Podium: What the arts can teach managers

From a speech by the director of the Royal Shakespeare Company to a recent conference at the London Business School
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The Independent Culture
BUSINESS IS currently showing a great interest in creativity. Companies are discovering that rapid and continuous innovation is what sustains them. Without the ability to innovate and surprise, the RSC - which has to present the plays of Shakespeare over and over again - would have died out years ago. What is it that we do that allows for perpetual innovation? How do we generate and manage creativity?

Art used to be spelt with a small "a". It was considered as a craft, something you do. The image of the artist as an isolated dreamer was a 19th-century political invention. Art is an intensely practical business - ideas come from doing something. In the theatre, we have evolved a whole range of ways of facilitating creativity. Some of these are habits and skills that can be taught, while others are processes that will encourage creativity in a group.

I have broken these down into three areas: creating an ensemble, rehearsing, and directing. These are separate to the skills of acting and of actor training, though many habits of good actors are relevant to managing these processes.

The key quality of an ensemble is that hierarchy is suspended in order to create work. Actors trained in this way can suspend the status games that underlie the behaviour of any group, and adopt an attitude that facilitates their colleagues' creativity.

When a good ensemble is working together, ideas pour out. There is an atmosphere of trust, support, daring and frank communication. So instead of just getting the ideas of the star and the director explored, you get all the minds at work, all the ideas, and the possibility of entirely new ones emerging.

How do good directors generate this atmosphere of creativity and trust? And how do they manage the process of generating ideas, to incorporate different people's ideas while keeping the project moving in one unified direction?

There has been some interesting recent work in complexity theory that looks at the problems of businesses as complex systems. The research suggests that complex organisations are self-organising: things happen without anyone necessarily being in control. This is very like the situation in a rehearsal. When the atmosphere is right, good ideas appear spontaneously out of the disciplined mess that is the creative process. Part of the director's skill is to manage this emergent chaotic process to get the good ideas out and fixed into the performance.

In business there is a need for and a fear of this process. There is an affinity with the idea of "self as scientist" rather than "self as artist". People think that what is necessary for good business leadership is clarity and precision. This is not wrong, but those qualities may not be appropriate for getting good ideas and implementing them, and that, research tells us, is the most important factor in the long-term prosperity of an organisation.

What is required of tomorrow's manager is an artistic mindset. If they want creativity and innovation they need a different stance; competitive individualism is antithetical to creativity. The skills of a good ensemble and director are those of listening, supporting, encouraging. Good directors do not lead in any conventional sense; they challenge, provoke, and give direction to the creativity of others.

The final area is that of rehearsal - a collective creative process in which the director creates an environment where the ensemble is safe to make mistakes. This can mean mess. It can also people "making fools of themselves" in front of their peers, but without this there is no innovation, no risk and no discovery. Business seems to be bad at structuring the time and space to allow this process to occur.

In the theatre, rehearsal happens behind closed doors. We don't want outsiders seeing us explore crazy ideas that may not work, so safety is essential. It also needs time. The first thing any director fights for is rehearsal time.

In terms of business there are two possibilities. One is to look at the working environment and see where the rehearsal process fits. It has been suggested to me that most of a working day is in fact like a rehearsal.

And, in the theatre, we do not rehearse in full costume. People at work turn up in their performance gear - the suit and the briefcase. But who are they performing to? Actors know the difference between the cast and the audience. You don't wear your costume to rehearse, since no one's watching except your colleagues and the director, and they are not going to judge you. You work with them, and they are there to help you to be brilliant.

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