Role Player as Artist and the Need for Creativity in Organisations

An article written by Nigel Gilkes

Recently I was asked by a client to create a proposal for a workshop as part of a leadership development programme. The purpose of the workshop is to enable the participants to access their creativity and playfulness to free up their thinking and consider the art of the possible.

On another leadership programme we are helping participants re-imagine performance, working in collaboration with Dr. Mark Powell and drawing on his research into how artists create great performances and what can business learn from this process.

For some time, creativity, emotional intelligence, agile thinking, collaboration have been cited as critical to success in organisations.

As far back as 2010, the IBM Global CEO Study, which surveyed 1,500 Chief Executive Officers from 60 countries and 33 industries worldwide, found CEOs believe that,

“More than rigor, management discipline, integrity or even vision – successfully navigating an increasing complex world will require creativity.”

In its Global Talent Trends 2019 report, LinkedIn cited soft skills as vitally important for career success. At the top of the list? Creativity.

In a Forbes Magazine article in 2022 Bernard Marr identified the top 10 most in demand skills for the next 10 years. Creativity, Emotional Intelligence, Collaboration and Flexibility all feature in the top 10.

Beyond the world of business, the imperative to foster and deploy creativity to solve the significant challenges that humanity faces – climate change, social and economic inequality, building life affirming and sustainable organisations seems increasingly clear.

But how to foster creativity in an organisational world dominated by processes, structures, hierarchies and cultures that seem to do the opposite; stifle creativity, divergent thinking, experimentation and risk-taking? In their book, The Five Principles of Performance Thinking Dr Mark Powell and Johnathan Gifford identify 5 principles – drawn from research into how artists – musicians, dancers, actors – create great performances.

  1. They conceive of performance differently. Yes, there is a deadline to meet (opening night) a performance to put in front of an audience. Whilst they have the end in mind, the focus is on experimentation, exploration and practice, the journey towards the performance – the inputs that will create a great performance.
  2. They build connected ensembles – helping each individual to play their part, be brilliant, listen to and trust each other.
  3. They tell a story and have a purpose and connect these to each step on the journey.
  4. They rehearse creatively – experiment, take risks, remove status from the process, get comfortable with not knowing the answer, embrace conflicting ideas and making mistakes.
  5. They delight the audience – deploy their individual and collective talent and skills to connect with each other and the audience and create an experience that delights, engages, surprises, entertains, informs, inspires and moves.

There is much to learn in organisations and in leadership development from this work.

I have also been thinking about the work we do and the extent to which we follow these principles in the preparation of and execution of our role play work in its various guises – forum theatre, business simulations, real play…and in my experience when we operate at our best, we absolutely do.

We think about performance (both our own and the participants we work with) in terms of inputs and the journey we go on; the quality of the conversation, what we are learning together. We have our ‘output’ in mind – that the participant will have learned something valuable about themselves, will have practiced new approaches, felt the power of their ability to change and positively influence others. Our focus though is in the moment, exploring and experimenting the multiple routes by which we can arrive at the destination.

We work with each other and our participants as part of a connected ensemble. We delight in a participant’s success when they discover something new about their capabilities, or in each other’s performance in a forum theatre session where we admire our colleagues’ deftness in responding in the moment in character in a way that excites the participants about the realism of the scene, how the characters are behaving and how it illustrates a key moment of learning. We listen to each other, trust each other and work in a way that builds trust with participants.

Our purpose is clear – be at the service of the participants and their learning and we are explicit about this with participants and live it; changing and adapting our performance to keep them engaged and in their stretch zone of learning. We live our purpose and tell our story every time we work with a group.

Each role play experience is one of creative rehearsal where we enable participants to step out of their comfort zone, experiment with approaches, go on a journey of exploration with us alongside them, take a risk, embrace the opportunity to learn when things don’t go to plan.

We delight our audience (most of the time :-)). We feel their appreciation of our skill at inhabiting the worlds of numerous characters and behaving authentically as they do; at being able to give insightful, detailed, observational feedback. They recognise our craft. They are delighted in how engaging they find the experience, the learning they have got from it. They celebrate each others’ successes and how they respond to the challenges we put their way.

In the world of role play, we have always felt that we bring value to participants – we make the experience realistic, we give helpful feedback, we create a safe environment for learning to happen. I believe these things are demonstrably the case. And the value we bring goes deeper. If you are with me that our work demonstrates the 5 principles above, then the further value we bring is in creating a space where creativity happens, living those principles with each other and the participants we work with, modelling for them how this can be done.

For many years, I felt that my experiences and skills as an actor were secondary in this work. Business knowledge, feedback skills, learning and development understanding are more important. I avoided talking about my acting as somehow it seemed insubstantial, somewhat frivolous, not having a place in the ‘grown up world’ of business.

Now as I reflect, I see the skill we bring as artists to help others access their creative, empathic, playful, collaborative capacities as also fundamental to what we do and let’s celebrate that.