Intentional or Accidental? Creating Powerful Organizational Culture

The Tutta Musica Orchestra, the professional orchestra of Sistema NB Teaching Artists, performing for the opening ceremonies of the Avenir Centre, a new 9,000 seat events and entertainment complex in Moncton, NB… and it was a full house!

Picture this: In ten years, your traditional orchestra, with four decades of history, has morphed to include a rapidly expanding community social outreach component.  From an initial pilot project, you now teach 1,100 children daily, in 10 locations, with 60 Teaching Artists from 7 countries.

The changes demand that you acquire new skills and create a new culture.  You must nurture the original best-talent, audition-only orchestra, while accommodating new direction – children with no proven talent, participating without audition, and who are younger, from at-risk communities. You grow from one orchestra to more than fifteen; from an annual budget of $200,000 to more than $3.2 million; and, from a staff of 3 to more than 70.

The scope of change and growth would be challenging for any organization. That’s been the story of the New Brunswick Youth Orchestra, and in particular, its Sistema New Brunswick (Sistema NB) program, the largest of its kind in Canada and still growing.

One factor in our success has been Sistema NB’s deliberate creation of positive organizational culture.  Without that internal vision and plan, the ethos of an organization sprouts by accident.

So we set out to create an organizational culture to generate:

  1. Greatest impact among those we serve;
  2. Strong consensus and commitment among employees, board and volunteers; and,
  3. Highest level of satisfaction among all stakeholders.

These results can’t be left to chance, especially in the face of the pressures of people, change and growth and a mission to engage the wider society.

We believe an empowering culture must be deliberately created.  Even more, if you want to achieve your mission, you must think about organizational culture.

We began with a definition, “A matrix of shared values, beliefs, assumptions, and expectations that defines “normal” and determines how people in an organization will do their work.” (compiled from various sources).

We then constructed a model for creating culture intentionally.  Think of what has to happen for culture to take hold intentionally in an organization.  First we must affect how our people think.  Then we must work to ensure we act in alignment with how we think.  And then we must sustain that thinking and acting over time.

An NBYO Experience Card

So organizational culture is the product of—Think x Act x Sustain.  When we do that, we will generate empowering organizational culture.  And that culture will generate momentum and will drive health and excellence in our organizations.

Think.  For us, this is a combination of our mission, vision and values.  Most are familiar with mission and vision.  We got our greatest traction by defining our values, what we think of as the core priorities of our organization that define our identity and that guide our actions.  There could be a long possible list but we identified just three:

  • Our highest priority is the care and nurture of young artists.
  • We pledge to provide exceptional service that inspires, educates and empowers young musicians.
  • Creating excellence. We are committed to the learning and artistic excellence of our young artists, and high performance in all aspects of our organization.

Act.  Then it’s about how we act, how we walk the talk, and put our values into practice every day. But not everyone knows how to translate our values into action. So we help them.  We use two tools for this, the Motto and the Pledge.


Very Important People Serving Very Important People

The motto helps define relationships between employees and between employees and the students we serve.


How we act is also guided by ‘Our Pledge’, 9 statements that help us understand how to walk-the-talk.  Here’s an example:

“I will embrace teamwork and lateral service to meet the needs of young artists, the program and each other.”

We understand this to mean that all of us pitch in to do what is necessary to get the job done whether or not that task is a part of our job description. There is never any such thing as saying ‘That’s not my job.”  We are not just specialists, but we are part of a team that is interested in each other and in the whole of the organization.

Sustain.  Perhaps this is the most important part.  I remember doing the ‘mission talk’ in the early years of developing Sistema NB.  Would it be remembered by the end of the day?  The week? During a particularly challenging time?  With organizational culture, there is a lot of information.  Some of it is abstract.  How do we remember it, implement it, and live it out over time?  We created two tools, the ‘NBYO Experience Card’ and the ’20 Minute Dress Rehearsal.’

The NBYO Experience card is a multi-fold, credit card sized ‘booklet’ that contains all the elements of our intentional culture.  Every person in the organization has a copy.  The 20 Minute Dress Rehearsal’ is a once-weekly conversation where staff teams, in our ten locations throughout the province, remind each other of the elements of the NBYO Experience.  Teams meet, review the NBYO Experience Card.  Someone shares a story of exemplary service and together they discuss how this connects to what we are doing to serve, care and create excellence.  This is not a staff meeting but an opportunity to inspire each other in our collective work together.

In the end, the goal is to help align individuals and our entire team with an empowering understanding of who we are together, generating momentum and driving health and excellence in our organization, so that we can effectively achieve our mission.

Author: Ken MacLeod, CEO New Brunswick Youth Orchestra/Sistema NB, Canada

Date: 28 May 2019

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