The authors of this piece are both business practitioners who have had long parallel careers in the performing arts. Dr Mark Powell has been a business and strategy consultant for over 30 years, working at partner level with major firms. He discovered a passion for Latin American ballroom dancing while he was studying at Cambridge University and continued to dance throughout his consultancy career, winning over 50 titles including two British and two World Championships – which he won while he was a partner at KPMG. Jonathan Gifford worked as an advertising man on Fleet Street in the days when the famous London street was the heart of the UK’s national newspaper industry. He moved into magazine publishing with BBC Magazines and has been a business author for the past 10 years. He played saxophone and flute semi-professionally throughout his business career in various jazz, soul and blues bands.
In the course of our careers, we came separately to the same realisation: that the way we worked with other dancers or musicians to produce compelling performances was very different from the way we worked with our business colleagues – and that the way we worked as performing artists was better. There was a whole different culture: more collaborative; more focused; more productive; more creative.
Our belief – call it an obsession – is that there is a great deal that business can learn from the performing arts.
We have written on Culture University about how our arts-based leadership development work brings business people together with dancers, jazz bands and classical conductors to see what can be learned about issues such as shared and allowed leadership, embodied leadership, ensemble work and improvisation. In an earlier article based on ensemble work in the theatre, ‘Turning Businesses Into Ensembles’, we touched on the concept of creative rehearsal.
Creative rehearsal is core to the creation of an outstanding performance. No group of artists would hope to deliver a compelling performance without creative rehearsal.
Creative rehearsal should be equally central to our business practice.
Exploring unique chemistry
Creative rehearsal is not the same as practice. Practice is what you do to get your own technique up to performance level. It gives you the right to step into the rehearsal room.
The whole point of creative rehearsal is to explore what unique magic a group of people – these 2 dancers, these 5 musicians, this group of actors, this orchestra – can produce together. It is experimental, by definition. You try things out. The things that work stick; the things that don’t work get dropped but play an important part in the ongoing process.
“For me the rehearsal period is the part I most enjoy. It’s the creating of the story.”
You swap ideas, sometimes verbally – ‘What if we tried it this way?’ – sometimes non-verbally, by demonstrating a dance move, or a musical phrase, or a new tempo or rhythm. The performers spark ideas off each other in an act of co-creation.
The process explores the unique chemistry that exists within this particular ensemble. I have my ideas and you have yours, but exactly what is generated when we come together and perform is impossible to predict. Creative rehearsal is what produces fresh, exciting performances that move and delight their audiences.
‘Future-proofing’ our businesses
We don’t do much genuine creative rehearsal in business. Which is a terrible shame, because creative rehearsal has the capacity to ’future-proof’ our businesses. It lets us imagine new scenarios, explore new ideas and play around with ‘what if’s’ in a safe environment. It lets us explore ways in which we could improve our performance to delight our audience. It unleashes the creativity of our colleagues.
The point of rehearsal is to find new, daring solutions. Exciting new ways to tell our story that will delight our audience. All entrepreneurs are good at ‘rehearsal.’ They have crazy ideas and they don’t think, ‘That’s a crazy idea.’ They play with the idea to see how they might make it work. When they are successful, they disrupt all the old ‘tried and tested’ business practices. They ‘jump to the next curve’ leaving existing businesses floundering in their wake.
Creative rehearsal: an act of co-creation
In business we tend to be scared of crazy ideas. We dismiss them out of hand because they are ‘risky’ and we hate risk. Creative rehearsal is the process that forces us to have crazy ideas and see if we can make them work. And true rehearsal requires genuine ensembles.
Ensembles are different from teams
Business tends to focus on teams and team building. But most teams – even high-performing teams – are prevented from becoming genuine ensembles because they are made to work within highly constricting parameters. There are precise and limiting expectations about the ‘right sort’ of solution; about the limits of what they are expected to explore and propose.
One of the reasons that teams are unlikely to be truly creative – to develop new, surprising ideas – is that nearly all teams have managers, and managers expect to be ‘in control.’ Most of the team’s more interesting ideas are likely to be dismissed out of hand as ‘fanciful’ or ‘unworkable.’
In genuine ensembles, every member is equal before the task. No one is ‘more important’ than any other member and no one prejudges the outcome – because the entire function of the ensemble is to create something unique and unpredictable. To find their own special collective magic.
What ensembles need is a ‘creative director.’ Someone who sets up certain constraints – the things that must be worked with or around – and then lets the ensemble loose, stepping in occasionally to select the most promising option from the ideas emerging from the ensemble’s collective genius and guiding the ensemble to a conclusion. The creative director is ‘in charge’ of the ensemble but not ‘in control.’
How to enable creative business rehearsal
We’d like to offer six suggestions on how to carry out creative business rehearsal.
Address major challenges
You don’t need creative rehearsal to achieve straightforward, mundane objectives. Creative rehearsal is needed for the big issues facing any business. Issues such as, for example…
What is the true purpose of our business?
Are we fulfilling that purpose?
Could we fulfill that purpose in a completely different way?
Where will our business be in five years?
Do we need to change to stay relevant, and if so, how?
What could a new competitor do that would destroy our business?
How do we stop that from happening?
An ensemble that is challenged with finding the answers to big questions such as these will find the task rewarding. They will be excited, self-motivated and, once under way, brimming with ideas.
Create a status-free zone; use a creative director
The rehearsal ensemble must be status-free. As a result, it will almost certainly need to be a new group of people assembled for the purpose. Even then, status can rear its ugly head. One of the creative director’s key tasks is to maintain the ‘status-free’ zone. If she notices that a particular group member can’t stop themselves from pulling rank or being even subliminally critical (a frown or a look of impatience from a senior person can kill a new idea stone dead) then that person needs to be yanked out of the group. And told why. The future of the business is at stake, after all.
Build the Ensemble
Choose a diverse group of people because people from similar organizational backgrounds quickly slip into group think. Ensembles also don’t just ‘happen’ when a group of people are thrown together. The classic ‘ensemble-building’ exercises work, as does getting the would-be ensemble to ‘do stuff’ together outside the work environment. The good news is that as the rehearsal process progresses (when it’s done right) people begin naturally to bond together and evolve into a genuine ensemble.
Play with every idea
No idea gets shot down before it is explored and played around with. It may not fly in the end, but it will open up interesting new horizons. Everyone must contribute, supporting the idea and adding new variations until it has been fully explored.
Get the show on the road
Rehearsal is not playing around with crazy ideas for the sake of it. The whole point of rehearsal is to create a brilliant new performance so that the show can go live on the chosen day. Rehearsal has a clear and imminent objective – to deliver an audience-pleasing show in the (very) near future. It is the creative director’s job to keep it real and to get the show on the road: to have a set of clear and exciting proposals ready by a certain date, with a precise end in view: a new and better performance.
If the organization isn’t brave enough to put some of the crazy new ideas into practice, the audience will not be surprised and delighted, and people internally will stop contributing crazy new ideas. We have to be brave in our hyper-competitive world, or our competitors will be brave for us. We need to rehearse crazy ideas in the safety of our own offices. Then we need to be brave enough to put the best ideas – the more daring the better – into practice. Performers who put on safe but dull shows don’t win prizes.
Practice is not rehearsal
It’s easy to mistake practice for rehearsal. Practice is doing things over and over again until we can perform a task faultlessly, without thinking. Rehearsal sets out to find new, exciting, better ways of delivering our performance so that our audiences will be delighted.
In our experience, genuine creative rehearsal in business is rare. It happens when businesses launch new products, when genuine ensembles come together to create the best, most exciting new product they can devise. It happens when businesses decide how to market their products. It very rarely happens at a strategic level, because everyone assumes that what the business is doing now represents the most appropriate performance. We might refine and improve the performance, but we don’t re-imagine it. We don’t try to think of entirely new ways of delivering our businesses’ purpose.
But we should, because our competitors and would-be competitors are doing exactly that.
What do you think?
Editor’s note: For more on this topic, the authors Dr Mark Powell and Jonathan Gifford invite your review and enjoyment of the following two books: