Performance!: 'Quiet. Men, working too hard in rooms that are too big, Reducing to figures What is the matter, what needs to be done.'

Performance!: 'Quiet. Men, working too hard in rooms that are too big, Reducing to figures What is the matter, what needs to be done.' - This was how the poet WH Auden described managers, and it is still a conventional view of the preoccupations of organi

by JULIAN ANDERSON
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

This was how the poet WH Auden described managers, and it is still a conventional view of the preoccupations of organisation man. But figures these days are a notoriously poor indicator of what the matter is or what needs to be done. Instead, for a route-map through today's turbulent environment and complex web of decision-making, managers and companies are turning to what seems at first the antithesis of hard-nosed 'management' - literature, music and the arts.

Thus, when McKinsey, the management consultancy, wanted to tap more joint inspiration from its intellectual firepower, it hired outsiders to help consultants and their partners write and stage an opera in three days - an assignment that the versatile Auden himself might have relished.

At companies such as Sears, Lockheed Martin and Bristol Myers Squibb, a conductor and symphony orchestra rehearse Brahms to bring alive leadership and teamworking issues for aspiring top managers. Kodak, Arthur Andersen and Boeing (yes, Boeing) have called on a poet to throw light on the dark night of their souls.

Theatre is a particularly fruitful source of inspiration, whether for a board taking Shakespeare's Henry V as a case study to reflect on vision, strategy and leadership skills, Sainsbury buyers acting out playlets to help them tackle computer system failure among suppliers, or WPP, the marketing services group, employing avant garde theatre techniques to bring together the parts of its disparate empire and promote 'groupness'.

Martin Sorrell, the WPP chief executive, says: 'Anyone who is managing a complex and creative organisation is doing something of the greatest interest to us.'

Suddenly, the plot of the relationship between business and the arts has taken a dramatic twist. Traditionally, the two have inhabited not so much separate continents as separate planets, with light years of incomprehension between them. Beethoven and big business were not just different; they were opposites. Much art has excoriated capitalism, and most business is an art-free, even philistine, zone.

Where there was a relationship it was material, passing through the cash nexus, with the arts as supplicant and business as donor. Although sponsorship has undoubtedly kept some mainstream arts activity ticking over as central state support has withered, the relationship has often been an uneasy one, patronising on one side and resentful on the other.

No longer. 'We're seeing a sea-change,' claims Tim Stockil, director of creative development at Arts & Business, an umbrella organisation for the field. A&B used to be the Association for Business Sponsorship of the Arts. The new name, says Stockil, is an accurate reflection of the way sponsorship is changing. Relaunched this spring with funding from the Arts Council and greater spending latitude, A&B now has as its mission to embed the arts in business in a permanent and much more equal relationship.

In February, Orange became the biggest arts sponsor in the country with its pounds 4 million, five-year investment in at-Bristol, the city's millennial harbour project.

There are still plenty of businessmen who would no sooner have anything to do with the arts than come to work in fancy dress. But many more are queuing up to join forces. Whereas a year or two ago no more than a handful of arts organisations were capable of delivering arts-related business and training programmes to corporate customers, A&B now has 80 on its books - and several hundred companies have become aficionados. Among them are Sainsbury, Halifax, Axa Sun Life, Pearl Assurance, Marks & Spencer, the BBC and Post Office Counters. Stockil observes: 'Business is coming to the arts and saying: 'You've got something we really, really need.''

What business craves is a mainline injection of imagination and creativity. This for several reasons. First is the speed of change, and the well-documented failure of old-line companies to do more than lumber along in its wake. Second is the need for companies to differentiate themselves from the competition. In an age of information aplenty, thanks to the internet, it's almost impossible for companies to keep ahead of the bunch simply by virtue of what they know. It's how creatively they use their knowledge - and how quickly - that counts.

Linked to that, thirdly, is the disconcerting ability of the internet-led 'weightless economy' to recombine resources in ways that redefine whole industries at a stroke, Amazon.com being the most celebrated example. As management thinker Charles Handy has noted: 'The coming of the information economy offers the tantalising promise of a modern alchemy, the ability to create wealth out of nothing ... The modern economies will not be constrained by lack of resources but only by lack of creativity and ideas.'

Finally, to these external imperatives is added a powerful internal one. Because of the earth-moving upheavals in employment relations (partly self-inflicted by the notorious downsizings of the 1980s, partly imposed by the nature of the new knowledge work), companies can no longer rely on old loyalties and methods to retain staff and get the job done. They have to provide work that engages the heart and mind, not just the physical presence.

All these things now put a big premium on wit, flair and imagination - qualities that most businesses not only lack but, ironically, have spent the best part of a century suppressing in the search for predictability and control. But the workplace may not be the best location to unleash these dormant emotions. Why not go to the theatre? Director Richard Olivier, son of the late Lord Olivier and a leading proponent of new learning techniques in his work with businesses at the new Globe theatre, has seen the benefits at first hand. 'Shakespeare allows you to have, and act out, conversations about things you don't usually talk about,' he says. 'It's all about honour, betrayal, service and responsibility.'

All right brain and no left, business is an emotional and creative bonsai, as autistically inhibited on the creative side as it is overdeveloped analytically. The result in most traditional business is a yawning creative deficit.

'Good, efficient companies are like wheatfields - a monoculture, the very opposite of the rich intellectual ecosystem you need to generate ideas,' says Piers Ibbotson, a young director at the Royal Shakespeare Company who, with colleague Kate Raper, has been one of the leading lights in thinking out how theatre techniques can be applied to business. It's not surprising that firms are sterile, he says, because the competitive individualism that dominates most of them is fundamentally hostile to the collective interplay from which ideas flow - and those that do break surface are usually strangled at birth.

Compare the struggles of Marks & Spencer or Shell to mobilise project teams or generate fresh thinking across departments with actors and a director staging a new play. Within just a few days, notes Ibbotson, a director routinely takes a group of total strangers and bonds them into a team with shared trust that makes it possible for individuals to strip naked, literally or figuratively, in front of each other. The full ensemble, capable of collective improvisation and adjustment, takes a bit longer, but not much.

Forget the temperamental luvvie stereotypes, says Ibbotson. In the rehearsal room, actors time and again show 'bottomless patience, massive generosity and continual supportiveness as people work through new ideas. It's only in industry that I've seen personal nastiness at people offering alternative interpretations.'

The theatre offers other lessons. For instance, by a different route, management development has come to acknowledge the need for presentational skills. But why laboriously reinvent techniques for teaching them when actors have been honing them since Shakespeare? Or implementation. 'I'm stupefied by the glacial slowness of industry to move from idea to action,' shudders Ibbotson. 'It's quite unreal.' By contrast, the speed and discipline of the transition in the theatre is stunning and automatic. As solutions emerge, they are acted out and adopted.

Or look at the leadership issues involved in the performance of a symphony. In the 'music paradigm', US conductor Roger Nierenberg sits managers among orchestra members in rehearsal exercises to make them aware of the professional mastery of individual players, their willingness to play for each other - and, soberingly, their ability to self-organise and play coherently without a conductor at all. Managers brought to the rostrum to conduct are confronted with the responsibility of the power that is concentrated in the tip of the baton, not to mention the ease with which they can get the balance wrong. Says Nierenberg: 'Experienced executives get good at blocking out seminars and lectures, particularly if the message is not what they want to hear. But they don't block out this experience, because it's alive and spontaneous and no-one is telling them what to think. It's not me who tells them to change, it's the experience.'

A fad? Arty-farty rubbish? Although it's impossible to quantify the results in accounting terms, hard-headed customers insist there is a lot more to their dalliance with the arts than schmoozing with performers. Take the experience of one pioneer, Allied Domecq, the drinks group, which was until recently the Royal Shakespeare Company's major sponsor. A couple of years ago, after a sceptical review of its sponsorship deal with the RSC, Allied concluded, to its surprise, that the real potential for getting more out of the relationship lay not on the public relations side but in borrowing rehearsal-room techniques of presentation, ensemble building and ideas generation that managers were struggling to develop but that actors took for granted. After some eye-opening early exercises and evaluation, Allied has learned to use the techniques as a powerful problem-solving methodology.

'In a normal meeting, it's impossible to break down the unspoken barriers of hierarchy and status, precisely because you can't talk about them,' says Iain Oag, Allied Domecq's external affairs director. 'On the other hand, by deploying theatre rehearsal-room techniques to get people thinking as a body rather than individuals, they can articulate what the real issues are - and as fast as problems come up, solutions follow.'

WPP is also a theatre fan. In recent years, like all the traditional full-service communications providers, its group companies have found themselves uncomfortably squeezed between, at the high end, management consultancies providing strategic advice and, at the bottom, fast fee-based 'ideas factories' specialising in execution. WPP's Sorrell observes this ironic result: 'Increasingly, clients expect only creativity in their communications from their agencies - and, increasingly, that's all that agencies are organised to provide.'

To counter this narrowing, WPP uses a variety of theatre-based techniques to get group companies to think creatively about the way they do business, both internally and within the group. The aim, says Feona McEwan, corporate affairs director, is to leverage the creative strengths of the individual companies across the group. 'It's about producing more innovative ideas that will benefit clients,' she says. 'And that includes bringing something fresh to the way the group works - promoting 'groupness'.' And, yes, it works: 'The ripple effect (of the workshops) is incredible.'

Or look at Diageo, which after the merger of Guinness and GrandMet in 1997 hired Lively Arts, a four-year-old firm specialising in 'experience engineering', to break the ice between people from the fused companies and help them get to grips with the values of the newly formed group. Over three days, 600 people put on dance and theatre presentations at the Old Vic to demonstrate what the new Diageo was about and how it could be realised. An anarchic TV-type quiz show ran through the performances, each of which ended in a full-scale cast party.

'To carry off something on that scale was extraordinary, right to the limit,' marvels one participant. 'It was absolutely amazing to be able to create something from scratch with people you'd never met before.'

Lively Arts has devised events for Dell Computers, HSBC and Coca-Cola, as well as several advertising agencies. The best work, says Jeremy Sturt, a Lively Arts co-founder, 'is when we come in at board level so that we know where the company is going and what the personnel is supposed to do. Then we set up a structure or event where the facilitators can melt away and let people do it themselves. As with anything, the best way is learning by doing.'

This is one reason why arts-derived techniques come as such a shattering revelation to uptight, dehydrated companies - and why they are hard to describe to non-believers. The point is that they are experiential. For dealing with emotional and human issues at work (a large if unspoken part of the total), 'the classroom doesn't cut it', says Jacquie Drake, director of Praxis, a centre for individual development based at Cranfield Management School.

As part of the centre's holistic development courses, Praxis teamed up with Richard Olivier and the Globe Theatre to offer Shakespeare as a means of accessing precisely those elements in human behaviour that conventional management courses don't even think about. Plays currently in the repertoire are Henry V, dealing with different stages of leadership, and Julius Caesar, a case study of emotional and political intelligence.

'As soon as you do it in a different language from the normal office vernacular, a totally new picture appears,' says Allied Domecq's Oag. 'Because you have a pictorial reference, you can literally see what will work and what won't.' You can also, he says, move very quickly to action - sometimes to the suspicion of literal-minded managers who are reluctant to believe that workable solutions can be reached without months of analysis.

Having proved itself on team-building and problem-solving, the next - and perhaps ultimate - test for the arts-in-business movement is large-scale corporate change. As learning specialists such as Peter Senge have observed in numerous companies, traditional methods of change - top-down efforts to persuade people to do things differently - rarely work. It's hard for people to think themselves rationally into a new way of acting. On the other hand, acting their way into a new kind of thinking is what actors and musicians do every time they perform a different piece.

Behind that lies a yet more fundamental thought. Why do literature and music-based exercises elicit such a powerful response on business courses? A new breed of what might be called arts-based consultants are coming to the conclusion that theatre and literature are answering much more than a superficial technical need. Business, argues Ibbotson, has for a century tried to make its practice fit a scientific model. But science is absolutely the wrong metaphor for managing companies, which are composed of human beings who dance to a different tune. Trying to graft creativity on to a science-based management stem is a jarring mix of metaphors with predictable results: much of business, says Ibbotson, is a combination of third-rate science and worse art.

For evangelists like Ibbotson, therefore, the arts are not a management fashion accessory - they are management, or at least the management of the future. To adapt Shakespeare's well-worn thought: the business world really is a stage, and businessmen really are players. Management, as Harvard's John Kao has written, is a performing art.

On the one hand, thinkers like Senge and Handy believe the era of the company-as-machine is over, and that business needs to adopt a more human-centred or biological metaphor. After all, 'company' originally denoted a band of companions - as in, appropriately, a troupe of actors. On the other hand, never mind the theory - a growing number of the corporate converted just know that business modes that draws on the rich, complex, living storehouse of art and literature seem to work.

As writer Margaret Wheatley puts it: 'It is one of the great ironies of our age that we created organisations to constrain our problematic human natures, and now the only thing that can save (them) is a full appreciation of the expansive capabilities of us humans.' After a long absence, the arts are coming home.

Arts & Business: www.AandB.org.uk.

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