Change leadership: Designing great rehearsals and performances

It’s become so obvious to me over the past few years: if you want real change, that means bringing something new into being that didn’t exist before. And to do that, you can’t just jump straight into “performing” whatever that new thing is. You’ll need both rehearsals and a series of micro-performances to get there – they each bring something surprisingly essential to your opening night.

“Rehearsal” and “performance” can be tricky to translate from theater to an organizational change. I know I still struggle to talk about them clearly. But I recently heard Harvard researcher Leslie Perlow describe a terrifically useful example, and I keep thinking about it, so I want to share it with you.

Theater shmeater

First, let me say straight up: the language of theater might strike you as odd in a business context. And when we open our 5-day change leadership workshop at the Banff Leadership Center by having executives perform an 18-minute piece of theater for a live audience, then tell the executives we’ll spend the next four days rehearsing it, we practically have a revolt on our hands.

“We paid good money to come all the way here and read these lines over and over again?”

“We’ve already performed it – what else is there to gain, here?”

What they don’t see yet is that the performance they’ve given is rooted in what they already know. To get their customers – the audience – to lean forward in delight and awe, they have to create something they can’t imagine right now. They need to engage in a true creative process, as a group. And that means they need some rehearsals.

Rehearsals aren’t just running lines defines rehearsal as, “a session of exercise, drill, or practice, usually private, in preparation for a public performance.” The word itself, however, means much more than repetition. Originating in agricultural Scandinavia, it came into Middle English about 1350 AD and means to “harrow” – to dig, break up clods of earth, turn the soil. In theater, skillful rehearsal as a place of radical exploration.

 The first ingredient is what actors call ensemble, and it’s about attitude and relationships: show up deeply, madly curious, and willing to take risks. Expand your awareness way beyond normal. Be excited to see what others bring to the table, build on ideas and let them take you somewhere new. Be shoes-off (versus game-face) with your fellow players, and build trust constantly.

The second big ingredient is a mouthful: rigorous inquiry and play. Structured, but malleable, it’s an experience designed to help the players discover a performance that ups the likelihood of what they really want to achieve. The best rehearsals are full of play and experimentation free from pressure to produce and meet deadlines. Whoever’s playing the role of director (and this can be shared) designs the rehearsal process: Given the result we want, in the situation we’re facing, with the time we have, what are the most impactful places for us to explore?

Having an audience changes things

You can rehearse until you think you’re perfect, but take it in front of an audience and you start seeing new things instantly. I’m not quite sure why. Is it the live, electric back-and-forth flow between you and them? The mounting pressure you feel as you approach the moment that all eyes are on you? When they laugh at unexpected moments – and don’t when you really thought they would?

Probably all of that. What I know for sure is that an audience that wants to be satisfied impacts your performance in ways you can’t imagine until they’re with you. Don’t wait until opening night to try out what you think is brilliant. Find an audience (smaller and low-stakes is good) and see what you learn.

A compelling case story

Leslie Perlow didn’t use the language of skillful rehearsal and adaptive performance, but she designed them beautifully. Her desired result: get a successaholic team at a fast-moving, high-intensity, high-expectation management consultancy to stop being 24/7 plugged in and take regular, preplanned time off from work, while providing the same or better value to their client.

Spoiler alert: Perlow’s crisp and engaging book based on her research, Sleeping with Your Smartphone, shows solidly that regular time unplugged equals higher performance. The richest learning is in the details, and she’s a snappy writer, so I really do suggest you get Perlow’s book and read it. In the mean time, here’s an hors d’oeuvre.

Call it an experiment

First, Perlow cannily called this a 90-day “experiment” to communicate learning. Then she set two requirements for the team (based in Boston but working 24/7 Monday – Friday onsite with a client in Indiana each week):

  1. Shared goal. For each member to be off by 6pm on a preplanned night during the work week (“off” = no work, no phone, no email until normal workday start the following morning).
  2. Weekly, structured dialog. 30 minutes, attendance mandatory: If we’re not able to do this, what can we learn about what we might do differently next week? Two key explorations:
  • Calendar review of previous week.
  • Pulse-check with rating scale and group discussion of four questions:
  1. How are you feeling? (choose from four faces, ranging from smiling to distressed)
  2. How do you feel about the value you’re delivering?
  3. How satisfied are you with your learning?
  4. Is the operating model sustainable?

The rehearsal and performance structure is so clear! Those 30-minute meetings were team rehearsals, learning-oriented, with rigorous and penetrating questions that nurtured ensemble and drove inquiry and co-creativity. Each work week in Indiana with the client was a micro-performance; the team took what they’d come up with in rehearsal and ran it live each week in front of their audience.

What would happen with your team?

Now, the poignant snapshots you’d expect: The grudging team member, who insisted this wouldn’t last 7 days. The first evening off, which made some feel anxious and at a loss, but ended up being unexpectedly rewarding. The mutiny, when one team member threatened with a show-stopper – and the others realized that if they didn’t get him on board, they’d lose something they now cared very much about.

That’s when the team really kicked into gear. Because the rehearsal discussions had dramatically changed how this team related to each other, they were able to dig below the surface to get at the real resistance. And that’s when they began innovating together in very different ways. After 90 days of toggling between rehearsal and performance, the team was successful with their shared goal and five team metrics showed dramatic increase:

  • Sense of control over work/life
  • Work fulfillment
  • Team retention
  • Team efficiency
  • Client value

Bonus: The experiment has now spread to 2,000 teams globally across the organization.

Secret of the universe #48: For real change, you have to dig deep

Part of what’s so brilliant here is the simple but immensely potent structure Perlow designed for rehearsal inquiry – the four questions. Because here’s what I haven’t said, but which may already be obvious to you: the biggest leverage points toward change are not immediately visible, not to anyone.

You can’t think your way into these leverage points, and you can’t unearth them from a single beta test or trial run. Significant change involves a systems-level shift – a new way of thinking, going to places you haven’t gone before, new ways of behaving and relating. And that requires turning the earth of your habits and mental models and assumptions, trying something, and digging some more.

Who has time for this?

“You don’t understand! We don’t have time for rehearsals,” you might be tempted to say from your fast-moving, high-intensity, high-expectation world. “We are performing all the time.”

My provocative and playful colleague Ian Prinsloo can see potential in clients that they don’t see themselves. If he were here, this is how he’d respond:

“And how’s that working for you?”

So many concepts in this post come from collaboration with the marvelous Karen Dawson and Ian Prinsloo  in the ongoing incubation of Leading Through Change, a course we offer at the Banff Center. Health warning: Don’t expect these ideas to stay the same, because we are toggling between rehearsal and performance ourselves.

Images courtesy, and

3 thoughts on “Change leadership: Designing great rehearsals and performances

  1. Loved the post. The one thing that I’ll take away from it is the response to the concern that we’re OK it will take too long –> “and how’s that working for you?”

  2. The wise Robert Kegan calls this, “respecting the complexity of real change.” I call it saucy! And I love the two together.

  3. Julie, you’ve written such a thoughtful and articulate translation of Leslie Perlow’s research into tangible concepts. I see the next Malcolm Gladwell around the corner!

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