What Change Leaders Can Learn From Broadway

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

What Change Leaders Can Learn From Broadway


“During rehearsals for his new Off Broadway play, “Storefront Church,” John Patrick Shanley rewrote the final scene 20 times before he was satisfied. But it wasn’t until the production’s first preview, on May 16, that he discovered other scenes needed revising too.” (Patrick Healy. New York Times 6/4/12)

Yawns to Laughs: Audiences Shape a Play is a fascinating article about the importance of audience feedback. Previews are so important that some theater companies schedule three weeks or more of previews. During previews, writers, directors, and actors pay attention to how the audience reacts. Are they fidgeting, yawning, laughing?  Shanley said, ““Preview performances are like trench warfare. You troubleshoot scene by scene based on your read of the audiences. They know when something isn’t working. You respect them or you’re dead.”

When was the last time you tried out a strategy with different audiences for three weeks before actually going live? Me neither. But even if a lengthy preview process isn’t realistic, there is a lot we can learn from theater folks about how to perfect what we are offering. Here are two things that stand out to me. (I hope that you’ll add to this list.)

Be Part of the Audience. The playwright John Patrick Shanley sits near the audience so he can see their reactions and hear their fidgeting.  When you are on a stage in a darkened room, hidden behind a deck of slides, it is very difficult to pick up on how people are reacting. I ask myself and my clients what we can do to make it easy for us to pick up the signals during a planning meeting: coughs, yawns, furtive glances from one person to another, multi-tasking while someone is presenting, and so forth. One advantage we have over most theater productions is that we can invite others to be active participants in shaping the conversation. (Yet I am still surprised at how infrequently conversation is a central feature of these meetings.)

BTW, although I like question and answer segments in meetings, the preview process is different. Some previews do include audience Q&A, but I believe the real value occurs by paying attention during the performance. The boredom, the gasps, noticing when people don’t come back after intermission.

Treat Every Performance Like a Preview. Preparing a presentation is hard work. Once it is put together, we don’t want to think that we might have to change it. So, at that point, it is hard to keep our minds open to how others might be reacting to what we think is sheer brilliance. Lawyers often hold moot courts. After they have written their briefs, and practiced their argument, they invite colleagues in to simulate the courtroom experience. When moot courts work well, lawyers learn what’s unclear. They see holes in their arguments. See where people are getting confused. And, of course, they learn what’s working.

Now, its your turn, what can leaders and consultants do to build on the wisdom of theater folk?

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