Building systems intuitions

Heroes always need a Sancho Panza. Not for comic relief but for essential logistical support.

In high school I found my way into the theater, not onstage but in the wings. I had a friend who persuaded me to audition with her for her school’s upcoming production. I was horrible. That disaster became a path to working on the tech crew where I learned how much work went into creating the magic.

Even a one-person show has a multitude working out of sight. There are directors, producers, set designers, lighting designers, carpenters, electricians, stage hands, ushers, ticket takers, publicity managers, and the list goes on. I financed a chunk of my college education working in those roles. I met my wife working backstage in community theater.

The role I gravitated to was stage manager, which sits at the intersection of several streams. It is where the design work, preparation work, and backstage efforts come together to support the performance on stage. The insight I gained from that perspective was that excellence depended on blending all of the elements in play. You could get acceptable results from focusing on any one to two elements. But the best outcomes depended on taking advantage of all the components interacting.

They way I would explain that today is that excellence flows from systemic performance. For all that we talk of systems in today’s organizations, developing a true systems perspective runs counter to most of our intuitions. Russell Ackoff remains a source for replacing those intuitions with more principled understanding. The following video is longish but more than worth the time to work with and understand: