In a different universe about a year ago, we enjoyed attending concerts in theaters, on lawns, and in other public spaces. For those of us in a school setting, the start of October evokes memories of the pageantry of our alma mater’s marching bands playing in autumns past. Their precision, coordination, efficiency, and clarity are magnificent to watch.

The person who manages these ensembles and leads forward is the conductor-who clearly understands how each section stitches together to create beautiful music and an experience that fans, alumni, and their institutions are proud of. A synchronized performance on a fall Saturday afternoon with excited fans is the ultimate pay off.

This fall is different. Many musicians, like many athletes, are sidelined. Those able to play together have to do so without much of audience. Many more musicians have been forced to play socially distant from one another.

Now that we are all making music in parallel, what can managers learn from a virtual orchestra and the discipline of rehearsals in the U.S. army? What happens when you cannot take the field?

In this new world, the conductor must still stitch the sections together, but has to approach the art differently. The process must adapt. Even as musicians continue to play in parallel, their ensembles are, to coin a phrase, “marching in place.” Even as the conductor and musicians try to send and receive the same messages they would if they were all standing together, those messages are now much harder to pick up.

Like conductors, managers are now conducting musicians playing in parallel. This has meant a need to adapt. In a world with fewer visual cues and digital platforms, our messages become garbled. We have had to find new ways to communicate, and new ways to find meaning and reward in what we do.

Maybe as managers, we can afford to learn something from some musicians who’ve done it right. The National Virtual Medical Orchestra (NVMO) is an online ensemble of medical professionals from around the country who play music in their spare time. In forming that orchestra, conductor John Masko and manager Richard Logothetis had to generate a method for building social cohesion, unifying the group’s musical approach, and coordinating among 65 extremely busy people who had never met each other.

In the orchestra’s first four monthly performances starting in June, the NVMO compensated for geographic distance with a hub-and-spoke approach. Each recording process began with heavily-marked sheet music to quickly refine each musician’s idea of what the piece should sound like. Each musician then interfaced individually with the conductor to unify his or her performance with the others. The musicians refined their submissions in response to Masko’s feedback and came together over time as in a real rehearsal.

Through public online releases of its performances, the orchestra enabled its musicians not only to de-stress in a stressful time for their profession, but to find value and pride in their playing without a live audience. Now that the ensemble is established, Masko and Logothetis are looking at ways to use technology to democratize leadership in the group by delegating responsibility to section leaders. This will enable them to take advantage of the musical expertise among their musicians to lift the musicianship of the whole group.

Playing in parallel requires more coordination and planning.

Like Masko and Logothetis, managers need to do more initial planning to ensure teams have clarity and flexibility. Leaders need to focus more on intentions to set an initial pathway with clearly defined left and right boundary conditions/limits. It takes more infrastructure, working on one movement at a time.

Unfortunately, the “new normal” may remain the reality for the foreseeable future and managers must avoid falling into the trap of conflating time logged with productivity. It is easy to create a system that tracks projects. However, the manager must lead the process and not let the process lead the manager. In this distributed environment one might over-process and, in effect, micromanage to a degree that suffocates innovation and initiative.

When we over-control we rob other people of agency. Being clingy is about as attractive at work as it is at home. Resist ways to know that others are indeed working. If they are busy showing you that they are busy, they will focus on outcomes and lose the process and relationships needed to sustain what comes next. The only thing we really control is ourselves and taking responsibility to do things better next time gives us agency over our potential to improve.

How can the 8 step training model help us rehearse and play differently?

But even if we do all this perfectly, coordination and synchronization are harder in a VUCA world on speed. Managers struggle to develop actionable plans that create a unity of effort and drive accountable productivity. Like the NVMO, this means more and different rehearsals. We look to the United States Army’s 8-step training model as a tactical framework that when used mitigates anxiety of the team and the leadership in a way that creates organizational value.

Step 1: Plan the Engagement. To ensure engagements are executed as planned, we recommend not having the session planned too far out, or it will likely not come to fruition. What skills are being trained?

Step 2: Train the Personnel. Managers and team members be knowledgeable. The latter will lose motivation, or the manager will lose credibility. Leaders must ensure they validate their subordinates before letting them lead. Has the training outline been reviewed?

Step 3: Examine the Location. Leaders must ensure the intended training location will suffice. Is the site suitable for training? Had the site truly been assessed prior to the event, our leadership may have altered the test’s time or location to allow for more suitable conditions.

Step 4: Issue the Plan. Plans must be issued to the team ahead of time. First, leaders should know what they are training on. This gives them predictability and something to look forward to. Second, this helps leaders plan to complete initiatives. Third, seeing a plan offers confidence to the team. Team Members find confidence in leaders who plan.

Step 5: Rehearse the Engagement. Rehearsals are essential to any plan, project, and/or performance. An old adage is that nothing in any organization ever goes right that isn’t rehearsed. Trials allow us to find holes in our plans before team members do and increase our preparation. Multiple rehearsals build confidence internally (self-esteem) and externally (posture/ability to answer questions). Leaders need to determine at what level they need to conduct rehearsals.

Step 6: Execute. This is it — concert time. Is the training being conducted and reaching the desired outcome? Leaders must spot check their initiative to ensure projects are executed correctly and per the plan. Are all team members accountable? If the whole organization isn’t present, leaders must check to see that team members are responsible.

Step 7: Evaluate. Or create your own based on the needs of the mission and unit. Were the materials sufficient? Do they need to be replaced? Are there enough of them? Are they effective? Was a review of the training done? Quick reviews should be done between teams at the end of every session and can be done during a small window of time. Leaders may also want to conduct periodic reviews amongst themselves.

Step 8: Adjust the Training Plan. Review relevant texts. Always search for manuals, articles, Websites, and books that provide insight into building a better program. I have never found a program that I feel is a stand-alone program.

By adapting this for themselves, leaders can ensure a better process and reduce cacophony. They will in turn train a crop of new leaders — and section leaders in the virtual orchestra — versed in properly planning, resource, and executing training — essential for our now atomized and distributed world.

Dr. Hise O. Gibson is an Academy Professor of Systems Engineering at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He graduated with a B.S. in Operations Research from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and a Doctorate of Business Administration in Technology and Operations Management from Harvard Business School. His expertise is the intersection of operational effectiveness and human capital development to enable more effective ways to maximize the integration of Technology, People, and Processes throughout an organization. Carin-Isabel Knoop leads the Harvard Business School’s research and case writing group and has co-authored more than 200 case studies on organizations and managers around the world. At night she thinks about how to make their challenging lives better. This led to research and publications in the area of mental health in the workplace and an interest in human sustainability. She is a pragmatic idealist and fanatic postcard writer.


Please send us feedback and ideas. This work is part of a series of pieces on how military training expertise can assist middle managers during COVID-19 and beyond. Prior posts in this series include Piercing the Fog of Zoom, tips to get clarity when everything is in constant shift and the trappings of power and hierarchy are frayed, and Using Systems Thinking to Stay on Goal, an approach to help us compartmentalize tasks to retain focus on clarity. Our next post will be “Talk is Precious,” focused on rediscovering the art of conversation in the virtual world.

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