The Organization as a Theatre Company
From 'Dutch' Holland's "Change is the Rule"
by Rick Sidorowicz

Tom Peters used the metaphor of a film production to highlight the 'virtual organization' - how project teams of independent professionals assemble for a major work, execute brilliantly, and then disband. There's no doubt that the 'film' metaphor has great merit - in painting the pictures of what super project work is like. It crystalizes how more and more 'work' is going to get done - as we all know we're in the 'hits' business where you live and die by your latest great adventure. The film production metaphor is relevant - but it's a little bit 'out there' for many of us who are still mired in a more permanent looking organization structure - and yet need to infuse new thinking to energize the enterprise.

In his book "Change is the Rule" Dr. Winford E. 'Dutch' Holland expands on the metaphor of the organization as a theatre company - and it is brilliant! It's brilliant because it simplifies understanding - it reduces the complexities of organization change to common sense with a very clear 'picture' to relate to. It is a very powerful metaphor that is very easily understood and 'got' by almost anyone who has ever been to any type of theatre presentation. 

The Metaphor
A Business is a Theatre Company!
Our mission is give a satisfying performance to an audience of paying customers. Every morning we put on our work clothes (costumes), travel to our company (the theatre), walk into our office (the set), and execute our job (role) according to the organization's goals and objectives (the script) to deliver products and/or services to customers (the audience) - until it's time to go home to start all over the next day.

In the theatre metaphor, (and this is the powerful stuff!) organizational change would be the equivalent of a theatre company moving from an existing play to a new one, requiring the transition of company roles, costumes and sets. "In the theatre, change mastery is critical because no play lasts forever. Change is the rule."

Let's examine several typical ideas about organizational change and see how the theatre metaphor simplifies thinking and provides an immediate common sense solution.

Ineffective idea: Organizational change is primarily a social process
There is no doubt that organizations are social systems - but seeing organizations as primarily a social structure has led to an over emphasis on sociological and psychological models to understand change. This focus attempts to change people.

Effective idea: Organizational change is primarily a mechanical process with social implications
"Organizational change is about realigning the behaviours of people around work processes without changing who they are as individuals. The director knows that the driver of new behaviours can only be the script and her mission for the new play. There are social implications, however, employees can be cordially invited to take part in the change (new play) or not."

Ineffective idea: Successful organizational change is driven primarily by excitement and enthusiasm
This view holds that the excitement level of the members of the organization is a key driver for success. If people know and understand the change required and why it is important the change will happen successfully. "Imagine if the theatre director who raises the initial excitement of cast and crew to a fever pitch with colourful images of the success of the future production and then yells "show time" as though some magic would cause all of the transition steps between old and new performance to get done in time for the opening."

Effective idea: Excitement and enthusiasm grow from clear plans and actions
"The competent theatre director yells "show time" only after each and every detail of the new performance has been worked through, and each and every cast member is thoroughly prepared, rehearsed, and in position for the curtain to go up."

Ineffective idea: Organizational change is an art, not a science
This approach has individuals convinced they must feel their way along, experimenting as they try to align with some new theme or concept. Imagine a theatre director without a concrete gameplan to transition cast members, costumes, musical scores, and sets to meet a definite opening night schedule.

Effective idea: Organizational change is science and engineering, done with social finesse
"Theatre directors facing the transition to a new play are well schooled in the need for precise action steps executed on time and on budget to get an acceptable performance ready for a planned opening night. And they execute those steps with the social finesse needed to get the cast and crew on board and ready."

Ineffective idea: Organizational change is a social experiment on a grand scale
"This approach sees organizational change as an experiment in a new social order in organizational space" ... where much of the eventual results of the change is left to the will of the employees. "Imagine a theatre director launching her company toward a new performance that was both unnamed and uncertain. Imagine selling that to theatre investors!" 

Effective idea: Organizational change is the planned modification of a mechanical system
"Changing an organization is a transition of a mechanical system from one configuration to another. The transition that must be made can be forseen, planned, and then executed with a high degree of precision. For the theatre director there is nothing experimental about transitioning his company to a new play. The director may have some doubts about how certain actors might be able to perform in new roles, but there is no doubt about what the roles are to be. The play and roles, as well as the costumes and sets, are defined and agreed to early in the transition process."

Ineffective idea: Organizational change must occur from the bottom up
'Buying in' and participating is the not the issue. It is important and people will 'fit in' if it is in their interests to do so. A theatre director using the notion of grass-roots enlightenment and initiative however ... "would attempt to stimulate his theatre company to come up with the new play through some consensus building exercise, rather than engaging the services of a skilled playwright or choosing an existing play already proven to be a winner on Broadway."

Effective idea: Organizational change is a top down, leadership exercise
It is strong leadership that provides the singular direction and coordination along the way of organizational change. "It is leadership that focuses the organization on its new direction ... and it is leadership that must coordinate the processes of change so that the organization does not lose its way. It is leadership that supplies the courage for continued change in the face of the inevitable resistance and disappointment along the way."

Ineffective idea: Organizational change is inevitably chaotic
"This ineffective idea ... is that organizational change is an uncoordinated social adventure with practically none of the parties involved having any idea of what the future will hold for them or the organization." Imagine a theatre director attempting to transition to a new play without a plan, detailed schedule or budget to work with.

Effective idea: Organizational change is complex but not chaotic unless it is out of control
"Organizational change is, in most cases, complex because of the sheer number of moving parts that must be altered for the transition to be complete. But complex is not chaotic. Complexity can be managed, scheduled, and coordinated with management tools that have been around for decades. Chaos can enter the picture if the organization loses control of the change process by not following schedules, not doing planned things in order, or not replanning and rescheduling as actions are needed beyond the existing plan."

Ineffective idea: Organizational change will be life changing for the organization's members
"This ineffective idea paints the organizational change as a life-and-psyche-altering experience for managers and employees alike. In this approach the assumption is that managers and employees are so deeply attached to their current roles that any changes will surely be upsetting if not traumatic. A theatre director using this ineffective idea would certainly feel compelled to order in a team of therapists to deal with the inevitable dysfunctions that would surely arise as cast and crew found themselves traumatized after confronting the new play."

Effective idea: Organizational change will alter what people do
"Organizational change will alter what people do and how they spend their time at work, but such a change will clearly not alter who they are as individuals. Organizational change asks workers to do different things, or to do things differently - even to think about things differently - but certainly not to change their lifestyles or reasons for being." "The director of the theatre company knows she is dealing with a problem of converting an actor who is performing well in one role to performing well in another role. The director does not take on responsibility for forever changing the life of an actor because of her request that the actor plays a new role in the upcoming play." 

With the theatre metaphor, it is easy to understand that organizational change deals with "structured, mechanical systems with concrete moving parts that must work and change together." Organizations have four primary structural elements according to Holland:

  • Vision - like a play's storyline and script,
  • Work Processes - like the roles in a play,
  • Plant/Equipment/Tools - like costumes and sets, and 
  • Performance Agreements - like contracts for actors.

For an organization to change all of the four mechanical attributes must change in concert - or there will be no change. "Managing the people dynamics can be challenging, but is doable as long as leaders of the change understand the ... mechanics." It's a very 'empowering' metaphor - so let's get on with the show!

Change Is the Rule
Practical Actions for Change: On Target, On Time, On Budget
by Winford E. "Dutch" Holland, Ph.D.,
Dearborn, May 2000.

Rick Sidorowicz is the Publisher and Editor of The CEO Refresher and
the Minister of Culture of High Performance Retail.

Many more articles in Leading Change in The CEO Refresher Archives


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