When I started blogging (just 2 months ago!) my wonderful “blog coach” Susan Scrupski told me, “Be true to your own voice.” Easier said than done! On my “About” page I said “I’m also an amateur (very) musician and keen scuba diver. From time to time I will digress to my hobby passions because I sometimes find interesting connections or insights from them.”
I want to begin one of those digressions, and explore lessons from the performing arts for business. I’m by no means the first to explore this connection. Excellent business leaders have been described in ways analogous to orchestra conductors. Teamwork is performance. Some aspects of leadership are performance. From time to time, I’ve brought folk from the comedy troupe Second City into client workshops to help increase agility, innovation, and have some fun! There’s a significant component of improvisation inside agility – and there are improvisational skills that can be learned and applied in the workplace with great effect. Improvisation requires a tolerance for ambiguity. IT professionals are not, by and large, highly tolerant of ambiguity – after all, our work is not complete until we’ve reduced ambiguous business needs into zeros and ones! So, if Next Generation Enterprises depend upon agility (they do!), then the IT professional of the future must not only tolerate ambiguity, they must embrace it!
Try this simple exercise as a shift of gears in your next workshop, offsite, or whatever. Assemble people into small groups (3 to 6). Instruct one person in each group to kick off a round robin of random thoughts – go in sequence around the group. No matter what person “A” says, person “B” responds, “No, but…” and expresses their own random thought. Then person “C” responds to person “B” with a, “No, but…” and so on. After 5 minutes or so, stop the exercise and debrief the participants. What did it feel like? Did it feel productive? Frustrating? How hard was it to come up with your next thought?
Now, with the same groups, start the exercise again, but with slightly different directions as follows, “No matter what person “A” says, person “B” responds, “Yes, and…” and so on. Again, after 5 minutes or so, stop the exercise and debrief with the same questions as in the first round. Typically, you will find the second round significantly more productive, more stimulating, more fun, and easier for the participants. At the end of the exercise, reflect on the degree to which your organization leans towards “No, but…” versus “Yes, and…” behaviors, and how this impacts innovation, creativity and performance. Also reflect on how you might begin to shift those behaviors over time – for example, by spending 10 minutes on the above exercise before you move into a brainstorming session.
IT professionals spend much time and energy following processes, understanding processes, and solving tough business challenges. Actors, comics, musicians, and the like, spend much time and energy creating enjoyable and sometimes moving performances to entertain, engage, or to stimulate thought. Rather than “never the twain shall meet”, I believe that any and all opportunities to bring lessons from the performing arts to the IT professional’s workplace should be seized and harnessed to the full.
What does the IT organization look like circa 2017? Much more like a lively performance environment than many of today’s buttonned down, sterile and stodgy workplaces.