Organizational Jazz

Understanding Organizational Culture Using the Culture of Music

Culture resides in the background under familiar conditions, but its characteristics become more salient when threatened.[1] An example is tourists visiting another nation and confronting the need to communicate in another language. Differences in organizational culture may be more subtle, but they become more problematic than national culture in coordinating work.[2] Organizational culture distinguishes firms from one another and it is a significant determinant of firm innovation and survival.[3] This underscores the importance of managing culture, integrating new employees, and interfacing with other organizations, and the role of managers in setting the context for organizations.[4]

While diagraming the structure of an organization is relatively easy, describing and influencing an organization’s culture is challenging.[5] The complexity confronting managers is compounded as forces influencing organizational culture are constantly shifting.[6] The evolving nature of organizational culture results from cumulative experience and learning that it is imperfectly shared.[7] This makes managing culture similar to organizing an evolving Jazz “jam” session. Just as managers need time working together to be effective,[8] the repartee of Jazz musicians requires trust developed from experience working together.

The aim of this article is to examine similar aspects of both music and organizational culture to gain a better understanding of how managers can influence organizational culture. Both music and organizational culture involve a collective experience with recognized elements that defy clear definition. We use an analogy of music to better understand both organizational culture and the steps managers can take to influence culture. The following discussion is organized using the elements summarized in Table 1.

Table 1: Elements of Music and Organizational Culture

Aspects of Music

Characteristics of Culture


FormStructureArchitecture or layout of segments
GenreIdentityExtent membership and expectations are observable
HarmonyIsomorphismFrequency and consistency of interaction
MelodyPath dependentEstablished pattern of activity that combines repetition and variation
Timbre/ToneDiversityLevel of consistency or quality of experience
Tempo/RhythmPattern and speed of implementationPace or speed set


Form in music describes the order of events in a composition and their relationship to each other. For example, in popular music, form provides a structure involving repetition of a verse and chorus. Similarly, organizational structure enables internal coordination, alignment with a firm’s environment, and a reduction in member uncertainty and stress.[9] An early classification of organizational structure distinguished between mechanistic structures that are more formal, centralized, and focused on efficiency, and organic structures that are more entrepreneurial.[10]

An organization’s structure should align with its strategy and environmental demands for best performance. Mechanistic structures tend to work better in hostile environments, while organic structures are preferable in benign environments.[11] However, successful organizations often have their structure reinforced over time and risk inertia that reduces performance when the environment changes.[12] This has led to suggestions for allowing separate structures to exist within organizations as seen within the organizations of General Electric and IBM that may explain their longevity.[13]


Genre in music provides identity for musicians and provides guidance in creating new compositions. Genre is comparable to an organization’s identity that helps people make sense of what they do in relation to organizational norms.[14] Identity provides a means of control by distinguishing what is and what is not consistent with an organization. A high degree of association with an organization can encourage compliance and reduce the need for formal controls.[15] For example, the retail outlets of Abercombie & Fitch have a distinct identity with low-level lighting, loud music, and the smell of its fragrance that is aligned with providing casual wear for young adults. Walking into one of their stores is an experience that quickly provides a sense of belonging or not belonging.

Effective organizations need a common identity to distinguish them and to provide a means for improved coordination.[16] The degree members align with an organization’s identity has been positively linked with information exchange.[17] Informational benefits result from a consistent format that provides a familiarity and increases the relevance of information. Related managerial actions to build a stronger identity and gain associated information benefits include encouraging social interaction and knowledge sharing.[18] For example, McKinsey is well-known for the strength of its knowledge network in facilitating client solutions.


Rock sand iStock_000013938776 artIn music, harmony provides a way to balance the tension between consonance, stability in a composition, and dissonance that relates to temporary transitions. In organizations, harmony relates to isomorphism, or forces that over time make organizations in the same industry converge or become more alike.[19] This results from uncertainty driving firms to look outside themselves for viable choices that when adopted can also increase legitimacy.[20] Within organizations uncertainty and ambiguity leads people to model themselves after people perceived as successful in an organization that can influence career success.[21]

However, a single-minded focus on consonance risks inertia when an organization’s environment changes and requires the ability to handle dissonance or inconsistencies. For example, a technology company trying to become more customer-focused needs to balance pushing the boundaries of technological innovation with the need to focus its members on areas that may hold the most interests to its customers.[22] When balance enables effective transitions, organizations can enable great progress. For example, Josiah Wedgewood transformed the British pottery industry from individual shops to factory work by explicitly transforming the culture of the workplace to achieve enormous profits.[23] However, without balance, dissonance can enable discord and intense reactions consistent with warring factions.[24] Managerial interventions that stress to employees how focused action can actually reinforce the potential impact of innovation can lead to appropriate levels of tension, while hopefully avoiding unintentional negative consequences.


The melody in music sets the theme of a composition. For example, the opening four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony “Da da da Dah!” set the stage for what follows.[25] Similarly, much of the value created in organizations comes from routines that are developed over time or are path dependent.[26] This results in situations where with time knowledge becomes embedded in routines and workers become dependent on processes in performing work.[27] An example can be seen in the British victory over the French and Spanish fleet at Trafalgar under Lord Nelson that can be partially attributed to a maritime tradition eliciting pride among its sailors.[28] The British enjoyed a seafaring heritage, winning tradition, and superior leadership that reinforced a sense of commitment to shared values and a clear goal. For managers, employee socialization to review traditions, values, and norms becomes fundamental to helping employees work together.[29] Additionally, sustaining a culture likely requires promotion from within and removing people inconsistent with an organization’s culture.[30] The benefits of a clear culture include establishing trust more quickly between organizational members, improving communication, and limiting conflict.[31]


In music, timbre refers to the difference in sound when the same tone is played by different instruments (e.g. piano vs. guitar). It is differences in timbre that can lead a diverse group of instruments, such as those seen in a symphony orchestra, to create a pleasing outcome when playing the same tones. For organizations, tone is set by the consistency between values and actions, while timbre is the value derived from diverse members working together for a common goal. It is difficult to derive value from diversity when a consistent tone is not present. One way to achieve diversity with a consistent tone is to employ people from different generations with similar values to maintain diversity in experience, networks, and views.[32] For example, Southwest Airlines has a high level of consistency in its training and development of new members that begins with selection and allows prospective employees to self-select out of the recruitment process.[33] In one instance, Southwest Airlines, who hires many of its pilots to fly its 737 aircraft from the military, is attributed to hiring only interviewing pilots that were willing to wear lederhosen in an effort to eliminate people inconsistent with its culture. Deliberate selection, training, and retention of employees help maintain a consistent experience among diverse members that sets a consistent organizational tone to facilitate effective operations. For example, consistency of its culture has contributed to employees being an important part of Southwest Airlines branding strategy.[34]

In practice, tone can vary greatly from one organization to another. A less consistent and more diverse culture can be seen in University settings where goals tend to be more fuzzy and training and development is not consistent across disciplines resulting in subcultures or an inconsistent organizational tone. The lesson for managers leading diverse organizations is recognizing that congruence, or consistency between strategy, structure, and culture is needed to increase organizational effectiveness.[35]


In music, rhythm is the pattern of sounds versus silences, while tempo is the speed at which the notes are played. In organizations, rhythm is analogous to strategy (pattern of decisions), while tempo is the speed that strategic ideas are turned into actions. While speed of action is becoming increasingly important, it is not the only factor at play. Implementing strategy quickly before the organization is prepared to support it, can be just as devastating as bringing it to market too late. For example, the acquisition of another company is typically followed by its integration with a parent company, and the resulting speed of integration is almost universally recognized as important to success.[36] However, acquisitions are complex and require time to plan and execute the desired changes, and faster integration can increase employee disengagement as they grieve the loss of identity.[37] This means managers need to understand their organization’s capacity to implement new ideas and be careful to not exceed its limits.


In managing organizational culture, the challenge is not to simply develop a strong culture, but to be deliberate in developing and maintaining an appropriate organizational culture. Table 2 highlights the trade-offs inherent to strong cultures. Culture develops slowly and unintended or intended changes can result from selection, training, and retention of employees, or changes in policies related to reward systems. This underscores the need for changes to align culture with an organization’s strategy or to display consistency and congruence with the underlying values and by extension the operations of an organization. In closing, we hold that managers could likely increase the performance of their organizations by more deliberately managing their organizational cultures, and this may be facilitated by considering culture as setting the appropriate background music.

Table 2: Trade-offs of a Strong Culture



  • Lower monitoring costs
  • Stronger employee commitment
  • Easier knowledge transfer
  • Lower variance in performance
  • High cost to maintain
  • Risk of inertia
  • Increased risk of creating factions
  • Lower acceptance of new ideas


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Authors of the article
David R. King, PhD
David R. King, PhD, , earned his degree in strategy and entrepreneurship from Indiana University's Kelley School of Business. After retiring from the U.S. Air Force, he joined academia and he is currently an Associate Professor in the College of Business at Iowa State University where he teaches undergraduate business strategy. Dave’s research focuses on complementary resources, merger and acquisition (M&A) integration and performance, technology innovation, and defense procurement. An award winning researcher, his research appears in leading management journals.
Samuel M. Demarie, PhD
Samuel M. Demarie, PhD, , earned his PhD in strategy from Arizona State University's College of Business. He is currently an Associate Professor in the College of Business at Iowa State University where he teaches both graduate and undergraduate business strategy. Sam’s research focuses on the effects of new technologies in the areas of competitive dynamics, organizational performance, and virtual teamwork. His research appears in leading management journals.
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