In our previous article, Developing A Performance Culture, we explored what business can learn from the performing arts. We asked you to think about a time when you perhaps sang in a choir or played in a band or orchestra; performed in a play or musical or did a stand-up routine. When we perform like that, we are fully engaged. Our energy is our performance. It is impossible to deliver a disengaged performance. (Well, it is possible, but the performance will bomb and the fear of ‘dying’ usually energises us!)
We also talked about the ensemble mindset of all great performers: the way they know that the quality of their own performance depends on the quality of the support that they get from their fellow artists. Great performers actively want their fellow performers to be great. They work hard to help them put on a brilliant performance of their own so that the whole ensemble can feed off the resulting energy and new ideas.
We imagined how well businesses could run if they developed a ‘performance culture’ in which team members behaved like a top-flight ensemble, pouring their energy into a barnstorming performance, with everyone working together to put on the best show they are capable of.
In the previous article, we set out 5 questions that businesses can usefully ask themselves about their own ‘performance’: What play are we in and what is our role? Where is our theatre of action? Have we built a trusting, connected partnership or ensemble? Are we rehearsing creatively? Do we know what inputs are creating our outputs?
Here are 5 further interesting questions from the arts that can throw light on our business performance cultures.
1. Do we have the right people in the room?
Many business decisions are taken in the absence of the people who will be influenced by that decision and the people whose help is needed to turn that decision into reality. We tend to rely too much on ‘protagonists’ – a handful of business leaders – and assume that they are capable of acting successfully on their own. Decisions that are taken in our boardrooms supposedly ‘cascade down’ the imaginary pyramids of our organisational structures. In reality, of course, these top-down sets of instruction tend to become garbled and misunderstood as they cascade down; they also tend to encounter some real-life glitches that – funnily enough – someone further ‘down’ the hierarchical pyramid would have spotted immediately.
To make well-informed decisions, and to be sure that ideas hatched in the boardroom can be turned into reality throughout the organisation, we need to develop business cultures that actively involve the whole organisation. Delivery men and women need to talk to finance directors; engineers need to spend time with marketeers; managing directors need to spend time with check-out assistants. These different voices bring different and entirely valid perspectives that must be heard and may be revelatory. In healthy organisational cultures, this is already happening. But we still take some major decisions in rooms where everyone is a protagonist and there are no ‘supporting roles’ present. As our colleague, Piers Ibbotson, teaching fellow at the UK’s Warwick University business school and an ex-Royal Shakespeare Company actor and director says, ‘It is exactly like trying to put on a production of Hamlet with a room full of Hamlets’.
The play, Hamlet, cannot be understood without the presence of the Ghost, the Queen, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Horatio, the soldiers, servants, players, gravediggers and all the rest of the cast. Every character – and everyone who contributes to the overall performance – affects the performance as a whole. If the stage directions say, ‘A flourish of trumpets and ordnance shot off, within,’ the technical guys need to be sure they can deliver this before Horatio, startled, turns to Hamlet and asks, ‘What does this mean my lord?’ If Horatio waits in vain for the trumpets and cannons, abandons hope and turns to Hamlet to ask, desperately, ‘What does this mean, my lord?’ only for the trumpets and canons suddenly to blare and thunder out, drowning Hamlet’s reply – then the performance has descended into farce. It’s the same with business cultures; everything has to work together. The devil is in the detail more than the strategy.
If we hope to put on winning business performances, we need to get the right people in the room and let them ‘rehearse’ different scenarios in search of the best solution. Allowing a room full of Hamlets to make all key decisions is a recipe for disaster.
2. Where is the art in what we do?
It’s one thing to be technically proficient; outstanding performances are also artistically wonderful.
Great painters, dancers, and musicians are, first and foremost, masters of their craft, and this enables them to perform in a way that lifts their work beyond excellence and turns it into something uplifting and transformational. Technical mastery is merely the starting point at which it becomes possible to develop real artistry. Top performances are technically near-perfect, by definition. Winning performances are ‘works of art.’
We may be at the top of our game in finance, sales, management or engineering; design or coding; marketing or manufacturing. Our organisation may be producing great products or services. But here’s the question: we may be technically brilliant, but are we aesthetically wonderful? Where is the art in what we do?
Turning technical perfection into art
We use aesthetic judgements to a far greater extent than we tend to acknowledge. In the face of real complexity, there are many possible solutions, all of which resist simple analysis – just as there are an infinite number of ways of performing any great work of theatre or music, some more successful, aesthetically, than others. We recognise when artists have succeeded in lifting something out of the merely technically excellent and are delivering an outstanding performance because, as human beings, we are all moved and affected in the same way; what the performers are doing reaches out and touches us. We make the same judgements about businesses: we recognise when businesses are trying hard to engage with us and make us happy. The world of business is not different from other fields of human endeavour – it can’t be reduced to sets of formulae, whatever the management consultants may say. It is our uniquely human and creative input that creates a winning performance. The question for all of us, increasingly, is: ‘Are our solutions beautiful enough to succeed?’
3. Is our leadership shared, allowed and passed around?
In business, as in life, we feel the urge to control things. The world is messy and dangerous, and we feel safer when we have imposed order on it. This is not foolish, but there is a trade-off to be made. When we have complete order, there is no messy creativity or excited inspiration; when we have complete control, there are no happy surprises.
Ensembles are directed, not controlled. Leadership in the ensemble is shared, allowed, and passed around. The result is a far more dynamic system than that represented by established, static models of leadership, with their rigid hierarchies of command and control.
This shared power is also exhilarating. It provides a great proportion of the joy that performing artists find in performance. I set out in one direction, but your idea is slightly different. As we work together, in the moment, to find the best solution, we share in the joy of creativity. We are both equal before the task of producing something new and, hopefully, wonderful. If anyone attempts to force a solution on the ensemble, this becomes like ‘push-pull’ in a dancing partnership: if one dancer tries to impose his or her will on the other – if their ‘lead’ is not accepted – their partner ends up being ‘pushed around.’ In dance as in business, this is horrid.
Successful directors nudge and ‘bend’ the performance of ensembles in the desired direction. They recognise that, while they may be in a position of power, it is the organisation that holds the force. In order to drive creativity and inspiration, they offer constraints rather than restraints. The key phrase is not, ‘Do not do this or that’, but rather, ‘What happens if we try it this way?’
The ‘leader as theatre director’ enables and guides the performance of the ensemble but will not be part of the performance itself. Their leadership has quite literally been passed on to the performers, who must now take to the boards on their own to interpret the vision that was forged in rehearsal, observed and guided by the director.
The ‘leader as conductor’ remains very much a part of the ensemble, ‘leading from the front.’ The ensemble takes its cue from the embodied leadership of the conductor, creating a performance in which leader and ensemble are inextricably linked. There is an interesting corollary to this approach to leadership, which is that the leader of the moment must bring their unique personality to bear on the task, otherwise their contribution is meaningless. Offering a lead while pretending to be someone else is simply perverse. This is the real meaning of ‘authentic’ leadership, which is not to offer some idealised, heroic version of oneself as leader, but to offer one’s real self and to allow the other members of the ensemble to work with that. To do this, leaders must be transparent and unafraid. This ability to be unafraid and trusting is at the heart of what is involved in building a genuine ensemble.
Leaders in business are likely to find themselves carrying out both of these roles (the leader as theatre director or as orchestral conductor) at different times. The ‘leader as commander issuing orders’ is to be avoided.
4. Are we helping one another to perform brilliantly?
At the heart of all performance art is the interesting paradox that performers have large egos – shrinking violets do not clamour to get onto a stage in front of an audience and invite people to judge their performance – yet all performing artists understand that their own performance is completely dependent on the performance of their fellow artists. There are a few exceptions, obviously. The stand-up comedian lives or dies by himself or herself. The star soloist performs with a supporting band or orchestra with whom they have spent little time rehearsing, and it is the band’s or orchestra’s job to support the soloist in every twist and turn of their performance. But these examples do not represent true ensembles. In an ensemble, it is impossible to win on one’s own. We may get accolades for our individual contribution, but it is the performance as a whole that is judged. It is only possible to deliver a truly winning performance by encouraging and enabling wonderful performances from every other member of the ensemble. Their energy and brilliance then feeds into our own performance, driving us to perform better; the whole ensemble begins to come ‘on song’ with that indefinable but instantly recognisable crackle and spark. At that point, it is possible that we will be judged to have delivered a winning performance.
‘Crackle and Spark’: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell and Ralph Bellamy in His Girl Friday
In the world of work, we are very bad at building genuine ensembles. The culture of individual success and individual reward undermines this. Good ensemble work is collaborative, or it is nothing. Individual egos and hierarchies must be subsumed to the greater good – the energy of large individual egos must be harnessed to deliver the crackling, sparking ensemble performance, rather than to allow one individual ego to grandstand and dominate proceedings at the expense of the coherence of the performance itself.
5. Are we delivering a winning performance?
Performing artists focus on ‘getting their performance across’ to their audience: on telling the story; on successfully transmitting the ideas and emotions inherent in the piece that they are performing and adding new nuances and meanings through their own performance.
Most business cultures think in terms of products rather than emotions. If we have made a product that people want to buy, we believe that we have succeeded. We focus on the ‘consumers’ of our products and think about what we have to do to keep that consumption coming. But, as consumers, our relationship with our chosen brands is more complex than that. We don’t ‘consume’ our favourite brands so much as ‘enjoy’ them – and our enjoyment comes from far more than the simple act of consumption. The very best corporations put on a great overall performance. Everything about our interaction with the corporation delights us – or it should. The moment that one aspect of the performance jars, or disappoints, the relationship is damaged. They have struck a false note. There are always ready examples. Car companies don’t seem so trustworthy when we discover they are prepared to use ‘defeat’ software to cheat tests designed to enforce democratically-agreed emission regulations. Multinational corporations don’t seem so loveable when we find they are doing everything in their power not to pay local taxes. A company that gives us the run around with an automated phone system designed to save them money at the expense of our time and patience is slipping down the performance league. It’s the whole performance that matters.
Delighting our audiences
Successful companies do not merely sell great products and services, they put on a winning performance – a great show. The front-of-house staff are friendly and enthusiastic; the seats are comfortable; the gin and tonics in the crush bar are perfect and the ice-cream is yummy. The show itself is brilliant, with great individual performances and fabulous ensemble work; the set is ingenious; the lighting is astonishing and sound system blows your socks off. You leave the theatre on a high and immediately start planning how soon you can go back again.
Now that is a show that will run and run!
Developing business cultures that focus on delivering audience-wowing performances in the same way, creating crackling and sparking ensembles of top performers ‘put on a great show,’ would keep our audiences coming back for more.
We invite you to share your experiences and comments below.
This post is co-authored by Jonathan Gifford and Dr. Mark Powell.
Dr. Mark Powell is a freelance strategy consultant and an Associate Fellow of Oxford SAID Business School, where he specializes in designing and directing senior executive leadership programs. Mark also lectures on a range of subjects including strategy development, leadership, power and influence and strategic relationship building. He is a former partner at global strategy consultancy, A.T. Kearney.
Perform To Win: Unlocking the secrets of the arts for personal and business success by Dr Mark Powell and Jonathan Gifford.
The authors acknowledge the contribution of Piers Ibbotson, ex-Royal Shakespeare Company member and now Teaching Fellow at the UK’s Warwick University Business School. Piers is the author of The Illusion of Leadership and a contributor to the authors’ book, Perform To Win, on which this article is based.
An account of a four-year arts-based leadership development programme at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, designed and run by Mark was given in a series of previous articles, beginning with ‘Changing Business Culture via the Performing Arts’.
An examination of the dance-related aspects of Dr Powell’s ground-breaking programme was published in the Journal of Organizational Aesthetics.
Dr Mark Powell and Jonathan Gifford’s latest book, Machiavellian Intelligence: How to survive and thrive in the modern corporation, is available now for pre-order.