Monday, 25 January 2016

Once more unto the breach, dear friends?

I spent a good chunk of the week before last at the Barbican for the RSC's production of Shakespeare's Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 & 2, and Henry V.   It was good, very good, with (for me) David Tennant's Richard II being the standout.  Each of the plays had real interest, but what I found fascinating was the difference it made that they were being performed together as a cycle, with storylines, characters and themes persisting through multiple plays in the cycle.

For example, the characters of Henry IV and Henry V are each present in three of the four plays, Falstaff in two of them, and so forth.  This meant that director and actors couldn't treat each play in isolation - Jasper Britton playing Henry IV had to interpret his role in a way that made sense across a three play arc.  Greg Doran, directing all four plays, had to build something - sets, costumes, music, characters, etc - that worked as a cycle, not just as four individual plays.  This meant that each play 'talked' to the others; that three plays became keys to the interpretation of the fourth, in part determining its meaning, throwing its themes and patterns into relief, shedding light on plot and character.

Nothing surprising about that, but there's a lesson for how we manage change portfolios.  Specifically, we're used to the idea that treating change initiatives as a portfolio means prioritising, sequencing, and timing change activities.  But I wonder if we recognise that each initiative in a portfolio provides context that shapes the meaning of the others?  If one initiative changes processes to reduce cycle time, then cost-saving changes to roles and systems driven by another initiative will inevitably also be connected (helpfully or unhelpful) with a need for cycle time reductions.  The very specific business drivers for one change don't go away when the rationale for another programme is being articulated.

The opportunity we have, therefore, is to build an integrated change story spanning the portfolio.  Seizing this opportunity, we can (positively) move towards a holistic change journey for those impacted, leveraging themes and imperatives across the portfolio.  Negatively, we can avoid clashing and confusing separate change journeys and stories.

In fact, this seems a necessity, not just a possibility.  So what gets in the way?  Let's be real, it's challenging - weaving potentially different imperatives into a coherent whole is rarely straightforward.   And we certainly don't want to blend clear programmes into one ill-defined mega-attempt to boil the ocean.  But it's also true that individual change programmes can tend to take on a life of their own, presenting themselves as the only 'show in town' - their leaders single-mindedly focused on directing their own cast.  Other programmes, with their distinctive agendas and narratives, are easily viewed as competing distractions (if not irritations) rather than sources of potential leverage.  Simply they're seen as threat, not as opportunity.  I don't think it needs to be like that.

Thanks to John Griffiths (@johngriffiths7) for conversation prompting this blog, and analogies with Biblical hermeneutics.

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