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Angelo Lyall

Quality Insider

Unification: The Key to Improving Organizational Culture

Even top performers can improve when working in a group

Published: Wednesday, April 6, 2011 - 04:30

Story update 4/07/2011: A reference to Rick Nash was changed to John Forbes Nash.

In 1776 Adam Smith claimed that the best result comes from everyone in the group doing what’s best for themselves. During the early 1950s, John Forbes Nash revised Adam Smith’s claim and stated that the best result comes from everyone in the group doing what’s best for themselves and the group. It took us 174 years of examination to realize that an individual in a group often attains the best possible outcome for himself not by a segregated pursuit of the outcome, but through a unified sense of purpose and a cooperative effort for accomplishing it. Let it not be another 174 years until we understand the cultural implications of this claim for organizations and the people that they are composed of.


Establishing a desired culture within an organization is a complex task. The call for mass cohesion requires an individual not to set aside her personal pursuits, but to realize that a unified effort in which all members share and pursue a single organizational purpose will bear the best individual result. It is the responsibility of organizational leaders to define and communicate purpose to their executive and management teams so that they may be further communicated to front-line staff members. The worlds of music and athletics have known this, even if only intuitively, for centuries.

In music, one conductor of an orchestra may consistently elicit a superior performance compared to another conductor, even though they are given professional instrumentalists of equal skill level. What is it that one conductor does that makes the performance noticeably better than the other? The answer is simple yet profound. The successful conductor unifies the group to achieve the purpose of putting on the best possible performance. The successful conductor is able to make the musicians realize that by understanding the balance and relationship that each instrument should have with one another, a far better sound is produced than if they were to all play single-mindedly at the same time. The unified sound produced by the group is more powerful than any individual player or collection of individual players could hope to achieve.

In athletics we see examples of extremely talented, hard-working individuals who cannot find a team that will accept them because coaches are simply uninterested. The experienced coach would much prefer to protect the unified group than jeopardize the team’s cohesion by introducing a high-performing individual who acts as a silo and disunites the group. The successful professional coach knows that the collective unified team can accomplish much more than any one self-interested player.

Group musicians, athletic clubs, and business organizations win and lose as teams. High-performing individuals, as well as others, must be made to realize that their efforts and their individual desires will be better fulfilled by serving the team than by simply serving themselves. In generating this understanding, most business leaders fail. Leaders must intimately know and demonstrate a strong sense of purpose. This purpose must be articulated and well communicated to every corner of the organization, as well as reflected through its actions. Leaders must provoke a profound experience of improved functioning within the organization by enlightening people about how each of them, as single instruments, must understand their role in the context of the whole, and best contribute to the overall performance of the business. When leaders are able to enlighten people to the uplifting feeling of unified functioning, people become attached to it, crave it, and are motivated to contribute to it. This trend of contribution to a unified purpose is commonly referred to as business culture.

Leaders must not be too afraid or indecisive to lead. It is time for today’s organizational leaders to make concrete decisions about their purpose and to take the lead in influencing culture. Leaders must initiate and stand behind a strong sense of organizational values, driving collective performance, and giving their people a sense of purpose that is much more emotionally powerful than reporting revenue numbers.


About The Author

Angelo Lyall’s picture

Angelo Lyall

Business Economist Angelo Lyall is a partner with Anderson Lyall Consulting Group, a Toronto-based consulting and advisory firm that helps firms develop their competitive advantage. He draws upon his background in economics and competitive strategy to help firms build profitable competitive strategies, business models and marketing plans, as well as to gain valuable market knowledge. Lyall helps companies understand and gain new insights into their business environment in order to create or strengthen competitive advantages. He has advised clients in the manufacturing, service, and distribution industries on issues of competitive strategy, marketing, pricing, and customer profitability.


Response To: It's The Process

Ken B,

First, my genuine thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my paper.  Your comments are met with acceptance from myself and my camp here at Kaizen Solutions.  I believe that perhaps there is some failure on my part in my articulation.  I very much agree that the performance of a group such as an orchestra is determined by many things, not simply the leader.  What I do firmly believe, is that the leader's necessary role is to unify the group, in order to generate a cohesive sense of purpose and a unified vision.  While ultimately performance is a result of many factors, the positive influence that the leader can have is strongly connected to his or her ability to unify the group.  Translated to business, leaders must recognize and embrace this role.  Certainly, the Marketing function must perform it's own role well, but in order for it to do so, it must intimately understand the organization's purpose.  Likewise, if contribution is to be gained at the process level for any process, those contributions will lead to the greatest performance improvement when they are guided by that same depth of understanding of purpose.  "This is who we are, this is why we do what we do, this is how we uniquely exercise our business, and this is why customers choose us."  From marketing to the shop floor, a unified sense of purpose that originates with Leadership allows for the performance of the whole.  Demming did teach us about process, but more importantly processes in the context of the system.  I think that we likely do have similar views on this topic, but I seem to have failed in my articulation.  It has been a pleasure to pause for reflection and to share ideas with you.   Again, my sincerest thanks.


Angelo Lyall Kaizen Solutions Inc. Corporate Coach & Partner angelo@kaizenimprovement.ca www.kaizenimprovement.ca

it's not the people, it's the process

I applaud Angelo for addressing an important element of any organization, but I have to take exception of his analysis of why one orchestra sounds better than another.  He writes: "What is it that one conductor does that makes the performance noticeably better than the other? The answer is simple yet profound... The successful conductor unifies the group..."  

 The answer is too simple!  I have an associates degree in music, and have been playing my instrument in various settings since 1975.   First of all, there can't be "equally" talented musicians - everything has variation.  Secondly, Deming tried to teach us that it's the process!  I'm sure group unity is part of the equation, but that's oversimplifying it, to say the least.  There are many processes in producing a great orchastra - the unity of the group that is shaped/created by the conductor is only one.  And then there are the processes that make one conductor better at unifying than another...  It's the process, don't forget.

    That's my 2 cents, thanks for listening.  Ken B

John Nash

Thank you for the comment, and you're absolutely correct.  I must be watching too much sports!  I've emailed quality digest to make the name correction.  Thanks again for bringing it to my attention.  I hope that you enjoyed the article aside from my oversight.

Angelo Lyall

Rick? Nash

I believe Adam Smith's theory was improved by John Forbes Nash, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1994 for his improvement.  Rick Nash is a first class left winger for the Columbus Blue Jackets, but I don't think economics is his strong suit.