Scientific Management: The Pernicious Persistence Of Taylorism

By Dr Mark Powell and Jonathan Gifford

In the early 1900s, the US was swept up with a drive for improved ‘efficiency’ in every field of endeavour; a drive that was significant enough to earn its own title: the Efficiency Movement. This movement is seen by historians as a part of the wider Progressive Era – the early twentieth-century drive to clean up corruption in politics, break up industrial monopolies and generally to allow the cleansing waters of modernism to flow through the mucky stables of late nineteenth-century American civic life.

Unfortunately, some aspects of the Efficiency Movement – particularly Frederick Winslow Taylor’s ideas about Scientific Management, often referred to as Taylorism – are still lodged in the modern corporation’s subconscious. These industrial-era, managerial behaviours are still affecting corporate behaviour today – in ways that are entirely inappropriate to the knowledge economy.

The Gilded Age

The last decades of the nineteenth century have been known as ‘the Gilded Age’ since Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner published A Gilded Age: A Tale Of Today in 1873. The word ‘gilded’ was meant to imply that the era’s outward show of prosperity and opulence hid a great deal of poverty and squalor. This was an epoch in which great corporations were founded and great fortunes were made. Cornelius Vanderbilt (who died in 1877) had progressed from sailing a ferryboat in Upper New York Bay to founding a mighty steamship empire, before moving with great prescience into the new railway business and becoming one of the richest Americans of all time. By 1880, John D. Rockefeller had effectively monopolised the US oil industry, refining 90% of the country’s oil at a time when the US was the only oil producer in the world. When the steel magnate, Andrew Carnegie, sold Carnegie Steel to the Wall Street banker, J.P. Morgan, in 1901, as Morgan set about consolidating the US steel industry, Carnegie’s share of the $480 million sale price was $225 million – something like $6 billion at present values. J. P. Morgan had previously arranged the merger, in 1892, of the great inventor Thomas Edison’s Edison General Electric Company with the Thomson-Houston Electric Company, to form General Electric.

‘From barbarism to decadence without the usual interval of civilisation’

The core infrastructure of modern America, and the foundation for its future wealth creation, was built in a few decades during this Second Industrial Revolution, a period generally taken to run from the mid-1880s to the outbreak of the First World War – by which time the internal combustion engine had been developed and Henry Ford and others were beginning to introduce the automobile to the modern world. It was a time of great technological advances, rapid industrialisation and disturbing social upheaval: the mega-rich of the day lived lives of ostentatious splendour, while rural Americans and immigrants flooded into rapidly growing and heavily polluted cities, creating conditions depressingly reminiscent of the overcrowded new townships that sprung up around the first ‘manufactories’ in Britain during the first Industrial Revolution, one hundred years earlier. Political corruption in late nineteenth-century, Gilded Age America was rife.

A visiting French Prime Minister, George Clemenceau, is said to have commented at the time that America seemed to be only country in history to have gone from barbarism to decadence without the usual interval of civilisation. Little wonder, then, that the early twentieth century was a period of reform, a Progressive Era in which politics and industry set out to clean up their act.

The birth of Taylorism

Frederick Winslow Taylor, founder of Scientific Management and prime mover of the Efficiency Movement, quoted President Theodore Roosevelt in the introduction to his 1911 paper, The Principles of Scientific Management. ‘President Roosevelt in his [1908] address to the Governors at the White House,’ wrote Taylor, ‘prophetically remarked that “The conservation of our national resources is only preliminary to the larger question of national efficiency.”’

The need to conserve of resources and raw materials was only one part of the picture, Taylor argued; what was needed also was to prevent the ‘larger wastes of human effort, which go on every day through such of our acts as are blundering, ill-directed, or inefficient.’

Taylor’s beguilingly modern, ‘scientific’ approach was to analyse industrial tasks in great detail in order to discern the most efficient, ‘one best way’ of carrying out that task. Workers who were capable of working at the newly discovered peak rate of efficiency should be selected, trained and individually rewarded. The appeal of Scientific Management in the Progressive Era was clear: here was a modern, scientifically-based approach that would drive greater productivity and do away with the old haphazard, undisciplined, inefficient nineteenth-century ways of working.

Unfortunately, Taylor’s whole philosophy was based on the notion that workers were incapable of discerning the ‘science’ of the most efficient way of carrying out their task. He was very blunt about this, arguing that some kinds of worker were ‘too stupid’ to understand the science needed to analyse their own work. Even where some more skilled workers were capable of analysing their own tasks, he argued, this would not be the best use of their time. A new breed of managers and planners was needed to analyse tasks into their component parts and devise the one best way of carrying out the task. Managers would take on what Taylor referred to as ‘the burden’ of analysing and planning the workers’ tasks, freeing them up to carry out their tasks as efficiently as possible.

In an ideal world, wrote Taylor, ‘the work of every workman is fully planned out by the management at least one day in advance, and each man receives in most cases complete written instructions, describing in detail the task which he is to accomplish, as well as the means to be used in doing the work.’ Sadly, notes Taylor, ‘Human nature is such, however, that many of the workmen, if left to themselves, would pay but little attention to their written instructions.’ Hence the need for constant and detailed supervision of the workforce.

Workers, under Taylorism, had been reduced to pre-programmed automatons, mindlessly following the instructions of a supposedly superior managerial class.

Does that sound at all familiar?

Taking the organisation from the industrial era to the Age of Ideas

Our book, My Steam Engine is Broken: Taking the Organisation from the Industrial Era to the Age of Ideas argues that Taylor’s view of the organisation, where workers work and managers do all of the thinking and planning, has proved stubbornly persistent. It has resulted in a large number of unexamined industrial-era behaviors that are entirely unsuited to the knowledge economy. The book identifies a number of sadly all too familiar industrial-era behaviors to do with organisational approaches to control, measurement and – yes – efficiency, but also to do with how organisations communicate with their members, how leadership is perceived and practised and even how the workplace is designed and what its main function is thought to be.

The good news, we argue, is that by identifying these outmoded behaviors and addressing them, little by little and piece by piece, organisations can achieve radical transformation via an aggregation of marginal gains, without the trauma and risk associated with sudden, wholesale change.

This has to be attempted. In fact, we must be successful in this transformation of our organisations. Otherwise, we will continue to wonder why the modern workforce is unhappy, stressed and disengaged, and we will continue to squander the energy and creativity that people bring to work with them every day only to be actively prevented from deploying these great assets by a system of corporate management that has its roots in the early twentieth century.

Modern nations need ideas and human energy. These are plentifully available, as they always have been, but we have to find ways of tapping into them. If we fail, we are in danger of entering another Gilded Age, an age of surface glitter, where a few great men and women make huge advances and reap the rewards of their efforts, but a large proportion of the population are prevented from contributing to the overall success and wealth of the nation. We are in danger of losing our competitive edge, as we rely on the ideas and the energy of a few, while denying the majority the kind of working environment and organisational culture that can release their own innovatory skills, self-motivation and entrepreneurial instincts.

Every nation needs its great men and women – its Vanderbilt’s, Carnegie’s, Rockefeller’s and Morgan’s; its Edison’s and its Ford’s – but, in successful nations, the achievements of the few are fuelled by the ideas and energy of the many. One clear part of the solution is to do away, finally, with the pernicious persistence of Taylorism in the workplace and to create a new enabling and empowering working environment fit for the Age of Ideas.

10 Organisational Behaviours Stuck in the Industrial Era

In another post, ‘Creating an Organisational 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 organisational 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 organisation 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 organisations large and small, and across several different cultures. The end result was the identification of ten organisational ‘paradoxes’ – behaviors intended to advance the organisation’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 organisation sets out to achieve.

In this article there is only enough space to give a short 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 organisational behaviors, just as we also instinctively recognise what ‘good’ behaviors would look like, and why.

Ten paradoxes of organisational behavior

Control

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

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.

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.

Innovation

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

Communication

Communication is a dialogue, not a set of instructions and most organisational 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.

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.

Self-organisation

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.

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.

Networking

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

Diversity of opinion

Organisations 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, organisations 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 organisational 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 organisation’s culture and tackling them one by one. We also believe that improvements made to any one aspect of organisational 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-organisation . . . once the flaw in one behavior is recognised and addressed, the implications can ripple out through the organisation quite rapidly.

Energising organisational cultures

We hope that the ‘ten paradoxical behaviors’ described here might be a useful starting point for organisations 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 organisational culture to be, but the foundation of those cultures is the set of behaviors, often unwittingly inherited from our relatively recent process of industrialisation, that we enact each day at work without considering their impact on our colleagues and the consequent effect on the organisation’s energy level. Change those behaviors, and you energise the culture.

A version of this article first appeared on CultureUniversity.com

 

Creating Organisational Cultures for the Age of Ideas

Many modern organisations are unthinkingly locked into an organisational 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 organisation in the twenty-first century.

But times have changed.

In our book, My Steam Engine Is Broken: Taking the organization from the industrial era to the Age of Ideas, we set out three core ideas.

  • Many organisations 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.
  • There are a number of core Steam Engine behaviours which actively prevent or destroy the things that modern organisations know that they most need from their employees – engagement, commitment and creativity, amongst others.
  • Addressing and changing these core Steam Engine behaviours – little by little and piece by piece – will in time achieve a radical transformation of the organisation, creating a working environment suited to the Age of Ideas and freeing up the energies of the organisation’s members.

Locked in an industrial mindset

The great corporations of the early twentieth century happily 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.

From this patronising worldview emerged 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.

Constantly assessing, appraising and judging

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 obvious 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.

The illusion of control

Of the ten Steam Engine behaviours that we identify in the book, 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 organisational behaviour find a ready audience. ‘You’re right,’ most leaders agree: ‘we really do need to get better at those things.’

Little by little, piece by piece

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

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 organisation’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 organisation’s behaviour little by little, piece by piece, is achievable, and will slowly but surely bring about a real transformation, moving the organisation from an industrial mindset to one that is suited to the modern reality of our working lives.

 

A version of this article first appeared in CultureUniversity.com

 

Rethinking ‘Human Resources’

You may remember (though you are probably too young) that Human Resource departments used to be called ‘Personnel’ departments, and their job was pretty much restricted to finding, training and retaining (and sometimes letting go) personnel – or ‘people’ as we tend to call them these days.  When the term Human Resources was first used in the corporate context, sometime around the 1950s in the United States, it was part of a deliberate rebranding exercise, intended to flag up the strategic importance of the role and the centrality of the ‘human resource’. People were no longer seen as ‘personnel’ – the individuals who happened to carry out a particular duty for the corporation at a particular moment – they were a core and precious resource, to be nurtured and cared for.

But it is a shame that the well-meaning re-branders chose that particular term. The problem with the word ‘resource’ is – well, it’s obvious what the problem is. It makes it sound as if people are a resource, just like copper is a resource – or cotton, or water or any other essential raw material – whereas people are the essential resource: organisations can hope to survive the absence or the scarcity of any other resource provided that they have the people in place with the wit and energy to carry out the necessary transformation to cope with the new conditions.

The key competence is adaptability

In a changing world, the key competence is adaptability. The most perfect processes will become outmoded or irrelevant; only people are capable of making the necessary transition from what works now to what will work in the new environment. And to do this, people need to be engaged, committed, empowered and enabled. They need to be alert to changes in the outside world and certain that their hunches and feelings about that outside world will be listened to and taken seriously. And the organisation needs to structure itself in such a way that it taps into the ideas and energies of all these people, rather than relying on the wisdom (or otherwise) of the few.

The authors of this article have recently published a book called My Steam Engine is Broken: Taking the Organisation from the Industrial Era to the Age of Ideas. In the book we argue (as you have probably guessed from the title) that the mindset of many organisations is still stuck somewhere around the time of the Second Industrial Revolution in the US in the early 20th century – the era in which many of today’s global giants were either born or began to emerge as mighty industrial concerns: corporations such as the Ford Motor Company, General Motors, General Electric, Proctor & Gamble, Coca-Cola and many others. You can’t necessarily blame people for thinking: if it worked for those guys, why would it not work for us? But the fact is that the industrial mindset really isn’t working in the knowledge economy. The obsession with control, measurement and so-called efficiency continues to create a stressed and unhappy working environment in which creativity is stifled and engagement is destroyed. Our steam engines really are broken, and it is time to stop patching them up and to transform them.

Developing a Performance Culture

Dr Mark Powell, one of the co-authors of this article, is an unusual beast: a dancing management consultant. Mark has worked at partner level at several consultancies, including Accenture, KPMG and A.T. Kearney. He is also a world championship-winning Latin ballroom dancer, winning the WDC Open World Over-35 Latin Championship for two years running while he was a partner at KPMG.

In the course of his dance career, which began when he was studying Economics at Cambridge University, Mark came to realise that the techniques and mindsets that he used as a dancer to develop winning performances were very different from those that he tended to deploy in the world of business, but that those techniques and mindsets were entirely applicable to the workplace, and were potentially transformative.

Performing artists develop a set of approaches and behaviours that allow them to master their own craft and to work with their fellow artists to develop a true ‘ensemble’ or ‘partnership’ mentality, encouraging and helping each other to deliver brilliant individual performances that come together to create an outstanding final performance. The absence of these mindsets from most people’s working lives accounts for much of the growing sense of ‘disengagement’ that is blighting modern business.

If you have ever taken part in any kind of creative endeavour – if you have sung in a choir, played in a band or orchestra, performed in a play or musical, or done a stand-up routine, for example – then you may understand what we are driving at. When you ‘put on a show’ of any kind, you are fully engaged; your energy goes straight into your performance; there is no ‘organisational stuff’ that gets between your personal energy and the energy of your performance.

If businesses could tap into even a fraction of the energy, focus and mutually supportive mindset of performing artists, problems of disengagement in the workplace would disappear.

If companies had the same single-minded dedication to delivering a winning ‘performance’ that leaves their audiences calling out for more, their financial performance would be transformed.

This article sets out five core aspects of the mindsets and techniques adopted by top performing artists. These take the form of 5 questions. They are not the kinds of question that we usually ask ourselves when we approach our work, but they have the potential to transform our workplaces.

 5 lessons from the performing arts

  1. What play are we in and what is our role?

This sounds obvious, but it is fundamental. Every top performer starts out with this question. We have phrased it in terms of the theatre, but it applies to every performance art and it affects everything that the performers do. Classical musicians approach playing Handel differently to the way they approach Mahler. Jazz musicians approach Cool Jazz differently from the way they approach Bebop. Performing tragedy is different from performing farce. Great actors change everything about themselves – in subtle ways – when they inhabit a role. Think about Tom Hanks performing as Forrest Gump, and then as Commander Jim Lovell in Apollo 13 – everything about him is different.

The most successful companies know exactly what play they are in. Howard Schultz, founder of Starbucks, knew from the outset that the play he was in wasn’t called ‘Selling nice coffee’; his play was called ‘Creating a third place for people between work and home.’

Steve Jobs turned Apple from a struggling computer manufacturer into the world’s most valuable company when he helped the company understand that the play they were in wasn’t called ‘Making great computers’ but ‘Helping people think different’.

Understanding what exactly is our individual role in the performance is also key, as is the need to adapt our role in the course of the overall performance. Sometimes we have centre stage; sometimes our job is to feed another performer their line and give them centre stage. When a company (pun intended) knows exactly what show it is in and when everyone knows what their role is in relation to their fellow performers at any given time, that company is on the road to success.

  1. Where is our theatre of action?

Several kinds of operation are called a ‘theatre’: the place where the crucial action happens. The stage, the operating theatre, the theatre of war, for example. In all of these theatres, there is a clear recognition that the most important people are those closest to the action: the actors, technicians and stage-hands; the surgeons, anaesthetists and nurses; the soldiers, gunners and tank drivers. Everyone else, no matter how ‘senior’ they may be, is essentially in a supporting role to the people in the theatre. The managing director of the Royal Shakespeare Company has a very important role, which is all about enabling the people in the theatre to put on great performances.

This is a useful frame of mind for businesses to adopt: Where is our theatre of action? Where is the beating heart of what we do? Where is the vital interface between us and our customers – where do we get to meet the audience/patient/enemy/consumer?

The key to finding the right answer is to focus on the essential outcome, the bit that really matters. A well-disciplined and perfectly supplied army that cannot win battles is not a good army. A brilliantly-run theatre group that cannot put on an audience-pleasing show is not a successful theatre group. A piece of software that is not user-friendly is not a successful piece of software. A shop that is not a pleasure to spend money in is not a successful shop.

Once we have decided where the beating heart of our operation is, it becomes clear who is vital to a successful outcome and who, no matter how senior, is essentially in a supporting role. Amongst those who are vital to a successful outcome, what matters most is their esprit de corps. When the people at the interface are inhabiting their roles and delivering great performances, good things happen.

  1. Have we built a trusting, connected, partnership or ensemble?

This is at the very heart of performance. Top performers focus on their fellow players and ‘connect’, responding in the moment to a subtle reading of their fellow artists’ intentions. This is very obvious in dance, where we talk about the quality of two partners’ ‘connection’.

This kind of connection is sometimes described as ‘looking and seeing’. The theatre voice coach, Patsy Rodenburg, calls it ‘being in ‘The Second Circle’, as she sets out in this video. Looking and seeing demands effort, but it leads to highly functional relationships – and great performances.

A good connection also creates complete trust – at least in the context of the performance. In business, we tend to throw a group of people together and declare that they are now ‘a team’.  Building a real ensemble takes time, but if a group of people accept a challenge and are allowed to work their way to their own solution under the guidance of a ‘director’ – someone who is in charge but not in control – they will quite quickly begin to function like a real ensemble. Many managers still approach work in ‘command and control’ mode; we argued in an earlier article that much business thinking is still unthinkingly stuck in an ‘industrial’ mode. If leaders approached their work like a conductor approaches a choir, or in the way that a theatre director works with an ensemble, we would find it easier to forge ‘the connection’ and to build real ensembles of people, working together energetically and creatively to put on the best show they can.

  1. Are we rehearsing creatively?

Rehearsal is not the same as practice.

Practice is about running over something many times – one small element of a dance routine; a difficult musical phrase; the lines in a play – until it is committed to memory and can be performed without thinking. Our bodies take over and deliver the physical actions, which leaves our minds free to decide, in a live performance, exactly how we want to deliver that action or phrase; its weight, its timing; its accent. To discover the most impactful way of delivering that action or phrase in live performance, performers stop practising and start rehearsing.

In business, we practice many different routines until they are near-perfect, but we tend not to rehearse in any meaningful sense – which is why we complain about the lack of everyday innovation and creativity in our workplaces. Rehearsal is a process of collaborative co-creation. Everything is allowed; nothing is prohibited. One player offers something to the ensemble and it is taken up and played with, not criticized. Performers adopt a mindset of, ‘Yes, and…’ They accept what is offered, add something of their own, and offer it back, until a point is reached where everyone is happy, or it is accepted that this is a blind alley. Rehearsal accepts that all ideas are ‘half-baked’ when they are first proposed and that the job of rehearsal is to try to fully bake the ideas. In business, we tend to be resistant to ‘playing around’ with ideas. There is no spirit of ‘yes, and…’ Ideas that are not yet fully baked tend to be shot down in flames and dismissed.

The possibility of real rehearsal also presupposes the existence of a genuine ensemble: the group of people who are involved in rehearsal must leave their egos and their social or professional status outside the door of the rehearsal room. In business, ego and status normally get in the way. We hardly ever ‘rehearse’ – small groups of people decide what will happen and try to ‘implement’ this. It tends not to work very well.

  1. Do we know what inputs are creating our outputs?

All performers know that what the audience sees and hears is the result of precise, much-practised behaviours – inputs – that often have no direct or obvious connection to the perceived result: the output. Successful dance moves begin from the feet, or the spine, or a tilt of the head. The right musical tone is created by a precise combination of breath, lip and tongue, or of pressure and vibrato of finger and bow stroke. Performers focus on the inputs that they know will produce the right outputs.

In business, we tend to focus almost entirely on the ‘results’ – the things that can be easily measured – and we lose focus on the inputs that are producing those results. It is perfectly possible for any project or organization to have a near-perfect set of results for a succession of quarters, but still to have unresolved problems at its heart that doom it to eventual failure. The quality of the inputs matters far more to our long-term business health than the more obvious outputs.

Another way of seeing this is to recognise that intangibles are more important in business than the simplistic things that can be easily measured. The outputs that we can put numbers on all matter, but they are the result of other, far more important inputs, nearly all of which are effectively intangible: individual flair and flawless ensemble work; levels of trust, energy and commitment; creativity, inspiration and esprit de corps.

To be able to assess these intangibles, the modern leader needs to have his or her finger on the pulse of the organization; to assess its physical and emotional health. Today’s successful leader is (or should be) less like an engineer, monitoring various dials, throwing levers and adjusting valves, and more like a director, choreographer or conductor, able to spot the false note that renders a performance unbelievable; a subtle change that could transform the mundane into the marvellous; a new pace and rhythm for the overall performance that could deliver a wonderful experience to the audience.

Great directors do not carry clipboards and tick off the various measures that have been achieved. They know what play they are in and the make sure that everyone understands the roles they are playing. They know where their vital theatre of action is: the place where their performance is judged by the audience. They create working environments that engender trust and connection. They work at the inputs and forge true ensembles that are rehearsing creatively. They nudge the team in the desired direction with confidence that the final result (over which they can have no real control) will be a winning performance.

Read 5 more lessons from the performing arts in Developing a Performance Culture Part II

Read more about Perform To Win: Unlocking the secrets of the arts for personal and business success, a business novel based on Mark’s ground-breaking arts-based leadership development programmes.


This blog first appeared on CultureUniversity.com

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’.

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 (see below) on which this article is based.