One person walks onto a bare stage: A helpful start point for Organisation Design?

You may be familiar with the swan analogy.  You know, the one that people use to describe how their apparent calmness and gracefulness belies the amount of effort they are actually expending.  It goes something along the lines of “In a strong flowing current, the swan looks graceful, but below the surface the legs are kicking wildly!”

I recently inverted this analogy when giving feedback to somebody on their proposed agenda for a big leadership meeting.  “This looks OK but it’s like a reverse swan..” I said, puzzling them slightly “…the head and body are going wild but the legs are still!”  What I meant by this was that whilst the agenda looked very clever, busy and full of activity it lacked action.  More accurately it lacked interaction between the participants which, in my opinion, was the overall purpose of getting a group of senior leaders together in a room for 4 hours.  The ‘swan’ would look like it was working really hard but under the surface nothing would be happening – there would be no change – nobody would be altered by this experience.  Whilst this was the first time I used my rather unusual analogy it was not the first time that I have felt a visceral reaction when looking at an agenda that has unintentionally designed in a number of set-pieces that distract from good interaction rather than enhance it.  In my experience, it seems to me that “less is more” is a good philosophical design principle in any OD work.

It was on the train home after this meeting that I came across a quote from innovative British theatre director Peter Brook.  As I understand it, Brook’s mission as a director has been to make theatre as direct and vivid an experience as possible with a big focus on the relationships between those present.

The essence of theatre is the relationship between the actors and the audience – nothing should be added to it unless it supports or improves it” says Brook.  “I can take any space and call it a bare stage.  A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching and that is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.”

I find the beautifully simplistic start point in Brook’s thinking process to be a very powerful metaphor for organisational life and one that leaders and change consultants may benefit from taking closely to heart.  What would happen if we held this philosophy to be true when designing meetings, workshops and change interventions in organisational life?  In fact, how would our organisations be different if we held this philosophy to be the start point for Organisation Design?

All we need is a space and two people present for an act of human interaction to be engaged.

We should add nothing to this unless it supports or improves the quality and depth of the interaction.

I’ve spoken for many years now about the importance of building from the ‘bottom up’ and adding in just enough structure to do the work that’s needed.  However, there is something about the imagery and symbolism of Brooks’ one man walking onto a bare stage in front of an audience of one that makes it a far richer and more creative blank canvas to start from.