Delivering a Performance Culture; Part II

Delivering a Performance Culture Part II

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

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

‘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

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.

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.

Conducting Business: Embodied Leadership and ‘Beautiful’ Cultures

Part 5 of 5

Conducting Business

This post is the last in a series of five articles describing a major arts-based leadership development programme at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, designed and run over a four-year period by Dr. Mark Powell, one of the authors of this article. Previous posts have looked at the way in which delegates to the programme worked with dancers, actors and jazz musicians. This final post explores the most ‘hands-on’– and for many delegates the most emotional – element of the programme: the experience of conducting a small chamber choir.

The conducting sessions at Oxford were facilitated by Peter Hanke, a pioneer in this field. Peter is an established choral and orchestral conductor and an associate of the Centre for Art and Leadership at Copenhagen Business School. Peter recounts how, many years ago, he was asked to join a group of business people and give them the opportunity to conduct a small choir. Peter, who gives master classes in conducting to professional musicians, was struck by the fact that some of these business leaders, with little or no musical background, were nevertheless able to conduct the musicians quite successfully – sometimes more successfully, to Peter’s surprise, than some trained musicians.

Non-verbal leadership

Peter argues that this is because conducting is not a metaphor for leadership, it is leadership – with the significant difference that it is entirely non-verbal leadership: in performance, the conductor can communicate only through body language and gesture. Successful business leaders have grasped some of the essentials of this vital aspect of communication (quite possibly unconsciously) and are able to use their skills to good musical effect.

In the Oxford programme, delegates went through simple warm-up exercises – some basic ‘loosening up’ of arm movements and gesture – and then took turns in conducting the small professional choral group.

The mood is relaxed and non-judgmental; the facilitator reminds everyone that they are among friends and that the aim is to explore and experience, not to compete. The choir has been briefed to respond precisely to what the delegates do. If the conductor sets a laboured pace, the choir will doggedly stick with this until the facilitator rescues everyone. If the conductor is agitated, the choir will be agitated; as the conductor relaxes, the music calms. Intriguingly, it quickly becomes obvious that far more subtle things are also being conveyed: nervousness, excitement, ebullience, reticence and delight all produce their quite distinctive timbres. If the conductor is too controlling, the music sounds forced; if they get over-excited, the music falls apart and the choir grind to a halt, with much good-natured laughter.

There’s nothing more frustrating than seeing a conductor say, ‘Play softer,’ as they’re waving their hands in huge gestures.
-Joshua Bell

Making music together

As the exercise progresses, the facilitator gives practical advice, all of which is remarkably effective in improving the conductors’ performance. Delegates might be advised to lean backward, for example, to convey expansiveness, rather than leaning forwards, which suggests scrutiny. Delegates are often advised to limit their arm movements – more contained gestures are more effective than dramatic arm-waving. Where the arms are held in relation to the body has a surprisingly distinct effect on the sound the choir produces.

The sessions typically provoke a great deal of emotion. It is a rare privilege to be an active part of making beautiful music and the sound the choir produces, even in the hands of untrained conductors, is breath-taking, especially at such close quarters – delegates who are not conducting sit in amongst the choir.

The sessions provide rich material for subsequent reflection about leadership. Because space is limited, we have set out below some of the typical key discussion issues, in bullet point form.

  • Complex information is being transmitted from the conductor to the musicians, wordlessly. We tend to call this ‘emotional’ information, but the exercises demonstrate just how much information can be conveyed – both how subtle this can be, and how it shapes the whole performance.
  • The choir has skills that the leader lacks, yet the conductor is able to lead them successfully; the leader produces results through the skills and efforts of others.
  • The relationship is not one of control – the choir must be inspired, and it is impossible to command someone to be inspired.
  • The choir is capable of keeping time and performing the piece well without a conductor, it is what the conductor/leader brings to the music that is of interest.
  • The choir looks to the conductor/leader for direction; it wants to understand what the conductor wants, but it doesn’t want or need to be told what to do.
  • The music produced by the choir sounds different depending on the actions of the conductor because the choir is physically affected by what they see: their diaphragms, lungs, throats and vocal chords behave differently. When the singers like the effect that a conductor is producing, they tend to point to parts of their chests or throats: ‘That feels good here,’ they say. It is a remarkable demonstration of the real effects of what we call ‘embodied leadership’.
  • The success of the performance is judged by the beauty of the end result; good leadership produces more beautiful results.

I don’t feel that the conductor has real power. The orchestra has the power, and every member of it knows instantaneously if you’re just beating time.
-Itzhak Perlman

Creating ‘beautiful’ performances and cultures

These leadership reflections have deep resonance with the debate on organisational culture. In the article ‘How Leaders Shape Culture’, Marlene Chism talks on this site about how ‘the way you speak, the language you use and the behaviors you exhibit influence the culture, whether you are aware of it or not.’ Tim Kuppler, in his ‘8 Culture Change Secrets Most Leaders Don’t Understand’ references ‘constructive expectations’– the value of setting challenging tasks, which perfectly reflects the relationship between conductor and choir – and how ‘culture transformation starts with personal transformation’ – the way that leaders’ behaviours impact on the whole organisation. There are many other synergies.

Seeing leaders as ‘people who conduct business’ is a highly useful tool for exploring business culture. Leaders and their organisations do perform together, but this performance is typically analysed only in terms of the usual metrics. We tend to forget the extent to which the relationship between leaders and their organizations is embodied – that any number of words are likely to be less effective than the perceived behaviour of leaders – and that there really is beauty in business performance, just as there is such a thing as a healthy (or ‘beautiful’) business culture.

The authors of these articles argue that there is much to be gained by thinking of business as a performance, undertaken by genuine ensembles focussed on the effectiveness of the performance as a whole, where leadership is embodied, shared and allowed, and where the outcome is best judged by how beautiful, or ‘affective’, the performance is. Businesses have audiences – ‘consumers’ – and if we deliver great performances, they will come back for more.

Do the performing arts hold key insights for business success? What would happen if organisations adopted teachings from the performing arts? We enjoyed sharing this five-part series and invite your thoughts and comments on social media.

Photo credit: Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Perform To Win: Unlocking the secrets of the arts for personal and business success, by Dr. Mark Powell and Jonathan Gifford

A full account of Dr. Powell’s ground-breaking programme was published in the Journal of Organizational Aesthetics.

Developing a Jazz Culture

Part 4 of 5

Developing a Jazz Culture Part 4

This post is the fourth in a series of five articles describing a major arts-based leadership development programme at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, designed and run over a four-year period by Dr. Mark Powell, one of the authors of this article. The aim was to create a new culture of ‘open mindedness’ among the senior project managers of a UK oil and gas exploration company, encouraging them to interact more effectively with the other stakeholders in their capital projects and enhancing their ability to improvise in the face of rapidly changing situations.

The programme was designed to give delegates a series of ‘up close and personal’ encounters with performing artists. As Dr. Powell says: ‘Having spent so many years running leadership programmes, I came to the conclusion that the things that really stick with people have two things in common. One is that they are experiential; the things that can actually change leaders’ behaviour tend to be real experiences, not some new piece of theory. The second thing I found is that leaders are more open to learning if they are presented with something from an unfamiliar context. People react defensively to new ideas in areas where they feel they are already pretty expert. But put them in front of jazz musicians or actors, and they accept that these people know stuff that they don’t know. They acknowledge that they may have something to learn from this encounter.’

Life is a lot like Jazz – it’s best when you improvise.
-George Gershwin

And all that jazz

This article focusses on the jazz-based sessions of the programme. These were facilitated by Dr. Powell, using a group of musicians assembled for the day by a professional jazz trumpeter. The fact that the band was assembled ‘from scratch’ with players who happened to be available on the day helped to reinforce the fact that experienced jazz musicians are able to perform to a remarkably high standard without rehearsal.

The structure of the jazz-based workshops was simple: the musicians played a few pieces with a high improvisational content; the delegates watched and listened and after each piece, there was a discussion about what the musicians were doing and experiencing and about the experience of the ‘audience’. The closeness of the delegates to the musicians was crucial. Being only a few feet away from the performers brought the delegates into the performance; they could see the performers’ expressions and sense the interaction between them.

Mastery allows improvisation

Jazz is a rich field to explore in the context of organisational culture. There is only space in this article to cover some of the key ‘take-outs’ from a typical session.

The first reaction of many delegates was to question whether what they had just heard could possibly have been created mainly in the moment rather than rehearsed: the musicians’ improvisational skills are startling.

Delegates were intrigued by the way in which the musicians’ mastery allowed them great freedoms: their grasp of the underlying musical structures and their instrumental virtuosity gave them the ability to ‘feel’ what to play at any moment and, in effect, to innovate constantly.

Never play anything the same way twice.
-Louis Armstrong

Delegates considered and discussed the extent to which this was possible in the business world. ‘Mastery of one’s brief’ was seen as a possible equivalent with the consequent ability to make quick and successful decisions. In more technical fields, delegates talked about how real ‘masters’ were able to see or ‘feel’ possible solutions before they could articulate the whole process.

Moving leadership around the ensemble

Delegates were also intrigued by the ability of an apparently ‘leaderless’ ensemble to behave in such a complex and coordinated way. Discussion centered on how leadership was effectively passed around the ensemble, with each player being empowered to take the piece in a new direction, while the musicians’ intense focus on each other’s performance allowed them to respond instantly to the offered suggestions. These shifting leaders can be described as being temporarily ‘in charge, but not in control,’ a concept that was also developed in the drama sessions of this programme.

Subsuming individual performances to the whole

Delegates also noted how individual performances were subsumed to the overall performance. When a player took a solo, the rest of band dedicated their efforts to supporting them, picking up on new directions and offering their own rhythmic or tonal suggestions as inspiration. The soloists themselves were clearly working with the band to deliver a satisfying overall performance, rather than simply ‘showing off.’

The musicians demonstrated what happened when they focused only on their own performance and stopped supporting each other’s performance – the music quickly degenerated into blandness or cacophony.

This concept was similar to the one explored in the dance-related workshops in the programme, where dancers demonstrate what happens when the allowed leadership in a dance partnership degenerates into ‘push-pull’ – the dance immediately loses its grace.

Harnessing the energy of individual egos

It also tended to strike delegates that people in business teams are typically more focussed on their individual contribution than on the success of the overall ‘performance’ and that there is not the same focus on supporting and enabling colleagues’ performances, other than in a managerial sense. Current business culture tends to favour the individualist. On the ‘jazz’ model of organisational culture, individual egos may be large and even flamboyant, but they are let loose only when it is the individual’s turn to ‘star’ and are kept in check when it is their turn to support. The energy from these various controlled egos drives the performance, lifting it out of the ordinary.

In the authors’ experience, start-up companies very often have this kind of ‘jazz mentality,’ with colleagues functioning as a genuine ensemble, driving each to deliver a greater overall performance. As companies grow, so industrial-era attitudes to control and efficiency tend to creep in, destroying the beautiful music.

Maintaining a jazz culture

  • Ensemble players spark off one another’s performance: each player’s brilliance inspires the others’ and supplies a stream of new ideas.
  • Individual egos are controlled and subsumed to overall performance; the energy is used to drive the ensemble.
  • Mastery creates embodied knowledge; true masters of their craft ‘feel’ what to do next without analysis.
  • Mastery and ensemble work allows teams to work together with little preparation and to improvise highly successful solutions.
  • True ensembles are leaderless; leadership is shared, allowed and passed around.
  • Great ensemble performance is made possible by each individual’s intense focus on their fellows, raising performances above ‘technically proficient’ and introducing real artistry.
  • Ensemble players create spaces and invite others to fill them with new ideas.

If you observed or experienced this leadership or team approach in the workplace, what was the experience like? We invite your comments and thoughts on social media.

Perform To Win: Unlocking the secrets of the arts for personal and business success, by Dr. Mark Powell and Jonathan Gifford

A full account of Dr. Powell’s ground-breaking programme was published in the Journal of Organizational Aesthetics.

Turning Businesses into Ensembles

Part 3 of 5

Turning Businesses into Ensembles, Part 3

This post is the third in a series of five articles describing a major arts-based leadership development programme at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, designed and run over a four-year period by Dr. Mark Powell, one of the authors of this article. In the program, which was conducted on behalf of a major oil and gas exploration company, senior project managers worked closely with a wide variety of artists: jazz musicians, actors, painters, storytellers, dancers, conductors and others. The aim was to create a new culture of ‘open mindedness’ in the project managers, encouraging them to interact effectively with the other stakeholders involved in major projects, and enhancing their ability to ‘improvise’ – to react quickly and effectively to changing circumstances.

This article focuses on the use of drama-based concepts and techniques. The drama-based sessions were facilitated by Piers Ibbotson, an ex-Royal Shakespeare Company actor and associate director, now principal teaching fellow at the UK’s Warwick Business School.

The sessions explored a very wide range of drama-based concepts and experiences. This article has space to focus only on two areas: the creation of ensembles and the techniques of creative rehearsal. Delegates took part in a number of exercises to illustrate these concepts, some of which are used in theatre to help bring new groups of actors together when building new ensembles.

The focus throughout the program was on having delegates work very closely with artists, hoping to create a series of ‘ah-ha!’ moments where delegates would grasp at a physical, ‘gut’ level what the artists were experiencing and what they were trying to achieve.

Building real ensembles

Building real ensembles takes time; you cannot throw a group of people together and expect them instantly to become an ensemble. Theatre groups, however, build hugely effective ensembles remarkably quickly – there is typically a matter of weeks of rehearsal time before a new show is performed for the first time in front of an audience. The key is the actors’ mind-set of trust and openness: they set out with the explicit goal of coming together as ensemble to put on a great collective performance.

In ensembles, everyone’s input is equally important – a brilliant performance by the leading actors is only possible where they are supported by brilliant performances from the rest of the cast. True ensembles are also free of status – everyone is equal before the task.

Delegates experienced a series of exercises designed to explore the ideas of status and trust in groups and the fact that it is possible to trust someone completely in the ensemble environment without it being necessary to feel that you ‘trust them with your life’.

Within an ensemble, like in sports, if you do your little job, it makes everybody look good.
-Stephen Hunter

Rehearsing creatively

The process of creative rehearsal is a key part of creating an ensemble. In theatre, a director will be ‘in charge’ of rehearsals but not ‘in control.’ Being ‘in control’ stifles creativity; directors offer ‘creative constraints’ and suggest new avenues to explore. New ideas are accepted and worked with by the ensemble before they are dropped or accepted by common consent. This is contrasted with the practice, common in business, of examining every new idea for its faults and rejecting anything that does not seem to be perfect. There is an acceptance in theatre that every idea when first put forward is ‘half baked’ and that it is the function of rehearsal to try to bake the idea fully.

Delegates took part in an improvisation exercise based on the concept of ‘yes, and…’ – taking an idea put out by one member of the ensemble, embellishing it and offering the new version back, trying not to ‘block’ the developing idea by closing down the possibility of further embellishment. Other exercises explored ‘creative leadership’ by carrying out some simple task as a group – firstly using planning and implementation and then as part of a dramatic scenario, creating the possibility for improvisation and creative leadership. When we plan and implement, any change requires that we stop, re-plan and then try to re-implement; when we work creatively together – like actors or musicians performing – we respond instantly to the changing scenario.

Another key aspect of theatrical rehearsal is that the whole cast must come together for a full rehearsal before the first performance – leading actors, supporting roles and extras. Delegates on the programme considered the extent to which business properly ‘rehearses’ scenarios creatively and whether all of the relevant players are ever brought together, or only the ‘leading actors’.

A key aspect of arts-based leadership development is that individual delegates respond differently to different sessions: a particular aspect will resonate strongly with one delegate; for another it will be something else. However, the typical takeaways from drama-based sessions on ensemble work and rehearsal were these:

Lessons from the performing arts

  • Teams do not automatically become ensembles; building an ensemble takes time and effort.
  • True ensembles are created when groups have a common challenge and work together to find the best solution.
  • Someone needs to be in charge, but not in control; the group must find their own solutions, with guidance.
  • Status must be taken out of the equation; everyone in the ensemble is equal before the task.
  • Ensembles naturally develop very high levels of trust; it is not possible to interact successfully with any element of distrust.
  • No member of the ensemble can be brilliant at anyone else’s expense; everyone has an interest in helping everyone else to be brilliant.
  • Rehearsal accepts all ideas as half-baked and seeks to fully bake them.
  • Ideas are accepted and played with in the spirit of ‘yes, and…’; no ideas are shot down in flames and the ideas that work are taken up and embellished.
  • When we work creatively together in this way, we think as we work; there is no need to stop and re-plan in the face of change.
  • For a full rehearsal, everyone involved must be in the room, including the extras.

Over the course of the four-year programme, some 200 project managers attended the weeklong residential course at Oxford and the company reported a real shift towards a more ‘open-minded’ culture.

If businesses behaved more like artistic ensembles, business culture could be transformed.

The final two articles in this 5-part series will follow in the weeks ahead. We welcome your thoughts and comments on social media.

Perform To Win: Unlocking the secrets of the arts for personal and business success, by Dr Mark Powell and Jonathan Gifford

A full account of Dr. Powell’s ground-breaking programme was published in the Journal of Organizational Aesthetics.

Teaching Leaders to Dance

Part 2 of 5

Teaching Leaders to Dance, Part 2

In an earlier post, we gave a very brief account of a major arts-based leadership development programme at Oxford University’s School of Business, designed to create new behaviors in a group of senior project managers in the oil and gas exploration industry. The aim was to create a new culture of ‘open-mindedness’: the ability to form more effective working relationships with the other stakeholders involved in major capital projects and an increased ability to ‘improvise’ – to react quickly and effectively to rapidly changing situations.

One of the authors of this article, Dr Mark Powell, an Associate Fellow at Oxford University’s Saïd School of Business, designed and ran the four-year programme, giving successive delegates an intense, week-long exposure to artists of all kinds. Dr Powell is himself a championship-winning Latin ballroom dancer, having won the over-35 World Championship for two years running while working as a partner at KPMG. He argues that people’s core behaviors are not easily changed by new information – by ‘being told stuff’ – and that we need a gut experience, a real ‘ah-ha!’ moment of understanding, to be able to internalize something sufficiently to create enduring new behavior patterns. Working at close quarters with top-flight performing artists has the potential to create such moments of insight. This article describes how delegates to the Oxford progamme worked with world-class competitive Latin ballroom dancers.

The connection

Sessions begin with a short routine by the dancers. Dance that looks wonderful on stage or screen has even greater impact at close quarters; the speed, agility and precision of top dancers takes the breath away. The subsequent series of exercises and demonstrations set out to give delegates some understanding of the key mindsets and approaches that dancers use to create winning performances.

In competitive dance, there is much focus on the quality of ‘the connection’ between two dancers. It comes out of their intense awareness of each other’s behavior in the course of the performance and the subtlety of their interaction.

As an exercise, delegates are asked to pair up and put their hands forward, palms facing outwards. Each delegate puts their hands against the others, increasing the weight transferred until it is uncomfortable for the other partner. As they ease off, there comes a point at which each partner can no longer feel the other’s weight; they have lost ‘the connection’ in a physical sense. Moving around in simple ways while trying to maintain the correct weight of connection is difficult, but tends to lead to a number of ‘ah-ha!’ moments from delegates.

Dancers are not in physical contact throughout the whole of any routine; the connection must be maintained visually. Dancers talk about ‘looking and seeing’: keeping constantly and precisely aware of what their partner is experiencing and signaling.

Discussion turns to levels of genuine interaction in the workplace. Delegates experiment with maintaining higher levels of eye contact than usual while chatting to their colleagues. This is usually slightly uncomfortable, prompting further discussion of the typical level of ‘connection’ between colleagues at work.

Leaders must encourage their organizations to dance to forms of music yet to be heard.
-Warren Bennis

Using ‘the connection’ for complex improvisation

The dancers perform a short, unrehearsed routine. Dancers with good connection are able to improvise astonishingly complex routines without any prior discussion. They explain to the delegates the convention in ballroom dancing that the man ‘leads’ and so is able to initiate moves that are instantly grasped and executed by their partner, but also stress that the lead is often ‘shared’ and that the woman dancer may initiate a move. This shared leadership between expert partners enables them to improvise high-quality routines that would require hours of rehearsal by less well-connected dancers.

The dancers also show how leadership must be ‘allowed’. The physical connection that was demonstrated in the weight-sharing exercise can become ‘push-pull’. They perform a short routine in which the man ignores his partner’s responses and ‘pushes’ her around the dance floor. The effect is immediately obvious and is ugly to watch; the dance has been ruined aesthetically.

Absolute trust

The key issue of trust is dramatically demonstrated when the dancers perform a few lifts and catches. The dancers explain that the trust is actually absolute, not relative: ‘a high degree of trust’ is not good enough – a moment’s doubt and hesitation can lead, paradoxically, to accidents. Discussion turns to typical levels of trust between colleagues at work and to the advantages that higher levels of trust would bring.

The art in what we do

Finally, the dancers explore the issue of ‘artistry’ – the aesthetic elements that raise a competitive routine above mere technical excellence. Because competition is so fierce, last year’s winning artistry will not be enough to win this year’s championship: dancers are constantly looking for the new piece of magic that will lift their routine out of the ordinary – even when the ‘ordinary’ is technically astounding. Delegates consider whether there is scope for artistry in their own performances at work.

Great dancers are not great because of their technique, they are great because of their passion.
-Martha Graham

True ensemble behavior

The common thread that runs through all performances that involve more than one person is ensemble behavior. Groups of performing artists put on a winning performance together, or they fail. Only by helping you to perform brilliantly can I hope to be part of a winning performance.

The focus on ‘connection’ in these dance sessions helped to engender, at an emotional, gut level, a new awareness of the centrality of partnership and team work, and the fact that this depends on ‘being there for others’: reacting positively and supportively to whatever partners are experiencing and signaling in the attempt to deliver a winning performance together. Issues of ‘shared and allowed’ leadership were also key, as was the consequent ability to improvise brilliantly in the face of rapidly changing circumstances.

Embracing a ‘dance’ culture

  • Quality of connection is key: great performers react to each other in the moment, subtly and precisely
  • Great connection also enables brilliant improvisation
  • Leadership is shared, allowed and serves the overall performance
  • Trust is absolute and taken for granted; lack of trust is fatal
  • Winning performances are aesthetically wonderful as well as being technically perfect

How well are your leaders and teams connecting? Is there genuine interaction in the workplace?

If you enjoyed this topic, follow this series as it continues ahead.

Changing Business Culture via the Performing Arts

Part 1 of 5

Changing Business Culture via the Performing Arts, Part 1

In 2011, a major oil and gas exploration company based in the UK set out on an extraordinary, arts-based leadership development programme at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, designed and led by Dr. Mark Powell, one of the authors of this article. The company’s senior project managers are responsible for multi-million-dollar exploration projects around the world and the programme was designed, not to give these senior managers enhanced skillsets or new theoretical frameworks, but to change their behaviors and mindsets — to change their culture. More specifically, the aim was to create a new culture, the key element of which could be described as ‘open-mindedness’, in two distinct forms:

  1. A heightened sensitivity to changing circumstances and the ability to react to these quickly, creatively and positively;
  2. The ability to create highly functional teams on a relatively short timescale with groups of people from different backgrounds and with differing agendas.

The results, the company confirmed at the end of the four-year project, were ‘unexpected and wonderful’.

This article gives a very brief outline of the programme and its outcomes. A short series of later posts will explore individual arts-based sessions: dance, drama, jazz and choral conducting.

It’s not the technical issues that are the problem

Major capital projects in oil and gas exploration are notoriously prone to fail to meet target in terms of either budget or schedule – arguably the inevitable consequence of using complex technologies in often physically hostile, unpredictable environments. But the company’s research showed that projects’ failure to deliver on target was due more to ‘soft’ issues, involving the ability to get the various parties involved in projects – governments, project partners, contractors – to work successfully together as a team, than it was to ‘hard’ issues – the inevitable technical problems. As the most recent client director of the programme, Rachel (not her real name) said in an interview with the authors:

‘We can figure out the technical side, we can solve technical issues … you know, more cost and more time will solve most problems! And from that perspective we can fix those things – but it’s not those things that are going wrong, especially on big projects.’

Rachel’s predecessor as head of the development programme, Michael (not his real name) had said something very similar in a previous interview:

‘I could see that a lot of the issues we had with projects were in relation particularly to the way that project managers behaved, both in relationship to their staff and their stakeholders. And I guess the other thing was there was no real consistency of approach, I mean they would all be quite different so there was no real strong culture that this is the way that we do it.’

A key aspect of the change in mindset that Michael wanted his managers to achieve was the ability to be sensitive to different socio-cultural environments and to be able to improvise in the face of rapidly changing circumstances:

‘Their receptiveness to new things […] for a project is important because each time these people are going out to probably different cultures, different countries, different environments. So I think having that ability to respond to what’s coming at them rather than just trying to bulldoze through, and “Well, that’s how I do it, and that’s how I’m going to do it here” [is vital].’

Exploring the techniques and mindsets of performing artists

To address these and other issues, Mark Powell proposed a radical and innovative programme at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, giving delegates an intense, week-long exposure to artists of all kinds: actors, jazz musicians, dancers, singers, conductors, poets, storytellers and painters. Mark, an associate fellow of the business school, is a strategy consultant who has been a partner at both KPMG and A.T. Kearney, in addition to running several start-up businesses. Mark is also a World Championship-winning Latin ballroom dancer, having won more than 50 titles over the course of a dancing career that began when he was a student of economics at Cambridge University and continued through his career as a management consultant.

As Mark says,

‘I realized that the way of working together that my dance partner and I used to deliver championship-winning performances was different from the kind of relationship that I had with my business partners, or the kinds of relationship that I saw in the companies I was consulting for. I also realized that the way that we worked together as a dance partnership could be broken down and analysed. And the more I worked with other artists – actors, conductors, jazz musicians – the more I realized that we were all using very similar techniques and mindsets and that these could be communicated to other people and used very effectively in the world of business and even in everyday life.’

I believe so much in the power of performance I don’t want to convince people. I want them to experience it and come away convinced on their own.
-Marina Abramovic

Changing behaviors with ‘aha!’ moments of gut understanding 

Key to Mark’s coaching approach is the belief that offering people new ideas in the form of information – ‘telling people things’ – is very unlikely to change their behavior. But when they experience something at a gut, emotional level, this can bring about a real and permanent change to the way that they see things and the way that they behave.

‘When people work closely with really great performing artists – dancers, singers, conductors, jazz musicians, whatever – they experience something,’ says Mark. ‘It’s very moving, it’s very powerful, so it gets beneath people’s intellectual defences and then, typically, they really ‘get’ something. They really see how two dancers ‘connect’ – how they watch each other intently and pick up tiny bodily cues that allow them to move together, at speed, in an apparently magical way. Or they really ‘get’ how jazz musicians allow leadership to move around the group without any apparent signals, or how a choir and a conductor create a uniquely affecting performance of a piece of music, based only on the choir’s instinctive interpretation of the conductor’s body language. And when that wonderful ‘aha!’ moment happens, it never leaves you. So these people go back to their world with a different view of how you can work creatively with someone; how you can develop this real ‘ensemble’ approach of “We’re going to work together to make this a winning performance, and I have to help you to be brilliant to enable me to be brilliant.”’

The programme had not been easy to ‘sell’ to senior figures in the corporation. As programme director, Michael, told the authors:

‘I guess the sort of standard project management course would have been, you know, do the cost estimating and schedule risk management. And there was an awful lot of pressure from certain parts of the company to do that, that this should be just a skills training programme.’

But as Rachel confirmed:

‘I think there is an intuitive understanding at a lot of senior levels that in order to get extraordinary results you need to do something extraordinary, and getting people outside of their comfort zones and getting people to try something that is extraordinarily unusual for them is where we got the best realizations from those people about their own environment, their own behavior, their own transactions and relations with others.’

Ten behavioral lessons from the performing arts

The ‘take-outs’ from this kind of intense and varied programme of arts-related coaching are highly varied and differ between the forms of performing arts involved and from individual to individual. The main take-outs from the programme can be summarised in the form of 10 questions.

  • What performance 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 have the right people in the room?
  • Do we know what inputs are creating our outputs?
  • Where is the art in what we do?
  • Is our leadership shared, allowed and inspirational?
  • Are we helping each other to perform brilliantly?
  • Are we delivering a winning performance?

The programme director, Michael, confirmed that delegates had indeed acquired a greater self-awareness of their own leadership style and behavior:

‘A lot of them work very hard, there’s a lot of energy, and they don’t necessarily ever step back and look at their impact and how they appear to others. Whereas in a lot of these sessions it did make them reflect on it and think well, that’s how I behave and that’s how I come across. So there was quite a lot of that in the sessions, people were forced to just reflect and think and experience in a different way. And it did have an impact on some of them. Particularly the more difficult characters […] Probably the two most disruptive in the whole population did, in the end, turn out to be those two that were most supportive of the whole thing.’

A very real financial “oomph”

A culture of increased ‘open-mindedness’ did develop amongst the project managers who had attended the programme, leading to greatly improved relationships with their complex teams of stakeholders, and several individual initiatives in problem-solving that saved the company considerable amounts of time and money.

To give Rachel the last word on the arts-based programme’s effect on delegates:

‘It was completely unexpected and far greater than we had anticipated […] A lot of the perception before that was that the benefits [would be] more intangible; that the benefits were more soft and fuzzy and fluffy […] and what we found when we actually got this back is that’s not actually the case at all and that the results that were coming back were much more concrete and much more distinct than we expected – there was a very real financial oomph.’

What alternative approaches have you used in your practice to anchor change or achieve the desired business outcomes? We welcome your ideas and comments on social media. And if this subject interests you, please watch for follow-up posts here at in the weeks ahead.

10 organizational behaviors stuck in the industrial era

10 organizational behaviors stuck in the industrial era

Our emerging workforce is not interested in command-and-control leadership. They don’t want to do things because I said so; they want to do things because they want to do them.
Irene Rosenfeld, CEO, Mendelēz International

In an earlier post, ‘Culture for the age of ideas’, we argued that the culture of many organisations is still unthinkingly based on the old industrial-era mindset of scientific management and command and control. We suggested that there are a number of persistent organizational behaviors that have their origins in this outmoded culture that are now actively preventing the things that modern organisations know they most need: employee engagement, commitment and creativity, for example. This idea was fully explored in our book. My Steam Engine Is Broken: Taking the organization from the industrial era to the age of ideas.

The book was based on Mark Powell’s twenty years’ experience in management and strategy consultancy and on his ten-year experience of designing and running leadership and management development programmes at the University of Oxford. More precisely, the book was the result of Mark’s thousands of conversations with people at all levels of organizations large and small, and across several different cultures. The end result was the identification of ten organizational ‘paradoxes’ – behaviors intended to advance the organization’s interests that are often experienced by employees in a negative way. The behaviors are paradoxical because they tend to produce results that are the exact opposite of what the organization sets out to achieve.

In this article there is only enough space to give a two-sentence description of these ten paradoxical behaviours and their unintended outcomes, but we think that this will be enough to give you a good insight into our thinking. We all tend to recognize these industrial-era organizational behaviors, just as we also instinctively recognise what ‘good’ behaviors would look like, and why.

Ten paradoxes of organizational behavior

1. Control

Management seeks control, but control can be experienced as removing autonomy and preventing self-organization and innovation. Managers gain ‘control’ but lose commitment and creative input.

2. Measurement

Control requires measurements and indicators, but these can become obsessive, short-termist and even misleading. More importantly, when we try to ‘measure’ people with techniques similar to those that we use to measure processes, people feel labelled, diminished and manipulated.

3. Efficiency

Mechanical and logistical processes must be as efficient as possible, but it’s different when people are involved. Some petty ‘efficiencies’ impact people very negatively, saving a few dollars at an immeasurable cost in lost energy.

4. Innovation

Organizations know that they need to innovate, but much organizational behaviour is specifically designed to prevent it. Innovative thinking is ‘risky’, by definition, and the ‘control’ mindset hates risk.

5. Communication

Communication is a dialogue, not a set of instructions and most organizational modes of communication are not genuine dialogues: information ‘cascades’ down imaginary pyramids; meetings create an illusion of real debate. ‘Communication’ seems to be increasing in volume and declining in quality.

6. Physical environment

Workspaces should be designed to encourage good communication, chance encounters and the flow of ideas. Industrial-era workspaces are designed to keep individuals in their allocated, functional space and enable supervision.

7. Self-organization

People are rarely allowed to organize their own work. When they are, the results can be remarkable, as shown in this Harvard Business Review paper on GE Aviation’s move to a ‘teaming’ work structure.

8. Leadership

Leadership should be devolved, but is often hoarded. Everyone should be encouraged to lead whenever their natural leadership skills are most appropriate and valuable.

9. Networking

New ideas tend to happen at boundaries, when people from different parts of the organization reach out and interact, but few organizations manage to enable productive networking throughout the whole operation. The industrial-era organization sees ‘networks’ as connections to be exploited; real networks are organic and mutually beneficial.

10. Diversity of opinion

Organizations tend to become homogenous environments where contrarians are unwelcome. Diversity of gender and ethnicity is no guarantee of true diversity of opinion; like any ecosystem, organizations need a real diversity of ideas to evolve and survive in a rapidly changing environment.

Little by little, piece by piece

In our book, as in our earlier post, we argued that the process that was most likely to succeed in transforming organizational cultures was one of changing behaviors ‘little by little and piece by piece’ – identifying the outmoded behavior patterns that are doing the most damage to the organization’s culture and tackling them one by one. We also believe that improvements made to any one aspect of organizational behavior are highly likely to spill over onto other behaviors – once we realise that we are not communicating effectively, to take one example, it may become obvious that we are not networking effectively either; or that our leadership is hierarchical rather than devolved, which is why we are preventing self-organization…

All of these behaviors stem from a common mindset; once the flaw in one behavior is recognised and addressed, the implications can ripple out through the organization quite rapidly.

We see that we are among friends here. Culture University’s Marcella Bremer, writes in a post about her concept of ‘non-linearity: [changing] one small habit at a time to create a lasting, different outcome.’ Marcella proposes a programme of working in small teams to discover and take ownership of the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of change, arguing that value systems get translated into ‘specific, daily behaviors and underlying assumptions’ and that we should focus on ‘the crucial behaviors and beliefs will make the difference to success’.

In a recent post, Culture University’s John Katzenbach also proposes that we should start with behaviors: ‘change behaviors, and mind-sets will follow’, says John, arguing that ‘culture is much more a matter of doing than of saying’ and that trying to change a culture by top-down messaging and training and development programmes is unlikely to work. John proposes a 10-stage process for mobilizing our organizational cultures.

Energizing organizational cultures

We hope that the ‘ten paradoxical behaviors’ described here might be a useful starting point for organizations setting out to explore which behaviors they might most need to change in order to create an enabling, empowering culture fit for the age of ideas. We can make intellectual decisions about what we would like our organizational culture to be, but the foundation of those cultures is the set of behaviors, often unwittingly inherited from our relatively recent process of industrialization, that we enact each day at work without considering their impact on our colleagues and the consequent effect on the organization’s energy level. Change those behaviors, and you energize the culture.

What do you think? Are we still trapped in ‘industrial-era’ behaviors? Can we change a culture by changing individual behaviors and allowing a new culture to emerge, or do we need to start with a grand vision? Please do give us your thoughts.

Organizations Have Feelings Too

Organizations Have Feelings Too

Organizations are communities of people, and when those communities become upset, the organization is in serious trouble.

All organizations face problems from time to time; what matters is whether there is a collective will to solve those problems, or whether the culture of the organization has broken down in some way: when one group of people feels that another group is trying to impose its vision without any real consensus or agreement, for example, or – especially – feels that one group is not acting in the best interests of the organization’s core purpose.

A badly-handled downsizing in 2014 by struggling UK supermarket chain, Morrisons, caused a great deal of bad feeling amongst staff, witnessed by outpourings of anger online, some of which are quoted in this article. The company’s stated aim was to remove a tier of store management in order to ‘modernize the way stores are managed with the aim of reducing in-store management tiers, simplifying responsibility and improving customer service.’

It didn’t work, at least not in terms of turning the company around nor apparently, as many staff had feared, in terms of improving customer service. In January 2015, the supermarket replaced its CEO, Dalton Philips, after a five-year stint at the head of the mid-market grocery chain. There were many reasons cited for his replacement; the usual litany of failed initiatives and the headline problem of falling profitability. But the driving force for change seemed to be the realization that Morrisons had become a broken organization: that it was not capable of returning to health under its old management.

The organization as machine

In our last book, My Steam Engine is Broken: Taking the organization from the industrial era to the age of ideas, we argued that many organizations still unwittingly abide by the principles of the early twentieth-century school of Scientific Management, which sees people as components of the organizational machine whose individual performance, like that of any other component, should be analyzed and adjusted for maximum efficiency.

In this ‘organization as machine’ model, people can be ‘let go’ without adverse consequences. The people are merely parts of the machine and machines, after all, have no feelings. In fact, when organizations ‘downsize’, firing large numbers of people without handling the process with great sensitivity, the real emotional damage to the organization may be severe and even irreparable. Organizations really do have feelings too.

In an interview with Culture University faculty member, Marcella Bremer, Kim Cameron, Professor of Management and Organizations at the University of Michigan, said that companies that downsize tend to perform worse after the downsizing process.  ‘One of the major outcomes of a decade of research,’ Professor Cameron told Bremer, ‘was that almost all of the organizations that downsize deteriorate in performance. Instead of getting better, they get worse. This happens for several reasons; conflict goes up, morale and innovation go down, loss of trust etc.’

It is perfectly possible to downsize successfully, argues Cameron, and about 10-15 percent of companies manage to do so – the ones who act with compassion, gratitude and integrity, practicing what Cameron calls ‘virtuousness.’

“Ripping the heart out of the company”

Morrisons’ own 2014 downsizing seemed to be carried out without much ‘virtuousness’ at all.

Under the headline ‘Morrisons to cut 2,600 jobs in management restructuring’, the UK’s retail trade magazine, The Grocer, reported the supermarket’s plans to cut out a tier of middle management. A number of people, many of them employees of Morrisons, posted comments beneath the article.

One employee (‘Joe’) who was about to made redundant talked about his passion for his job and suggested that the restructuring was ‘ripping the heart out of the company’.

“I’m a department manager for Morrisons and I’m extremely passionate about what I do. I must say at this point how disappointed I am at Dalton for ripping the heart out of this company. Us department managers and supervisors keep this company running on a day to day basis this just confirms the fact the directors have absolutely no clue as to what’s happening at store level.”

Another (‘Alan’) suggested that staff have been misled about the likelihood of redundancies.

“The message to stores at the beginning of this was that there will be no redundancies. Staff have been lied to throughout. If the focus really is on improving customer service, why have hours been cut back month on month for the past year. To [sic] many customers have already been alienated and this blatant disregard for the very overworked middle management team will do little to swing back any favor.”

‘Jojo’, a Morrisons’ shopper, argued that management were deliberately trying to avoid emotional reactions to the redundancies:

“Morrisons work in under-handed ways. Just recently all the general managers had to move stores. This would be in preparation for the proposed redundancies so that they could give people their notice with no emotional attachment.”

‘Ade anti Morrison’ talked about the ‘rude’ and ‘arrogant’ attitude of management,

“It’s no wonder they’re going down the pan, arrogant and small minded head office management who rule by fear . . . One area manager I worked for was the most rudest [sic], arrogant, small minded bigoted aggressive person I’ve ever had the misfortune to work for …”

This small sample of outpouring of employees’ felt experiences suggests a dreadful disjoint between the intentions of senior management and the perception of management actions on the shop floor. This unhappiness, this ‘upset’ is a far better indicator of the health of the organization than any number of metrics. It is interesting to compare the frustrations, anger and disappointments expressed in these few comments with Jon Robinsons ‘14 characteristics of a thriving workplace culture’ – every single one of Robinsons’ characteristics would seem to be absent from these employees’ perceptions of their workplace culture.

Failed strategies can be changed, mistakes can be rectified; but failed relationships between the core groups within an organization spell disaster. If you want to know what’s really going on in an organization, test its emotional state. Organizations really do have feelings too.

Do you agree? Perhaps you share a different view. If so, what can you add to this conversation? We welcome your thoughts, please share them on social media.  

Creating Cultures for the Age of Ideas

Creating Cultures for the Age of Ideas

Many modern organizations are locked into a mindset – an organizational culture – that began with the Industrial Revolution in eighteenth-century Britain and was fully developed during the Second Industrial Revolution in the US. The great success of these revolutions – creating modern business and generating huge wealth – makes it easy to believe that what worked as a way of managing great corporations in the early 1900s is still the best way to run an organization in the twenty-first century. But times have changed.

Our new book, My Steam Engine Is Broken: Taking the organization from the industrial era to the Age of Ideas, sets out three core, culture-related ideas.

  1. Many organizations have a culture that is still unconsciously modelled on the managerial, ‘Steam Engine’ mindset of the industrial era; a culture which is fundamentally unsuited to the modern workplace.
  2. There are a number of core Steam Engine behaviors which actively prevent or destroy the things that modern organizations know that they most need from their employees – engagement, commitment and creativity, amongst others.
  3. Addressing and changing these core Steam Engine behaviors – little by little and piece by piece – will in time achieve a radical transformation of the organization, creating a working environment suited to the Age of Ideas and freeing up the energies of the organization’s members.

Locked in an industrial mindset

The great corporations of the early twentieth century quickly adopted Frederick Winslow Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management, which argued that a new class of executives – managers and planners – were needed to reveal the ‘scientific’ approach to any particular task, which would yield the ‘one best way’ of performing that task. Taylor was unabashedly prepared to argue that most workers were, in his words, ‘too stupid’ to discern the ‘science’ of their activities. Even workers with considerable skills carrying out complex tasks were, in Taylor’s view, not the right people to deal with ‘the science’ of their work, since even if they had the capacity properly to plan the best approach to their work, this would distract them from the work itself.

What was needed was another other sort of being: the manager/planner. Out of this patronizing worldview came the persistent modern model in which every worker must have a manager, and that managers are superior to workers. Whatever Taylor may have said about ‘friendly’, ‘harmonious’, and ‘intimate’ cooperation between managers and workers, the mould was cast: workers worked; managers and planners (needed in surprisingly large numbers) managed and planned.

When ‘the one best way’ is imposed on people in this way by a rigid, status-laden hierarchy, it creates the kind of dehumanising, de-energising, stressful and unhappy working environments that are still far too common today. It is rare to come across any organization where aspects of these behaviours are not still clearly in place, with the all too visible result that people feel put upon rather than inspired, and what should be a genuine community working together to achieve the same end is turned into an unnatural environment where one class of employee is constantly assessing, appraising and judging the other class.

This is particularly damaging in the knowledge economy: when people are employed for their ideas and for their unique human skills (such as emotional intelligence), we shouldn’t be surprised if treating them like machines whose outputs are monitored and rated leads to disenchanted employees.

Ten ‘Steam Engine’ behaviors

Of the ten Steam Engine behaviors that we identify, the two most pernicious are those to do with control and measurement. Every manager wants to feel that they are ‘in control’, and measuring everything that moves helps to create an illusion of control. But it is an illusion: a moment’s reflection reveals that we can measure and control processes, but not people. Dealing with people – human beings – requires a human approach. It’s trickier, but it’s perfectly doable. The old ‘command and control’ model really is past its sell-by date.

If a new approach to control and measurement will take some adjusting to, the other dimensions that we discuss, such as innovation, communication, devolved leadership, networking, diversity and other aspects of organizational behavior, find a ready audience. ‘You’re right,’ most leaders agree: ‘we really do need to get better at those things.’

The behaviors that are most in need of change will differ (of course) from organization to organization; it is the precise mix of these various behaviors that creates each organization’s individual culture.

Some leaders may be concerned that their corporate culture is not good at enabling fluent, honest communication or at encouraging colleagues to develop vibrant networks of internal and external contacts. Others may worry that there is insufficient genuine diversity in their organization or that their organizational culture fails to encourage innovation. As Edgar Schein argues in a post on this site, to identify which behaviors are having the worst effects it is a good idea to start with a business problem, and work back to the behaviors that are driving this.

Only you can judge what is most relevant to your own situation. Our argument is that all of these kinds of outmoded, Steam Engine behaviors interact with each other and that you will find (we believe) that when you address any one of these issues and begin to change the organization’s behaviour in that one dimension, then the resultant new way of being quickly leads on to new perceptions and different ways of behaving in the other, related dimensions.

Setting out to ‘change the corporate culture’ with one almighty heave is difficult, daunting, and usually doomed to failure. Changing the organization’s behavior little by little, piece by piece, is achievable, and will slowly but surely bring about a real transformation, moving the organization from an industrial mindset to one that is suited to the modern reality of our working lives.

What about you? Do you agree that much organizational behavior dates back to the industrial era? And is that a bad thing, or do the old models still serve? Please share your thoughts on social media.