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Managers search for the geniuses of creativity in desperation. Belatedly, they decide they need new ideas to reverse the death spiral. So they overpay consultants and gurus to hopscotch round a conference room trying to goose creativity in people whose work has drummed it out of them.
But how about hiring dancers who believe that the path to creativity begins with discovering your “groupness” through movement?
This is the pitch of Pilobolus, a dance company based in Washington, Connecticut, a postcard-perfect town about two hours’ drive north of New York. The troupe was founded in 1971 by a group of athletes and poets who wanted to create performances based on human movement. Just as remarkable as their shows was the process by which they created them. While most companies were well-drilled armies under the sway of a dictatorial choreographer, Pilobolus was assertively collaborative.
Every dancer is expected to help develop the routines that add up to a performance. Pilobolus believes this theory of creativity, based on mingling cultures and collaboration can be used by businesses.
Over 31 years, the group has grown from a youthful experiment into a major company, regularly touring the world with multiple troupes and creating bespoke performances for film, television and live events. It also teaches its creative approach to non-arts businesses. “There is a weird evangelical movement now called ‘Creativity’,” says Itamar Kubovy, Pilobolus’s chief executive. “It exists in the motivational speaking world. And it’s for people in doomed professions – ‘think outside the box’; ‘be entrepreneurial’; ‘reorganise your thoughts’; ‘draw quickly’.”
Pilobolus, by contrast, believes productivity is the only measure of creativity. And productivity begins with groups working well together. “Everyone in the world makes everything the same way,” he says. “The group throws ideas down. Then it shifts gears and evaluates the ideas, to sort wheat from chaff. Then there’s some process of assembling the things that survive. Then the results of that action must be sent out into the world.”
The challenge, then, must focus on groups: how they collaborate, deal with conflict, respond when someone has a good or bad idea.
On the morning I watch Pilobolus rehears, eight dancers are at work before a brightly lit white screen to prepare a shadow dance for a German television show. They start with one move, add another, then try something else and piece by piece it is assembled. Matt Kent, artistic director of this performance, and Mr Kubovy interject with ideas but the dancers mostly figure out what to do themselves. Orchestrating their movements into a visually precise and interesting dance is a form of organisational magic.
The company formalised its corporate services two years ago and has since been hired by companies ranging from the cosmetics sector to financial services.A typical Pilobolus drill will start with managers of the client company walking round a room trying not to bump each other. Then the space is made smaller, so people must squeeze past each other. They are told to pick someone to follow or hold hands with and walk in pairs.
The point is to recreate physically the group dynamics that occur in companies. When pairs of people find they must let go of each other to let someone else through, they are being given what Mr Kubovy calls a “physical mnemonic for a social phenomenon” – sometimes you must break up to let something pass, but you can always get back together.
At the start of one executive retreat, Pilobolus had everyone get down on all fours. “When they sit together afterwards and talk, it’s different,” says Mr Kubovy. “They are now equal and silly. There’s an initial barrier to silliness. But once you cross that, you realise this isn’t a game anyone can win. It leads to more fruitful discussions, with fewer accommodations for hierarchy.”
Pilobolus insists it is not providing direct answers to management problems but is getting people to a place where they can communicate with greater clarity.
The proof is in its own productions: when you are stripped to the waist on stage and inviting another dancer to tumble across your back, obfuscation and niceties are not an option.
Managers seeking creative answers to acute business problems cannot afford to be any less trusting and direct.
Michael Skapinker is away