Wednesday, February 13, 2008

An Ex-Stagehands View of Organizational Leadership



An interesting conversation is happening in the comments of Karyn's Calvinball post. I'm remembering that I have some pretty set biases regarding what I am looking for in an organization and in leadership. Many of these biases stem from my control-freak personality and my "stagehand past".

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Greg is an old high school buddy of mine and the person responsible for introducing me to the small local fraternity of which I am a member. I met him through stage work my sophmore year of high school. For over 20 years, we have shared war stories. Since I left the industry 6 odd years ago, he's been keeping me up to date with all of the cool shows he's worked and some of the changes he's seen in the industry (hint - not many).

We occasionally scheme about how we could build an entire consultancy based on a theory of "stagehand teamwork."

1) Have a concrete objective. A stagehand knows that the prime objective is to get a show up and running on time. Period. There is no waffling on what the purpose of the organization is.

2) Have a concrete deadline. One of the first questions a stagehand asks when arriving on the job site - what are the benchmark deadlines? When is sound check/dress rehersal? When is the show scheduled to start? That start time is non-negotiable. If you are not done by then - it better be for a DAMN good reason (i.e. a tornado came through the city and destroyed everything within a 5 mile radius)).

3) Allow for significant flexibility in how the objective and deadline are met. A group of stagehands will get a show up and running on time 99% of the time. This may mean that everything is held together by duct tape, bubblegum and J.B.'s sweaty t-shirt but as long as the audience doesn't notice it's OK. If it's a show that is put together over a course of days or weeks, you can put together quality standards.

4) Don't be afraid to ask questions. Each show is set up differently. Resources vary dramatically. Most of the stagehands I know will ask the following questions when they first get on site (Greg and I both worked as local crew so our questions reflect that bias):

- What time is the truck(s) coming? What time is sound check? What time does the house open? (Time resources)

- Who answers questions? Who is the final decision-maker? (Leadership)

- Who's here from the local crew? (Personnel resources and available skill set. If you've been around for a couple of months, you learn the players pretty quick.)

- Where is the staging plan and where will that be kept? (Objective and project scope. The staging plan is a guideline that is often modified during the course of set-up to meet the requirements of the particular facility or to address resource problems.)

- Anything we need to be aware of? (Potential gotchas. Stagehands are pretty honest about answering that question, whether they are on the road crew or the locals. They usually ask this question a couple times during the course of set-up, just on the off chance something has changed or the first person wasn't completely forthright.)

The most successful projects I've been on in corporate environments also follow large chunks of that model. A concrete goal, concrete deadlines, significant flexibility in how to meet the goal and deadlines and regular communication about resources, scope and risk.

Admittedly, the short-term and somewhat repetitive nature of most stagework does not take into account the political scope creep, funding changes and external influences that dog large-scale corporate projects.

But part of me still wonders (even after many years working in professional environments) how much of that complexity is "necessary" or if it is just a cover-up for bad planning and indecision on the part of leadership.....

1 comment:

Karyn Romeis said...

Hmm. Too much concrete. I think we need a more malleable material!
;-)