I’ve told the end of this story before (Preparing to be bold in the moment). Two days after my 20th birthday, I told the director of the show I was stage managing to “get off my stage” as we were about to raise the curtain on our final dress rehearsal before opening night. Tony was one of three paid professionals working with us to produce and stage an original Broadway-scale musical. Brave and bold, I was asserting my legitimate authority as the stage manager. The curtain went up on time. The show did indeed go on.
Let’s back up about six weeks. So, for starters, I’m 19. It’s my second year in university, although I’m enrolled in classes as if its my third year. As stage manager, I’m responsible for scheduling and managing all the rehearsals for a cast of 40. I’m also coordinating with the set designers, technical director, and band leader over all the activities that go into getting the show onto the stage. A show that is still being written and has never been done before. Also, I’ve never done this before. Opening night is a fixed target but little else is.
To my professors, I was a name on the class roster that they hadn’t seen for weeks. To Tony, I was the guy he yelled at when he wasn’t stoned. I can’t remember the specific incident, but there came a day. I had failed at some element of my job that I didn’t know existed and got chewed out once again.
I left a note for the President of the group and disappeared. I was done. I was going to go back to school and see exactly how far behind I was in all of my courses. Brian found me several hours later deep in the recesses of the University library. He figured out it was the one place no one would think of looking for me.
I got talked off the ledge. Tony was still an ass. But, “the show must go on” is a very powerful argument. I did make it clear that I wasn’t likely to take any more crap from Tony. Which I demonstrated six weeks later.
This was also a critical incident in defining how I think about deadlines and deliverables. Deadlines are concrete. Deliverables are squishier. Sometimes, you tweak the deliverable to hit the deadline. Sometimes, you squeeze more effort in as the deadline looms. Renegotiating the deadline is a sign of failure.
All of this is premised on being able to describe and define deliverables with precision. Pretty straightforward if you’re turning out the next black, Model T. Manageable if you are delivering your 100th audit report. Things get more complicated if you’re inventing a search engine for this new thing called the Internet.
The more you move toward the creative end of the ledger, the more tenuous the connection between effort and outcome. It’s possible to force the process into a deliverable model. This is why, for example, so many consulting reports gather dust. Asking what answer could make a difference in this specific set of circumstances means risking real failure. Building the courage to face that risk takes time.