Managing creatives and innovation

Thinking about the way theatre companies organise, I did some reading into management theory. I was recommended to Gareth Morgan’s book, Images of Organization (Sage, 1986).  In it, he outlines a view that the way organisations think about what they do depends on metaphors, drawn from other realms: so there’s a mechanistic view: the organisation as a machine; an organic view: the organisation as a living entity; the learning organisation, and innovation and so on.

I’d already been thinking of a less hierarchical view of theatre workers, in terms of the groups who made things happen. This was based on the interactions stage managers had with different groups: technicians, admin, actors, and creative team, each of whom can tend to think of SM’s as being an extension of themselves. In this scenario, the stage manager’s communications tend to be a set of negotiations between the groups.

Organisational subsystems
from Morgan, G: Images of organisation


This, of course, is a fairly deterministic model. Theatre production is (or at least hopes to be) creative and innovative in terms of the ‘product’. (As an aside, I heard an anecdote of theatre commending it’s record. A businessman said to a theatre administrator, “Where else would you expect to find a company that consistently delivers a new product, to schedule, and on budget so consistently, to the point that when it doesn’t, it makes the news?”)

So the issue of creative management is live, particularly in how to encourage, support and make a suitable environment for rehearsal, in which it is safe to experiment, take risks – what Stanislavski called the ‘Magic what-if’. And also to take those qualities forward into the performance phase, where the audience is free to engage in the spectacle. (I will write later about this, as part of the rituals of performance.)

Innovation often requires doing the unexpected, being counter-intuitive, in order to disrupt the usual view. Art as a way of readjusting the audiences perception goes back to Viktor Shklovski, who wrote “The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.” (“Art as Technique”. 1917)  This in turn influenced Brecht’s concept of distancing, or verfremdungseffekt.  In management terms, it means an openness of approach. It is too easy to get caught up in the negatives of risk assessment, of budget and schedule, rather than exploring possibilities, before applying the filter of practicalities.

The counter-intuitive can be found in Stanford professor Robert I Sutton’s book, the wonderfully named “Weird Ideas That Work: 11 and 1/2 Practices for Promoting, Managing, and Sustaining Innovation” (The Free Press, NY, 2002), summarised in this chart:

The idea of the disruptive is of course not new to theatre. In 1975 Peter Ansorge wrote “Disrupting the Spectacle – five years of experimental and fringe theatre in britain”. Guy Debord, in “The Society of the Spectacle, suggested using détournement, “which involves using spectacular images and language to disrupt the flow of the spectacle.”Complicite state their aim is “seeing what is most alive, integrating text, music, image and action to create surprising, disruptive theatre”

A scene from Complicité's A Disappearing Number
Complicité’s A Disappearing Number

In contemporary world politics, we can see disruptive influences at work: Vladislav Surkov, who trained originally as a theatre director, is credited with the development of the Russian policy of ‘asymmetric warfare’:

“In contemporary Russia, unlike the old USSR or present-day North Korea, the stage is constantly changing: the country is a dictatorship in the morning, a democracy at lunch, an oligarchy by suppertime, while, backstage, oil companies are expropriated, journalists killed, billions siphoned away. Surkov is at the centre of the show, sponsoring nationalist skinheads one moment, backing human rights groups the next. It’s a strategy of power based on keeping any opposition there may be constantly confused, a ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it’s indefinable.”

— Peter Pomerantsev, in “Putin’s Rasputin”, London Review of Books issue of 20 October 2011


And of course the digital world is now being spoken of as ‘disruptive technologies’, a term devised in 1997 by Clayton Christiansen from Harvard Business School. Link.
While copying up the checklist pages on this site, I was struck by the number of procedures that the impact of digital technologies had made on working procedures – from paper-based records, to rehearsal sounds, to stopwatches, the world has moved on. Just because things are as they are, doesn’t mean they should be. That goes for performance, for technologies, and for management.

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.