A book that has been foundational for me making sense of orchestras is Reframing Organizations by Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal. I use their ideas all the time when I’m trying to figure out what’s going on in orchestras.
Bolman and Deal talk about looking at our organizations – and our choices for action – through four frames: the structural frame, the human resources frame, the political frame and the symbolic frame.
They offer a metaphor to capture the essence of each frame (translated for orchestra here):
- The metaphor for the structural frame is ‘the orchestra as a factory’. Looking through this frame reveals an orchestra’s systems of roles and relationships and how the work gets made. Problems arise when the structure is not suited to the situation or challenge at hand.
- The metaphor for the political frame is ‘the orchestra as a jungle’. Looking through this frame shows where power is concentrated and folks vying for limited resources and to set agendas. Problems arise when power is wielded unfairly, is concentrated in the wrong places or is too dispersed.
- The metaphor for the human resources frame is ‘the orchestra as a family’. Looking through this frame gives us an opportunity to ask ‘what needs do stakeholders have?’ The challenge is finding a fit between individuals’ desire for meaningful, expressive work and the orchestra’s need to accomplish specific tasks.
- The metaphor for the symbolic frame is ‘the orchestra as a temple or theater’. Looking through this frame asks ‘internally and externally, what does an orchestra and its work mean?’ Problems arise when symbols lose their meaning or actors play their parts badly.
The thrust of Bolman and Deal’s work is that, beyond being a handy way to categorize various aspects of an organization, the frames are about actions – our actions within our organization. They are a way for folks to understand what’s going on, look at things differently and – through their action – offer their best contribution to their organization.
Orchestras are complex and the four frames don’t change that. Problems that have their roots in one frame can manifest and present in another. Solving problems may require different actions in a few frames. It’s still confusing. But the four frames gave me lenses to break out of habitual views and see an orchestra differently. A way to start figuring out what’s going on.