cast members of The Book of Will, OSF version, written by Lauren Gunderson, directed by Christopher Liam Moore, photo by Jenny Graham

A British friend, Johnnie Moore, sent me a link to a book called The Illusion of Leadership, by Piers Ibbotson, a UK actor and theatre director, which suggests that corporations and organizations (including political organizations, and perhaps even families), could learn a thing or two if they replaced their hierarchical style of leadership and ‘management’ with the theatre’s much more egalitarian, directorial style.

Not that there aren’t bullies and egomaniacs in theatre as well. But Piers is suggesting an approach to self-organization that in some ways is similar to the self-management style that Fréd Laloux proposes in his book Reinventing Organizations.

In fact, the theatre company likely predates the earliest corporations. Many of the terms used in modern corporations are borrowed from earlier theatrical, military and ecclesiastical terms: roles, ‘players’, performance reviews, product ‘staging’, strategy, and even the word ‘company’.

Here in a nutshell is how Piers differentiates effective theatre groups from those in most traditional organizations.

Traditional Organizations Theatrical Organizations
What the group calls itself Team, Department Ensemble
How the group decides what to do Command & Control Rehearsal
Who’s guiding the process “Executive”, Manager, Officer Director
How the group sees its “deliverable” Product or Service Customer Experience
Basis of cohesion Authority & Responsibility vested in roles & positions Trust

The idea of an ensemble (from the French word meaning ‘together’) is hard to fathom if you’ve never been in one. In theatre, at least today (the term is much younger than Shakespeare) the best directors have exercises (largely based on Improv principles) that can help enable a group to form themselves into an ensemble. While there is no precise definition, you know one when you see one. An ensemble’s purpose is to “help everyone perform better” and to answer the question “What do we want to say together?”. Hierarchy and status are suspended, and the focus is on the task, not the functions that enable it to get done.

I have witnessed and read about tribes as a kind of ensemble in indigenous groups (Hugh Brody’s The Other Side of Eden describes this extensively). My one personal experience came 15 years ago when I worked with a group of epidemiologists (average age: 23) that had quickly been put together in the aftermath of Canada’s disastrous response to SARS in 2003, with marching orders from the government to recommend ways to ensure “this never happens again”. The minimal-to-start differences in rank and authority were essentially ignored in the process of collectively learning as much as possible as quickly as possible to meet this mandate. It took us little time to realize that the Go For Zero approach to any highly transmissible pandemic virus was the only sensible one (we even got to watch ‘top secret’ briefings from the US DHS). Sadly, our advice was not taken with CoVid-19, though it is still not too late.

Piers suggests the upper limit for an effective ensemble is about 25 people (almost exactly the size of our epidemiology group); sadly, the approach just doesn’t seem to scale very well.

It is perhaps useful to think of the various roles we play in our lives, and whether together with those in adjacent and supporting roles (family members, work associates, neighbours, fellow volunteers) we constitute a true ensemble or not. How heavily we rely on our authority, our rank, our power, and our influence to get things done the way we want! And how tragic that most of the good ideas in organizations never penetrate the dysfunctional hierarchical structures and ways of operating in most modern organizations!

It would be worth exploring what an organization based on ensemble structures and practices might look like, though, since most of us have never witnessed a successful one, getting any organization to try it would be an uphill battle.

The term rehearsal is another one that is little understood outside professional theatrical (and some military) circles. It is not at all about repeating or practicing, but is rather a process of experimentation, modification and co-creation, what Piers calls essentially a full-ensemble “conversation” whose purpose is to “catch people making good choices” — the creative process of taking the raw words and descriptions of the script and making them awesome, entertaining, insightful, and memorable.

Again, my only direct experience with this was during a “table-top exercise” of our epidemiology ensemble, where we simulated a pandemic outbreak and acted out roles to assess where and why our planned response was inadequate and could be made better. You can guess at the results, and how chagrined we were to realize that the political establishment would never undertake the essential steps to make emergency response actually effective, rather than merely appearing to be responsive and responsible (a much easier and cheaper response). Clearly, in a few countries like New Zealand, Taiwan and Australia, the right people had done the right rehearsals to be prepared for CoVid-19, where hundreds of other nations were not.

What would a true rehearsal look like in, say, a pharmaceutical company, a hospital, a municipal government, a community advocacy group, or a family? What if instead of passing information up and instructions down, our organizations instead communicated by means of non-hierarchical dialogic/dialectic conversations whose purpose was to “help everyone perform better” and to creatively uncover truly novel and imaginative approaches to the challenges of the moment?

Although the term Director has now been thoroughly debased and made synonymous with Manager, its original meaning still applies in some theatre companies. This is the role of steering and advising the ensemble, rather than telling everyone what to do. It is a light-touch, careful-attention, deeply thoughtful, profoundly humble, and highly creative and imaginative role, one that works on suggestion (“What if you tried this…?”) rather than through command and control. The subtle reactions of the entire ensemble to the suggestion, as perceived by the Director as surrogate audience-of-one, is the ultimate arbiter of whether or not the suggestion is followed. The absurdly mis-named title Executive, applied generally not to people who actually do anything (ie execute) but rather to those who tell others what to do, is incompatible with the role of a true Director, as is its function. An ensemble with a skilled Director needs no Managers, Executives or other expensive hangers-on.

What would it be like if, in our organizations, there were no “objectives” set, no “Supervisors”, no telling anyone else what to do, and a complete sharing of all information about what was happening in the organization? What would it be like if, instead of having to walk the line between instructions from above and happy customers (“our other bosses”), everyone in the organization was trusted and empowered to satisfy customers whatever-it-took, and to openly consult and share with others in the organization, everyone-as-a-peer, to surface and collectively consider suggestions that could make those customers even happier?

As organizations in most affluent nations have exited, offshored or outsourced most manufacturing activity, the importance of realizing that, for most of us now, what we are delivering to our customers is not a product or a service but an experience, has never been higher. This applies whether you’re an airline company, a software developer, a car dealer, a writer, or a massage therapist. In theatre, actors are acutely aware that a successful experience for the audience is much more than the error-free delivery of the lines and movements in the script. Great theatre transports.

What would it be like if, in our organizations, our goal shifted from on-time, on-budget delivery of the mandated quantity of product or service units, to the delivery of the best customer experience our customers had ever known? What if we all saw ourselves as what we are: actors, playing different roles, and worked to give the best performance of our lives, at least when it most counted? And to ensure that it wasn’t just our personal best, but the best collective performance of our entire ensemble?

In most organizations, their sheer size makes it impossible even to know most people we work with, let alone know them well enough to trust them. So we substitute authority (“do what your boss/supervisor says and you can’t be faulted even if it was unwise instruction”) and responsibility (“this is your responsibility, and this other stuff is not, so you don’t have to worry about it or even know about it”). It’s a totally dysfunctional alternative.

And combined with the fiercely competitive nature of most organizations (“only 5% of your staff can be rated ‘exceptional performers’ and only they will get ‘performance bonuses'”), it is amazing that most workplaces aren’t even more prone to violence, sabotage, dishonesty, bribery, and burnout than they actually are. Could you imagine what would happen if the “Executive Producer” of a theatre production told the cast that only 5% of them would get ‘performance bonuses’, or promotions from ‘ensemble’ to ‘headliner’, and that they’d be informed at the end of the run who the successful cast members were?

There are well-established ways to break organizations down into autonomous, manageable (or should I say ‘directable’) sized groups, and to shift from individual to collective ‘performance’ rewards. But that alone is not enough to ensure those in those smaller, better-motivated units will trust each other. Whereas some of the exercises theatre directors use to build trust in ensembles make sense, some others (like the ones depicted in the true-to-life film White Mile with its ’employee bonding’ experiences) are manipulative and horrific. And while “yes, and” improv exercises can theoretically lead to greater trust among participants, such exercises, when abused by even a few participants, can be scarring and irreparably damage players’ trust in others.

There are many, many books and articles about building and measuring trust in organizations, and the vast majority of them are IMO pure psychobabble — opinions and theories with flimsy supporting evidence, masquerading as science. All we seem to know is that, in organizations, we want to trust people and systems to be reliable, truthful and capable. Whether we start out trusting people and systems or not depends on our personal history and our conditioning. And it seems trust is easier to destroy than to rebuild. Anything else on the subject seems pure conjecture.

So, rather than wondering how we can build trust in our organizations, perhaps a better question is: How can we gauge the level of trust within our organizations and with outsiders (customers, suppliers, communities), accept and be aware that that’s where we are, and work to encourage people, and to build and amend our systems and processes, to be more reliable, more truthful (transparent is the ideal, but many people can’t even be transparent with themselves), and more capable. How to do that depends on the organization, and on the ‘players’.

I have no idea what the potential is for introducing the theatre’s ideas of ensemble, rehearsal, true directorship, and collective conversation, innovation and performance to enhance the customer’s experience, to other environments like corporations, political, social and service organizations, schools and hospitals, community and volunteer groups, and even family groups. There are probably good reasons why these ideas have failed to flourish in less creative environments.

But there are some interesting possibilities here. We are all actors, playing myriad different roles with different groups in our lives. Our current crises are going to demand of each of us, very soon, the performance of a lifetime. May we be fortunate enough to find or co-create ensembles we can trust, rehearse with them, work with good directors, and deliver wonderful experiences to those we care about and those who depend on us.

If we can, our reward will be much deeper than a curtain call.

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4 Responses to Ensemble

  1. Nathan Shepperd says:

    Seems to me the “ensemble limit” of 25 is a good answer. If the organisation ends up bigger and develops a hierarchy you end up with that authority/responsibility problem.
    I don’t think you covered motivation – a theatre company is more likely to come together because the individuals have a common passion.
    For someone looking for a job, where a lot of them are connected to a corporation, the motivation is to pay bills, not find something they are passionate about, despite the attempts in corporations to engineer “fake” passion by requiring employees to pretend to see management goals as their own.
    Unfortunately, a lot of those goals are about pleasing shareholders and acquiring more unnecessary wealth and status, and nothing to do with doing anything good for people.

    People probably try to create an ensemble out of their team in many cases, but all the politics and arbitrary demands from outside can make that an ensemble of regular commiseration about lack of control and stress.
    Reminds me that I’d prefer to work in an “ensemble” company that can’t get bigger than 20 people. And for something that has some meaning to me.

    I like the idea of a network of ensembles scaling to make something larger, but I think the products at the end would be different from cars or luxury home appliances. Unfortunately I see the tendency towards hierarchy as generally overpowering the small islands of collaboration…

  2. Piers Ibbotson says:

    Hi, Dave,
    A delight to see that you have picked up my book and to see it explored it with such depth and understanding, thank you. It’s great also to find your blog and to see these ideas in the context of the global threats to our planet. I have been in academia for five years now and become very interested in the question of scale that is at the heart of a successful ensemble and also at the root of many of the drivers of unsustainable business. Re-framing how we think about growth and change in terms of sustainability is the work that needs to happen. It’s interesting that the longest lived businesses in the world, those that have continued to trade in the same way for centuries, are mostly small scale, often family owned businesses. Getting big and constantly innovating for innovations sake may not be the best strategies for long term survival. Look at the dragon-fly. I’ll enjoy reading your other posts.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks Nathan and Piers, and to those who commented on the repost on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:activity:6763017046428024832/).

    It would be fascinating to get Frédéric Laloux’s take on this. I believe he’s moved on from a focus on corporate structure reform to climate change. I would think in our collective attempts to grapple with these existential threats, the ideas of ensemble work and rehearsals might apply even more. Sadly, a great proportion of our energies continue to be sapped by the useless social media Facebook and Twitter, where conversations go to die.

  4. Christopher Vandyck says:

    It is really COOL to read what you have to say about theater. It makes me wonder if the deep knowledge which you have about this subject is something like “a god shaped hole” in the middle of your writing style over the years.

    Have you ever worked with theatrical productions – with kid ls or adults? I’d love to see you write about that.

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