UK: Handy's View - A hard act for business to follow.

UK: Handy's View - A hard act for business to follow. - Charles Handy sees lessons for business in the theatre, not least in the way the quality of a stage performance must always improve without an increase in resources.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Charles Handy sees lessons for business in the theatre, not least in the way the quality of a stage performance must always improve without an increase in resources.

Gounod's Faust is a famous opera with some lovely music and a potent theme. The story is a familiar one - Faust, an old man, yearns to be young again. The devil grants him his wish, but unhappiness and disaster are the only outcomes. The moral must be that we should learn to be content with our stage in life and grow old gracefully. But I was watching the opera at La Scala in Milan and was struck by the paradox that what might be true of ourselves as individuals cannot be true of organisations: they have to stay perpetually young, no matter how old they really are, if they are to survive. In order to fill that opera house that night the management had to make the century-old opera feel fresh, new and exciting even for those who knew it by heart.

To make the familiar product seem fresh but still authentically the same is a challenge which the theatre faces all the time. Businesses might usefully study how they do it because this is often the real challenge of product development. It might not seem obvious, particularly to those in the theatre business, that a theatre could be a useful model for a management course, but sitting in La Scala that evening I began to think that the lessons go well beyond the need to make the old seem young.

La Scala, for instance, is renowned throughout the world. It manages to be world-famous without ever growing bigger, indeed its head count goes down every decade. It feels no need to grow subsidiaries, to merge or to franchise its operations. Excellence is its only criterion of success, although the need to balance its books is a necessary condition of survival. Indeed, if it were to grow in some fashion, it would lose much of its special flavour as the need for standardisation began to interfere with the freedom to create something unique. La Scala's challenge is to be always better than the rest, not bigger.

This is a choice which is also open to many businesses. The Mittelstand companies in Germany find their global niche and stick to it, realising that to be always better in your field makes more money than trying to be always bigger - and is more fun for those involved. In some fields, such as pharmaceuticals or oil exploration, it may be hard to make improvements in quality without producing on a larger scale, but the rule is not universal. Professional organisations, creative businesses and niche manufacturers gain little from growing once they have established a critical mass. Being bigger may make the people at the top feel better but it is not necessarily good news for those in the middle who are now smaller cogs in a bigger machine. Influence is, after all, a relative affair; what matters to most of us is the difference we can make to the world immediately around us, not to the world at large.

There are other lessons to be reflected upon while waiting for the curtain to go up. Opera houses and theatre companies are about the management of harmony, and not only in the orchestra pit. Harmony is the art of combining differences to create a common effect. It doesn't work if everyone is doing exactly the same thing in the same way, nor does it work if everyone is trying to play a different tune. The idea that individual differences are an essential condition of mutual success is obvious in the context of the theatre perhaps. But it is often forgotten by those who seek to impose more efficiency in businesses by eradicating the differences instead of emphasising the mutuality - that common cause, the performance, which allows the differences to become harmonious not discordant.

Pay cannot be the main cause of the harmony, I reflected as I watched the chorus of over 100 singers file onto the stage: the pay of most of them would hardly cover the dinners of those who were watching. There has to be something else. A sense of professionalism, certainly, but also pride in a job well done and some passion for what they are doing. Businesses are hot on professionalism these days (and not before time) but pride in the joint performance of one's group and a passion for what it is all about are often missing. It can take a lot of money to compensate for their absence. Pride and passion may be unusual tools of management but they do come cheaper than money and they usually feel better in the end. Theatre companies may well be fortunate in that they have little choice but to use them.

Lastly, I noticed the programme. The names of the managers and the board of directors were there, but in very small print, and at the back. The large print was reserved for the key performers, while everyone else involved in the production was named, including the stage hands whom we never saw. Talented people like to sign their work, to have their contributions publicly acknowledged so we know that they are not mere cogs in a machine. A ritual genuflection to the contribution of the workforce would not suffice in a theatre programme. Why should it be any different in a creative enterprise such as a business?

Opera houses and theatre companies aren't perfect organisations. La Scala has its problems, but it has had to learn to manage differences, to be endlessly creative, to grow without expanding and to work with too little money. These challenges are common to us all. There may be more to learn from the theatre than the message of the play.

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