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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Dancing to the business beat
Animated, Winter 1999. If you thought that dance was a world apart from current business practice - think again. Many business leaders now believe that competitive advantage will come through creativity and innovation... Tim Stockil, Director of Creative Development for Arts & Business, takes a candid look at what business can learn from dance

Stand on the balcony at a main-line station at eight o'clock one weekday morning. The rush hour crowds pour off the train and make their ritual passage to work in a dance of the most intricate choreography. Of course, most of the secretaries, lawyers, merchants and other passengers do not realise that they are in a dance - it just seems a sweaty, smelly, exhausting struggle. But to the onlooker, the patterns and the music combine spectacularly.

Dance may seem a world away to those teeming hordes, but the worlds of business and the arts are actually getting closer all the time. One of the biggest issues for business these days is creativity. For decades, people in business have been taught to think, to analyse, to base decisions upon logic, information and market research. Today, the gurus believe, knowledge and logic are not enough, not least because a business may only get information one nanosecond before its competitors, such is the impact of new technologies. Many business leaders now believe that competitive advantage will come through all their staff coming up with new ideas which lead to new products - that is, through creativity and innovation. But if they have just spent the last hundred years training all their staff to be logical, numerical and analytical, how can they now get them to change their mind sets and start being creative, imaginative and lateral thinkers?

Not surprisingly, casting around for help, many of these business leaders are looking towards the arts. "You are the creative ones, the thinking goes, "so have you got techniques and processes that help you to be creative which we can learn from?" Well, yes - and quite a number of arts organisations are now successfully selling their skills to businesses of all shapes and sizes. The National Theatre has its excellent theatreworks programme and works extensively with Barclays Bank and Marks & Spencer; the Royal Shakespeare Company, has Directing Creativity which it developed with Allied Domecq, its major sponsor; Karl James, a director, and actor Sam Bond have set up their own company, Trade Secrets, to run training for companies such as Sainshury's. Unlocking creativity, personal impact, communication, teamwork and thinking outside-the-box are just some of the issues they are addressing.

At my organisation, the Arts & Business we have been building a directory of arts organisations and artists offering these sorts of services to business. We have reached nearly 150 entries, but very few of them are dancers or choreographers or dance companies - is someone missing a trick?

I am no dancer, but it seems to me that there are opportunities here for the dance world. For a start, choreography is such a great metaphor for creativity and leadership. Choreographers make something out of nothing; they have a vision and a purpose which they must communicate; and their principal mode of communication is a group of skilled dancers who must work as a team if they are to succeed. So how do they do it? What are the processes and techniques they use? And can they transfer those tricks to the world of business?

It is not just choreographers of course The sort of research that businesses love has shown that in face to face communication, what you say amounts to seven per cent of a listener's intake; how you say it (ie the use of your voice) amounts to 38 per cent of the listener's intake; the remaining 55 per cent is communicated by your behaviour and body language. Now if dancers cannot teach business people a thing or two about body language, I am a Flying Dutchman.

There are other attributes that the dance world could offer to business, of which the following are just some suggestions. Creativity itself, whether of the performer or the choreographer, is made up of a huge range of elements which are essential in the arts world and increasingly sought by business. One of those is risk - something to which business is remarkably averse. Now surely the arts have something to offer here. The whole point of rehearsal, for example, is to take risks in a safe environment. First you try a scene one way, then another. You move forward, very often, because someone, one of the dancers, tries something differently, with more intensity, more risk. There is still discipline - the music may not have changed, the step may be fundamentally the same, and everyone knows that the first night is on Tuesday week. This is actually the process of creation from which business could really learn.

Another element of creativity is teamwork. In the performing arts, performers, musicians, stage management, designers, composers, choreographers, front of house and all the other specialists come together to make a creative product. They know their roles and they give way to each other when occasion demands it - they are a classic example of 'multi-functional project teams' as the business jargon would have it.

One of the fundamentals of good teamwork is trust. Actors and, I imagine, dancers play loads of trust games - they may literally be putting their safety in another's hands. And there is something about good teamwork in the arts that is non-hierarchical - everyone's input is valued and many a great scene is the product of everyone's contribution, not just the choreographer's. A friend of mine describes a rehearsal for Anthony and Cleopatra in which Cleopatra, played by a very famous actress, was to enter borne aloft by six soldiers. It was Cleopatra's entrance - but it was the soldiers who came up with 30 different ways of bringing her in. It was, my friend told me, one of the most creative days he had seen in the theatre.

Another element of a good rehearsal is that the artists are open to new ideas. This is remarkably un-British. We grow up in a country which tends to operate on a confrontational basis. Our parliament is adversarial; our courts pit prosecutor against defendant; our reaction to new ideas is so often "Yes, but" which actually means "No". One of things artists are good at is the "Yes, and" game. "We could try the scene this way" - "Yes, and then you could come in from downstage left" - "Yes, and if I come from there, the light will just catch you on that stepladder" - "Yes, and that would look sensational." "Yes, but" is inimical to creativity - "Yes, and" is one of its greatest allies.

Having a mind that is open is only one way to have it. Openness implies waiting for something to come and fill up the gap; but creativity demands a more proactive approach than that. "Creativity is a state of mind that is restlessly looking for new ways of doing things"(1) as Mark Leonard of Demos wrote. If you are constantly looking for new ways, different ways, and if you are open to making connections, particularly those that have not been made before, you are going to find yourself with ideas coming from left-field, as the Americans would put it.

I think that much of the search for 'new ways' is actually a search for 'better ways' because quality is one of the key components of creativity - and the arts. There are plenty of businesses which will put a product on the market that is second rate - even tenth rate; but no artist worth the name ever puts out a performance that is not the best they can do given the circumstances. The unending search for quality is so bound up with the arts that you almost do not have to mention it; but businesses need it so much that they had to invent a system - Total Quality Management - to try to imbue their staff with a feeling for it.

This sort of work is not for everyone, of course - I know plenty of artists who would hate to work with business people or divert themselves from their core work of performance. But others, often those who have done a good deal of education work, find it incredibly stimulating - and rewarding. And for the poor, sweaty, smelly exhausted commuter, it may be just the ticket.

Tim Stockil, Director of Creative Development at Arts & Business. He is responsible for Arts & Business's department which delivers and brokers arts-based training for businesses.

1 Leonard, Mark, Britain - Renewing Our Identity, Demos, London 1997.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001