How to be effective in the theatre of work
The book inspired me to draw many analogies between the improv actor and the consultant and I have written a five part series. They loosely flow in order but each can be read in any order:
Chapter 1 - The Office is a Theatre for Work. This post looks at the central problem of “performing” work and how important it is for modern knowledge work - especially for the consultant. We end with some ideas around how to think on your feet without bullshitting.
Chapter 2 - Optimism as an Operating System. This post highlights the tendency for consultants to be critical and to see everything as a problem. We’ll reframe this by showing the power of being positive - especially for long-term retainers.
Chapter 3 - Blocking & Unblocking Clients. Here we think of clients as blocked actors and we take inspiration from the “Yes! and…” exercise to see how we can unblock clients to generate new strategies and creative thinking with clients.
Chapter 4 - Navigating Power & Status. How to get things done inside organizations by understanding power potholes and status switching. We explore the concept of high status and low status and show how the consultant has to become adept at a new skill of “status switching” in order to be successful inside client organizations.
Chapter 5 - The Contrary Consultant. Embracing the fool & the power of not fitting in. We explore the identity of outsider and how to reconcile this with working inside client organizations.
Chapter 1 - The Office is a Theatre for Work
Which of these do you recognize?
Working on a detailed presentation only for the meeting to get derailed 5 slides in.
Ritually showing our face at our desks at the appropriate time to signal that we’re working.
Attending weekly status meetings to create the performance of keeping things moving.
Brainstorm sessions to create the illusion of inclusive creativity.
Workshops with scripted games and exercises and sticky notes to ensure everyone has a good time.
Jealousy of colleagues who don’t do good work but excel at presenting their work.
People who talk about their work getting promoted more than those that don’t.
Much of modern knowledge work is performance… In fact:
The office is a theatre, and work is an unfolding narrative on the stage.
Many people aspire to “silent success” at work - to do work that “speaks for itself”. Unfortunately this is the wrong move in the theatre of work. Instead we should aspire to the opposite - for knowledge work, the performance of the work is the work.
Because in truth - how else could it function?
Much as we might like to think of organizations as rational machines - the reality is that companies are social organizations and people interacting with people is the way decisions are made and how work gets done.
And in this theatre of human work it’s crucial to speak up. Spending time on the performance is not wasted - in fact quite the opposite.
Without performance work gets sidelined, ignored or worse:
Among more than 120 evaluation and program executives surveyed at private foundations the US and Canada, more than three-quarters had difficulty commissioning evaluations that result in meaningful insights for the field, their grantees, or the foundation itself, and 70% have found it challenging to incorporate evaluation results into the foundation’s future work. A survey of over 1600 civil servants in Pakistan and India found that “simply presenting evidence to policymakers doesn’t necessarily improve their decision-making,” with respondents indicating “that they had to make decisions too quickly to consult evidence and that they weren’t rewarded when they did.” - why your hard work sits on the shelf and what to do about it
And in fact this excellent Twitter thread from Maxim shows the value in caring deeply about the presentation and context of the work:
Nobody ever picks the third, wacky, design direction.— Maxim Leyzerovich (@round) August 1, 2017
What does the “performance” of work look like?
- Presentations of your work
- Hallway chats
- 1:1 conversations to build alignment
- Crafting the wrapper and positioning of your work
- Changing the language of your work to match others
- Including wider contexts of the organization, the industry and the market in your work
- Reformatting your presentations to fit other team’s strategies
- and much more…
In the theatre of work the performance of work is intimately tied to the work itself.
But many employees attempt to hide or ignore the performance of work and the politics of the organization. They imagine that this public sphere of voice and politics is wasted energy or somehow “unfair”2.
Being present, public and acting with voice
If we think of the office as a theatre for work the only meaningful way forward is through this sphere of politics and voice. As Venkatesh Rao from Ribbonfarm outlines in his post how to make history:
You do not appear in public through labor, let alone make history. Laboring humans are fungible as individuals, and only consequential actors with a political voice en masse (whether organized in egalitarian ways as a working class or non-egalitarian ways as a patriarchy, or ethno-nationalist clientelistic identity group). […]
If labor is about blending into the processes of nature, and making about interrupting and slowing it to create a durable world, action is about free behaviors that make history.
This ideas of “being public” and “exercising voice” both have relatively specific meanings in the Hannah Arendt sense and I’d encourage you to spend time reading here if you’re not familiar3.
Here are two examples that might help explain opportunities for being public and having voice:
Example #1: choosing to take a position on something that situates you in the company’s world. A great example of this is Steve Yegge’s platform rant. Note how closely Steve is situated in the narrative here - it’s not simply an observation of the market but of taking a position on the world that situates Google, Amazon and Steve. This can feel daunting but ask yourself the last time you showed up in Slack to post something that has voice? To say something about the organization…
Example #2: asking questions in public forums (all-hands, quarterly business updates etc). These are opportunities where executives are inviting public voice - they’re asking for people to take positions and have opinions.
Of course there are an infinite number of other situations where voice and being public are possible4… but most employees would rather shy away from these instead of embracing them as part of the work.
Orchestrating performances for your work is the key to more influence and more impact.
Enter Stage Left: The Consultant
Ah, but so far what we’re describing is the reality of the working world. Now let’s situate the consultant in the theatre of work.
The luxury that full time employees gain is the ability to script and rehearse their performances - to plan ahead. The consultant is like an improv actor thrust into a play mid-performance, forced to find ways to fit in, go with the flow and steer the performance all while on stage.
For example - full time employees get the luxury of being involved in 2020 planning. Consultants are an outcome of 2020 planning and so get brought in mid-performance to course correct.
Consultants that attempt to halt the performance cause pain and typically don’t stick around. Instead consultants that accept and embrace their nature as improv actors thrive and become integrated into the great performance of the organization.
The Theatre of Work is an Improv Theatre
As a consultant, attempting to tightly script and design the performance of the work will inevitably lead to missed timings, missed context or missed feedback.
Missed timings - As a consultant you’re often working less than 5-days a week with a client. So you’re slower than full-time employees. This means if you try and slow down to polish the performance of your work you can miss the window of opportunity. So the improv consultant must learn to un-polish, prototype and improvise in real-time just to keep up with the client’s organization.
Missed context - Because you’re not a full-time employee (even if you’re working 5 days a week) you may not be included on all-hands emails, announcements and so on and so you always have to work hard to gain the full context of a client. Tightly scripting a performance doesn’t leave room for new contexts to emerge during the performance. Instead there should always be room for new context to emerge and get integrated into the performance in real-time.
Missed feedback - It’s not uncommon as a consultant to be the most proficient powerpoint user in the org (or at least your portion of the org). This has benefits but it also has the unintended consequence of making everything you touch look “finished”. And finished work gets very different feedback from people than raw materials and thinking. So sometimes it’s important to un-design and un-polish your work, to invite people onto the stage to co-create the performance - this way you ensure that you get the appropriate feedback.
Good consultants think of performances more like an unfolding series of improv sessions.
Many organizations at the executive level already function like tight improv groups - reacting to implicit and explicit cues and playing off each other to make in-the-moment decisions.
As a consultant - this executive level improv troupe is where the real work gets done and where you’re aiming for. It’s the essence of why Venkatesh’s idea of client “sparring”5 is so appealing - because it embraces this verbal improv decision making that everyone recognizes.
So how does this idea of improv begin to shape our thinking? Some obvious ideas:
- We need to be present in the room. Where the performance of the work is the work we can’t leave the presentation and narrative of the work to others.
- Study the people as much as you study the organization. When you’re reacting to work mid-performance half of what you’re reacting to is the strategy and half of it is the set of relationships and biases of the people in the room.
And one non-obvious idea:
The Serendipity-Deficit of Consultants & Manufacturing Improv Sessions
A failure mode for employees is striving for work to happen in the official channels - to wait for the meeting to talk about the strategy, to wait for the email chain to pitch in. This desire to make work “official” means many employees are uncomfortable talking about their work on the way to the coffee shop or in the hallway between meetings.
But it’s exactly these free-form sessions when executives drop their guard, open up and the possibility to operate in a liminal space between contexts is possible.
And the most important thing to understand about these “spontaneous” improv sessions is that they are most useful for laying the first seed of an idea. Good ideas don’t instantly make an impact and if you want executives to pay attention you have to make sure they hear the idea several times. So drop it first in the hallway before formalizing it in a meeting.
Of course I say “spontaneous” because actually humans are remarkably predictable and it’s often trivial to engineer these serendipitous hallway conversations. And you should be manufacturing them.
Remember - if you’re a consultant in a client’s office two days a week you’re operating at a serendipity-deficit. You simply have less surface area to bump into people. So you have to cheat.
A fellow consultant friend brought up the idea of getting into the office early to deliberately catch the CEO on the way in the door before they settled into focus mode. To intercept them intentionally to create a small improv session. To lay the first seeds for ideas.
How to think on your feet without bullshitting
Above all else however, you need to embrace a level of “thinking on your feet” - it’s essential to the consultant’s work and a consequence of being brought in mid-performance.
This “thinking on your feet” is about the balance between deflecting decisions for further analysis and providing the answer there and then.
Example: one of the most visible ways this manifests is the first day or week with a new client. Executives love to probe you with “difficult” questions - learning to provide an answer that you believe in but leaves room for revision later is key. The real game that’s being played here is not one of being right or wrong - it’s the executive asking two questions at once - firstly “how much do you know?” and secondly “can you improv?” to understand how useful you’re going to be in the theatre of work.
Unfortunately - in the theatre of work there’s a fine line between thinking on your feet and bullshitting…
Who’s been in a meeting and been disgusted with people spouting things that are half-true, made-up or masks over the real truth?
There’s a fine line between reacting to a situation in the room and bullshitting.
As a consultant this is especially hard to avoid. Your default mode of operating is the liminal space between industries, businesses and markets. A few times a year I’m forced to learn something new from scratch. This forces us to work in spaces where we’re often the least knowledgeable about a specific business (even if we are experts in the industry… And sometimes we’re experts at a discipline but neither knowledgeable about the business or the industry).
So here’s a little guide to avoiding bullshit:
- Immerse yourself in the core business mechanics, you should be able to draw a diagram explaining the core business revenue & profit function reasonably well. The more abstraction here the more you risk a fundamental mis-understanding and straying into BS.
- Become a language chameleon - study and adopt the language, acronyms and buzzwords of the client’s business. If they call it “earned marketing” you should too. If their CMS is called PinkCloud you call it that too. Specificity allows you to avoid confusion and helps you distinguish between the client’s CMS and the market’s CMS (for example).
- Speak clearly and within your limits. Ask for clarification on points that don’t seem to make sense. No pretending. Don’t adopt the language too quickly! (ha, see how hard this is?)
- Ask stupid questions. Ask questions about company history, about alternative approaches, about failed previous ideas. Just because people at the client choose not to talk about obvious things doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.
- Defend your ideas but not your points. Be willing to defend your ideas even if some data points get challenged. It’s very common that the number or stat you’re using to support your point will be wrong but that the broader idea still holds. Don’t concede the idea but also don’t try and put muscle behind the numbers - accept they’re wrong but keep pressing on the idea to see where you get.
- When you get challenged pull out some counter-factuals - when someone is claiming that your data is wrong challenge them with proving the opposite.
- Keep your eye on the prize for business outcomes, not intellectual debates. Executives are fond of theorizing and debating ideas that stray into the get into the abstract - you can play this game a little but try to be the one to ground conversations in reality.
- Read widely - analogy is the core of cognition. Don’t be afraid to source things from different industries. This is the kind of cross-industry vantage point that clients find hard to get internally.
These are all ways to avoid bullshitting - but unfortunately there’s one simple way to avoid bullshit - by being critical.
It’s far easier to retreat to the critical, negative position and say why things won’t or can’t work. Except… this is a mistake.
Being positive and optimistic is far harder but more effective. And we’re going to talk about that in the next post…. Optimism as an Operating System.
I loved the book and as Venkatesh said ‘it is a textbook that teaches you how to see the world differently.’ so consider it recommended. ↩
Yes actually internal company politics and performance are unfair but changing that is not the scope of this post… ↩