Management Consultant Mike Eldon

Rehearsing pays – and it’s fun

Together with a trio of colleagues, I recently developed a two-day leadership workshop to be run for several groups of managers. It was an interesting challenge, as several of the prospective participants had already attended various leadership programmes, and so we had to find ways of defying their expectation that this would be “just another training”. We all know what that means: people readily assume there will be negligible consequences – other than being handed a certificate confirming they had shown up. Oh, and given that we’re talking about public sector folk, that they will have benefitted from those precious daily allowances.

We’ve already run the first two events, and I’m happy to say they went really well. But that’s not what I want to write about here. I want to share with you how we rehearsed for what were to be highly interactive workshops, whose success would be measured by the extent to which the participants did indeed perform better than they had before. How, in just two days, could we launch a process that would deliver on such ambitious expectations?

Too often there’s no time to rehearse – or at least we don’t make the time. But as we found in this case it was well worth the investment. For here we were creating something from scratch. We were actually writing script for what were to be two days of interactive theatre, where the “audience” would join us as actors and where the outcomes were far from predictable.

Each of us came to the early rehearsals ready to share our ideas for the components we had volunteered to script (one of mine was on stimulating bold decisions – about which I will write separately), and now these needed to be tested, further developed and strengthened, and integrated into a seamless flow.

Unlike in a rehearsal of a play or a musical concert, where the challenge merely is to interpret a fixed text or musical score, here we were also the playwrights, the composers, not to mention that we would be enrolling the participants to join the cast, and playing very prominent roles at that. So the joy of creation – of co-creation – of bouncing ideas off each other and building a powerful and cohesive entity that would achieve what was intended (after the event) was very exciting indeed.

For now though, we had to build a robust enough engine to test drive, to prepare for our actual performances, where we would integrate the participants into the production. We had to maximise the chances of them swiftly absorbing the subject matter we’d come up with – about the process of flow-charting, about defining performance improvement indicators and targets, and about figuring out root causes of problems and how to overcome them. We had to get them to already try out all these tools within the event, in an “Action Learning” style. And we also had to prepare them to motivate themselves and their colleagues beyond our time together, creating an environment within which bold decisions could be made and great results achieved through the processes they would select.

Our terms of reference also not only required us to produce a workbook for the participants to take away with them to use, but in addition a much more detailed one that would enable other facilitators to run the programme. So the workbooks too would need to be tested, to ensure they were fit for purpose.

Having adequately panel-beaten our production to our own satisfaction, we were now ready to expose it to those who had charged us with its creation and delivery, to get them to play the part of the intended participants and to make their own contributions to further refine the product. So we would run elements of the programme as it would eventually be conducted, with this “tame” group role-playing the actual participants, and seek their reactions and their input.

Interestingly, as we were planning this phase of the development, a misunderstanding arose as to what exactly it would consist of. Our sponsors assumed they were coming for a full “dress rehearsal”, where our “cast” or “orchestra” would perform the entire “show” just as if it were the real thing. Had we been rehearsing a play we would have been wearing our costumes and make-up, and the props and lighting would all be in place. They imagined they would simply attend as if they were the real audience.

It took a little while for us to explain that we were still at a stage of testing and learning, of connecting and aligning. But they swiftly became part of the creative process, and together we thoroughly enjoyed the business of stretching ourselves to the limit, determined to deliver something of serious impact. Our clear aim was to launch a change process, and this could only happen if the participants – in a mere two days – acquired not only the knowledge and the skills to undertake the journey, but also a whole new mindset that would enable them to reach some important destinations.

To further encourage you to invest time in rehearsing critical activities, I suggest you access a wonderful family of YouTube clips that show how the celebrated “Three Tenors” went through the various stages of rehearsing for their spectacular operatic performances, together with a great conductor and a huge combined orchestra. See how they loved every minute of their polishing time together, and what glorious music resulted.

I leave you with that well-known definition of luck: “the cross-roads between preparation and opportunity”. So identify your (ambitious!) opportunity and, like the Three Tenors and like us, thoroughly enjoy the process of preparing to put on the show of your life. Others might say you were just lucky. You know that, like the swan, while you seemed to be gliding so easily along the surface of your water, you were still paddling like mad underneath. But not half as frantically as if you would not have rehearsed.