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Performance at Play: Mark Powell and Jonathan Gifford


powell giffordIn 2019, the Performance Magazine editorial team interviewed Dr. Mark Powell, business writer, consultant & entrepreneur, and Jonathan Gifford, business author & speaker, on the topic of business innovation, specifically on how businesses could greatly improve by replicating the daring, yet highly successful model of performance arts.

It always amazes me that we only start to send executives on leadership development programmes when they are already in positions of leadership. – Mark Powell
What creates winning businesses is brilliant, new, disruptive ideas. And you can’t produce ideas like those on a production line – it’s a creative process. – Jonathan Gifford

Sharing the spotlight with everyone

1. As you noted in your book – The Five Principles of Performance Thinking, many of today’s businesses follow the control & command system, because it proved so efficient and effective when it first became widely used. However, today’s generation of workers doesn’t seem to gel all that well with this mentality.

Moreover, the C&C style naturally develops a very controlling ego, whereby managers and leaders feel that if they relent to anyone’s ideas, aside from their own, they’re either losing control or someone is forcefully trying to diminish their ego, which in turn they feel is diminishing their degree of control, almost like a child having its toy taken away.

How could these individuals be shown that no one is trying to take their spotlight, it’s more of an effort to place it upon the company instead of themselves?

Mark: Organizations are fundamentally contested environments where success is ultimately dependent on two main things.

  • Firstly, by delivering against very specific and in most cases numerically driven KPIs, which are clear and measurable.

This drives a focus on aligning oneself to very specific things that can be measured and thus rewarded. This works against a less controlling approach that is open to ideas and different perspectives because it weakens the KPI focus that most organizations are wedded to.

  • Secondly, individual success is naturally based on others not achieving success, as individuals are always in competition with one another for promotion and reward – not everyone can be equally successful.

The secret to changing this culture is in showing how, when working more closely together in an ensemble approach as we outline in the book, individuals can see how they ultimately all benefit from a better collective performance.

”Helping each person to be brilliant is the secret to a great ensemble.”

We have had success with groups by setting out new ways for groups to work more effectively together without challenging the status quo around hierarchy and control. What we find is that as you start to do this, the senior individuals themselves start to let go of the control mindsets.

Jonathan: The thing about ‘command and control’ is that it works in a very limited set of circumstances – when there is a set goal and ‘commanders’ believe they know how to achieve that goal and can instruct others as to how to go about it. Most modern business challenges are more complex than that. The goal keeps shifting, and even experienced leaders can’t be certain they know the best way to achieve the goal.

The answer (which is not easy!) is to let go of control – to spell out the objective but to allow the group to find its unique way of achieving it. If we set simplistic goals – ‘Hit this production target’; ‘Generate this much revenue’ – then we allow people to slip into C&C mode.

 If we set more subtle, nuanced challenges such as ‘Are we delighting our audience?’ then we force people to think more holistically and to approach the solution with their team as an ensemble. Once real ensembles have formed, leaders stop feeling that their command and control toys have been stolen and they start to focus on delivering great ensemble performances.

Jack of all trades, master of none

2. In conjunction with the previous question, the very same C&C style seems to have bred a generation of leaders and managers that believe they are all-knowing.

It doesn’t matter that your company has a sales, marketing, digital marketing, finances, HR and R&D department, many overseeing managers seem to strongly believe in their ability to do everyone’s job better and that if they don’t step in all the time, something will go wrong, because no one understands their craft as well as they do.

Similar to the first question, what could be done with multiple-personality disorder managers, who feel that they have to play the role of stage director, main cast, supporting cast, lighting and sound effects team altogether?

Jonathan: One of our key arguments, which we set out in our first book together, My Steam Engine Is Broken, is that we are still unconsciously locked into an ‘industrial’ mindset.

For over two hundred years, since the first Industrial Revolution in eighteenth-century England, we have been – understandably – obsessed with ‘efficient production’. Making and selling lots of stuff has created the wealth that has created the modern world as we know it. But ‘making stuff efficiently’ is now a given – it doesn’t give us a competitive advantage.

What creates winning businesses is brilliant, new, disruptive ideas. And you can’t produce ideas like those on a production line – it’s a creative process. More importantly, as you say, no one person can ever have all the creative ideas, even if they feel they know all the answers.

”Modern leaders don’t have to be Renaissance men and women, skilled in every art and every branch of knowledge.”

Modern business leaders need to start thinking and behaving less like production line managers and more like creative directors or orchestral conductors. Trying to do everything yourself isn’t in itself a winning strategy. Creating an environment where teams of talented people can have wonderful new ideas and perform beautifully together is a winning strategy.

Mark: Ultimately, we have to re-think our whole model of leadership, which is based on the idea that great leadership is a function of expertise, experience and being able to command and be in control. It always amazes me that we only start to send executives on leadership development programmes when they are already in positions of leadership, rather than when they are starting out in their careers.

We need to take leaders into different types of experience so that they can challenge the effectiveness of their approaches and move towards more ensemble leadership styles. Over time, we can change this by developing the next leaders from the beginning of their careers to think in this way rather than the ways we have taught leaders for the past 100 years.

Playing around with novel ideas

3. On the topic of rehearsing creatively, specifically on taking risks by playing around with new ideas, I know quite a few managers who would raise their eyebrow at this and say: “How do you want me to play with new ideas? It’s not like I can just randomly decide to focus my company’s time and investment into random, untested projects. Nor can I risk its public image by suddenly switching from what has worked for us for years.”

Therefore, from your point of view, what are prospective ways in which companies can go about fiddling with new ideas, without nose-diving financially or from a public image point of view? Or is this something that will happen no matter what and should be accepted as such?

Mark: We are not necessarily talking about some huge new idea that places the company in a massive risk position that could threaten its very existence. Having said that, there are lots of examples of large organizations which ultimately went bust because they kept doing the same things in the same ways while the world around them changed – we use the example of Toys ‘R’ Us in The Five Principles of Performance Thinking as an illustration.

However, new ideas and taking risks can sometimes be in small areas or for small things that can start to change the way people work and operate. As a small example, one HR leader we worked with struggled to get his team to innovate. He ran the team in a very hierarchical and structured way with a clear agenda that always focused on the same things in the same ways.

powell gifford  

After working with us, he established ‘ensemble meetings’. In these meetings there was no agenda and the focus was on coming up with new ways they could work together and new ideas for improving the HR function for which they were responsible. It was a totally safe space, every idea was discussed and no minutes were taken.

As a result of this process they started to come up with new ideas, some of which they implemented and many of which, while not radical from a business strategy perspective, were quite new from an HR perspective. The key is to create a safe space with a different set of rules.  The other key is not to punish people if their ideas don’t work. Ultimately if we don’t start to change the culture, large organizations will un-innovate themselves out of business.

Jonathan: The whole point of ‘rehearsal’ is that it takes place before you play to a real audience. It’s a safe place where you can take theoretical risks and explore possible options. And you have to do that, because otherwise your performance will be staid and dull. In business, we really don’t tend to rehearse, which is why there are so many business failures.

We have an idea, and we try it out in real time, with real people and real money. Our development sessions encourage people to work through scenarios in safe environments – and we try to give people the techniques and mindsets they need to keep doing this when they get ‘back to the ranch’. One key aspect of rehearsal is that everyone must be equal before the task. There may be a creative director nudging and guiding, but only the ensemble itself can discover its own unique solution to the creative challenge it faces.

As soon as someone ‘pulls rank’, the potential magic of the ensemble is destroyed and people just start following orders. Creative rehearsal is a methodology that allows groups of people to genuinely explore how they might address any challenge – before they take it ‘out on the road’.

Introspection in business

4. I’ve noticed that The Five Principles of Performance Thinking puts an indirect, discrete emphasis on introspection, in several subchapters. This is a concept that feels very alien to the business world, as it comes from the arts and philosophy and for the better part of our history, it has remained in those two areas of interest.

The brief Intel exchange between directors, regarding pulling out of memory chips, felt like an introspective moment on their part. How would you “sell” the concept of introspection to managers and business leaders, and the innate – albeit not easily discernible, value that it brings to an organization?

Mark: In more than ten years of running Executive Leadership programmes, the biggest challenge of all was getting people to simply stop doing things and spend more time thinking rather than just doing.

We train people that activity and ‘doing things’ is more important than considering whether what they are doing has purpose or value. We only value outputs and activity, not inputs. But as people, we are naturally introspective and reflective; it’s how we live socially, but we stop people doing this and teach them to be different people when at work than when not at work.

”What is the true purpose of our business? Are we fulfilling that purpose? Do we need to change to stay relevant, and if so, how?”

Jonathan and I find that by working with individuals and exposing them to art in a structured way, that they can see how this relates to business, that they start to slow down and take time to think and reflect on what they do and how they do things. If you want to change behaviours, you have to change mindsets, and if you want to change mindsets, you have got to re-engage people’s imaginations in a way we all used to do when we were young.

Jonathan:  I think this taps into the whole command and control, ‘industrial’ mindset. We think that business is a process and that we should all just get our heads down and carry out our allotted task and not ‘waste time’ with introspection. But when people come together to ‘put on a show’ of any kind, that’s not how they behave. They think about their own performance very carefully and about how they can interact together to deliver the funniest, or the most moving, or the most impactful performance.

We need to apply this mindset to business. The question is not, ‘Are carrying out our roles efficiently?’. The questions are: ‘Is my performance working with everyone else’s? Are we moving our audience? Are we making an impact?’ It’s very different. In a way it’s ‘introspective’ – ‘How are we doing?’ – but the ultimate focus is outward looking.

powell gifford

Changing mindsets and obtaining buy-in

5. On the same topic of introspection, shifting values and mentality, one interesting case are companies whose employees’ mindset has become so intrinsically locked into the leadership’s old view, that they cannot fathom changing their ways, regardless of how their leaders update their values and vision.

An example here would be an old school factory/plant, in which no one contests the status-quo, because “it’s what the boss said”, even if their leadership has changed their outlook and what the boss said (a long time ago) is no longer valid.

How can a manager get true buy-in from employees which have been unfortunately conditioned into non-think, without them immediately disregarding any novel ideas from management as just “softie speech”?

Mark: It’s a complex question. The answer lies in several areas. Firstly, there is no-point changing values and vision if you end up applying the same KPIs and ways of measuring, rewarding and assessing people. If you plot a new set of values and mission, but keep everything else the same, nothing changes.  Ultimately KPIs will drive behaviours.

”Never mind the metrics: feel the pulse.”

You also need to look at how you communicate with and educate individuals within an organization. For example, there is a large organization we have been working with which has this exact problem. The CEO and Board recognize the need to radically change the culture and approach, but most of the staff are middle-aged, have been there for a very long time and have a very fixed viewpoint.

In this case the organization has recognized the need to undertake a large-scale development programme covering thousands of employees in order to ‘re-programme’ them to some extent to enable the change to happen. It’s one of the largest single development programmes we have seen.

Jonathan: People do get locked into the existing mindset – as social beings, we’re very quick to adapt to the current culture. But if leaders set a clear new direction and, as Mark says, also change the entire reward and recognition system so that ‘old’ behaviours are no longer rewarded, then people are very quick to adapt.

”Great leaders create the environment within which brilliant performances are able to evolve.”

Some vested interests who feel they have something to lose from the new arrangements may be difficult to bring along, but people really can change, and change quickly. Once they understand that ‘we need to do things differently from now on’, they will adapt. The harder problem is sometimes in getting the leadership to see that they need to do things differently!

Organizational culture: topsy turvy or bottoms-up?

6. In regards to organizational culture, do you believe that changes in values and vision can be brought from the bottom up, or is this a top-down exclusive process?

Mark: You need both. We need to start changing leadership at the top, while at the same time building culture change from the bottom up. We also need to get people to re-think what they mean by culture. Most organizations describe their cultures in a similar way – words like collaborative, respect for the individuals, diversity, trust etc. etc.

The reality is culture is not something that organizations declare as a statement of hope, it is ultimately what individuals actually experience which is the true culture.  Our research shows that there is usually a large gap between cultures as organizations state them to be and cultures as they are actually being experienced on the ground on a day-to-day basis.

Jonathan: Some statements about what any organizational culture ‘is’ are just wishful thinking. The board wakes up one day and writes down what it thinks the culture should be. But culture runs very deep – it often goes back to the organization’s early years – and it can be very hard to shift.

”When you have a story, you will be remembered. When you know your why, others will buy.”

Leadership needs to set direction and establish culture, but nothing will actually change unless people genuinely buy into that and start to make change happen. And sometimes people effectively demand change and provide the impetus for change, but it’s very rare for that kind of ‘revolution’ to organize itself successfully.

The French Revolution was ‘bottom up’, but it took a Napoleon to stabilize it and secure its future. I would argue that nothing really happens unless you have people’s hearts and minds, but strong leadership is needed to guide any organization to the right destination. The paradox is that that strong leadership must genuinely empower the organization and listen to it. It’s about guiding, not instructing.

Assembling Avengers – character diversity

7. In the book, you mention that even mutually-exclusive viewpoints have to be worked on and resolved in a way that enhances the overall ensemble and gives it stronger direction.

As an organization, would you consider it wise to intentionally seek out and team up individuals of this nature? Extreme, unhealthy viewpoints excluded, of course, I’m more interested in your opinion on whether creating an ensemble of heavily varying pieces is worth more than one comprised of somewhat shared viewpoints, as in individuals who partially agree?

Mark: I am totally convinced that this is exactly what organizations do need to do more of.  They tend to hire similar types of people who think in similar ways.  Most organizations are addressing issues with diversity, but only from the perspective of age, race, gender etc.  They still struggle to cope with people who think, work or act in ways that are outside the ‘norms’ of the organizations.

”The core of the ensemble lies in the pleasure each person takes from the performance of another.”

 As a result, they get 100 people thinking in a similar way and that restricts innovation and creativity. While you don’t want people with unhealthy viewpoints, as you say, you do want people with different ones. Ensembles recognize that sometimes it’s the ideas of the least experienced or the ideas which at first hearing, sounded the most ridiculous that often hold the keys to innovation and new ideas.

Jonathan: An example that we use in Performance Thinking is Google, who needed to upgrade their data handling system about five years after their launch. Interestingly, their engineers were allowed to self-organize, and they coalesced into two rival groups each supporting two different approaches.

The project leader encouraged this dual approach and set up regular forums where each team would present their ideas and debate and defend them. In the end the leader had to come down in favour of one solution, but the competitive, creative tension between the two groups had helped to force issues into the open and drive real innovation. And that is absolutely the ensemble mentality and the rehearsal mentality.

You take any new idea and you run with to see if it works. You never dismiss anything out of hand; everything is welcomed as a positive contribution. You may even have to work for a time with two ultimately irreconcilable options. And then it’s up to the creative director – or ‘the boss’ – to make a choice as to which will be the most fruitful direction.

However, when you have a healthy ensemble, this is not a divisive, fractious thing, it’s just part of the creative process. You need people to have crazy ideas and then you absolutely must not say, ‘That’s a crazy idea, it will never work.’ You have to say, ‘Wow, that’s a crazy idea – let’s give it a go and see what happens!’

Examples of radical makeovers

8. Could you share with us what you consider has been one of the most astonishing organizational transformation examples you’ve witnessed so far in your career?

Which business, from your perspective, has gone from zeroes to heroes the most, as a result of applying at least some of the concepts covered in The Five Principles of Performance Thinking?

Jonathan: An example we use in The Five Principles is the motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson. It goes back to a rocky period they had in the 1970s when they nearly went under and then they really turned themselves around – and they’re still going strong, so it’s stood the test of time.

Basically, the original company had built up a really loyal, almost fanatical fan base with their great designs and great engineering and developed a really strong brand based on the idea of ‘freedom’ – riding a Harley-Davidson gave you the freedom of the open road.

Then the company was taken over and the new owner ramped up volume at the expense of quality at a time when imported Japanese motorcycles were offering new, high-quality bikes at a competitive price. Previously loyal fans began to mock the badly manufactured bikes as ‘Hardly-Ableson’.

With all of this happening, the leadership team made a daring move and led a management buyout, worked out a new 10-year plan to get the quality right and introduce new models. They were lucky to have a designer on board who was a grandson of the original Davidson with a deep understanding of the brand, who was able to introduce exciting new designs based around the current engineering that kept the brand alive while the company revamped its manufacturing.

They really engaged with the workforce and got everyone taking personal responsibility for quality control and they launched the Harley Owners Group, which now has over one million members. It’s a perfect example of Performance Thinking for us: a real sense of building a genuine ensemble, a lot of ‘creative rehearsal’ as they devised a new 10-year plan and introduced new working practices to the workforce, and then a real focus on ‘delighting the audience’.

Mark: The other example that I think everyone ‘gets’ is Apple, after co-founder Steve Jobs rejoined the company as CEO after he’d been ousted in a boardroom coup in the 1980s. Apple was really not in good shape, with a pretty lackluster and rather random range of products.

Jobs cut everything back to four core products and set about launching that astonishing succession of new products: the iMac, the iPod, iTunes, the iPhone, the iPad, the Apple Stores. And it was all design-led and done with real style and verve – a really creative performance. It made them the most valuable company in the world. That’s quite a performance!

Risk aversion – facing the X factor

9. Talking about businesses and their transformational stories, one aspect that props up is risk. You discuss at length about risk in the book, noting how most businesses hate risk, because it implies loss, facing the unknown and experiencing possible failure.

You also go over examples of how children couldn’t care less about risk, because they have not yet been taught how to fear it – for them every experience is a learning one, and they ascribe no specific value to success or failure.

With this in mind, how would you go about changing business’ perception on risk? What would be your advice for companies at large, fearing the dark?

Mark: Companies are obsessed with risk and managing and minimizing it.  The same companies also talk about profitable growth – they like the idea of growing in size and maintaining margin at the same levels – but few if any companies can achieve this. There are three parts to the risk issue.

Firstly, you have to embed the idea that risk, as long as its managed within reasonable bounds, is a positive force.  It has to become part of the culture and DNA to take risks, just not catastrophic ones.

“The fear of making mistakes destroys our innate ability to be creative.”

The second issue is you have to make adjustments to KPIs so you do not punish those that take a risk that goes outside the bounds of what the organization considers to be normal.

To give an example, Zappos, the successful online shoe retailer gave an employee award to an individual who spent over 7 hours on the phone to one customer. Most organizations I have worked with would have fired that person. But Zappos had decided that doing whatever it took to make a customer happy was what would drive success, and that happy call centre staff would make happy customers. The ‘risk’ they took was to run their call centre in way that would be seen as incredibly ‘inefficient’ – but it worked.

The final part of the issue to me is a total shift in how you view risk. In our current internet, digital and increasingly AI world, it’s not taking more risks that is actually the risky thing to do. We are still seeing risk through an old lens. It’s only by taking risks that we actually reduce them. This is a mindset shift that large organizations continue to struggle with.

Jonathan: That’s where our concept of ‘creative rehearsal’ in business comes in. It takes the techniques used by all performers to create an exciting new performance – building up a formidable technique, forging a real ensemble, trying out new ideas, always looking for what will make the biggest impact on the audience – and it applies this to the world of business.

”We kid ourselves that brainstorming and ‘thinking outside the box’ are creative processes – they are not!”

The most we tend to do in business is ‘brainstorm’. And then we write off all the ‘crazy’ ideas and go back to doing what we’ve always done. But ‘business rehearsal’ really does think the unthinkable and try to re-imagine the organization’s business – but in the safety of the rehearsal studio, as it were. And then you have to be brave and try out some of these crazy new ideas because otherwise some entrepreneur is going to do it for you and disrupt your business.

However, it’s perfectly possible to fail ‘fast and cheap’, learn something valuable and then move on. It’s like trying out something new and finding it leaves the audience cold. OK, move on; try something else.

We need to ‘rehearse’ crazy new business ideas and then we need to go live with some of them, otherwise we stagnate, and our audience gets bored. They stop loving our performance. Mark is right. It’s not taking risks in business that is really dangerous – it’s not taking risks.

Image sources:
Performance Magazine Portrait Feature: Marcela Presecan
Consultant Interview: Gavin Lawrie, Managing Director at 2GC

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