect argue for self-managed exploitation.

The great bulk of managers currently manage the workforce for ‘command and control purposes’, to reinforce the hierarchy (‘management’s right to manage’, to quote Margaret Thatcher) and to mystify the whole process. But while the process of management will always be necessary, Orpheus shows how it can be done democratically and how leadership can be rotated.

A famous chamber orchestra using a revolutionary approach to its work does seem a bit idiosyncratic; could it be applied in a car factory? Well, yes.

For their own reasons a number of large corporations are trying to learn from it. "Interest in the applicability of the Orpheus model is widespread and growing. For the past three years, Orpheus has been the subject of a case study by J Richard Hackman, a professor of social and organizational psychology at Harvard University". Novartis, Kraft Foods, Morgan Stanley – all use it. But surely we can take this as an example of what – in a reconstructed, socialist society – everyone could be doing?

True, this is not as dramatic as the workers’ control established in the Royal Ordinance Factories in World War II in the East Midlands, or the ‘Lucas Plan’ of socially useful alternatives to arms production drawn up by Lucas Aerospace workers in 1976. It is however being treated seriously by some serious capitalist people. The ideas contained in it are an example of real democracy across the sector of life where most people are affected yet excluded from control, in the workplaces.


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