Talk about goals.

02.15.11 | Comment?

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Goals are the bones of endeavor. Like bones, strong, clearly articulated goals provide structure to an endeavor and allow the various people involved in the endeavor to exert their energy at key points of leverage to move the endeavor forward. Without strong bones, a vertebrate animal is a lump of goo. Without clear goals, an endeavor is a bunch of people sort of trying to do stuff.

When two organizations try to work together on a project or when an organization brings in some contract workers to participate in a project, explicit discussion of the goals of the project and of the individual goals of each participant is a key component to building a functioning team. If goals are left undefined or worse, if all members of the team assume there are common goals but are unknowingly pursuing different goals, the final product will lack coherence and the process of carrying the project out will be full of frustration.

I’m a playgoer not a play maker, but I’ve been afforded just enough of a rehearsal hall and back stage view to believe that these basic management issues apply strongly to theatre activities ranging from the development of a script, through the planning of a season by an organization, to the casting, design, rehearsal, and performance of each production. There are not many things that apply equally well to the making of art or the making of a piece of software, but I’m convinced that the value of a focus on goals is one of them.

Theatre makers start with a small advantage, because the nature of the form tends to allow everyone involved to share the goal of creating a great production. Of course, definitions of what constitutes “great” for any given production can still create misunderstandings and cause people to work at cross purposes. Also, this sense of an overarching shared goal can encourage people to attempt to submerge their individual goals into that shared goal. People don’t produce at their best when their goals are submerged. They reach personal bests when their personal goals are aligned with or at least acknowledged within shared goals.

Here’s a toy example which could be drawn from the second season of the Canadian TV program Slings and Arrows or you might recognize it from something you’ve lived through.

A theatre company might choose a particular play to produce with the goal of spurring a strong emotional reaction from its audience then channeling that reaction into dialog about the subject matter of the play. Let’s say the script also has some structural challenges to it. The artistic director seeks out a director for the play who seems to be just as captivated with the script. The artistic director knows from seeing past work by this director that the director can handle structural complexity deftly. Most of their conversations are about the beauty and challenges of the script, about associated designers and actors who might be right for the project, about schedules and fees. Because everyone is busy, they never get around to a conversation about the goals involved in producing the play.

The director arrives to start rehearsals completely ready to direct a production of this play that takes full advantage of the structural intricacy of the play. In fact, the director is so focused on the aesthetic possibilities of the play that steps are taken in the design and performance that tend to push forward the unique structure of the play while pushing the emotional thrust of the play and in fact the story further into the background. Let us assume that the director and all involved do this very well indeed, producing a fresh, beautiful, exciting production; which is, unfortunately, utterly ill suited to meet the original goals of the producing theatre company. Audience members who attend are impressed by the artistry, but they are surprised that the experience varies widely from what they were led to expect by pre-performance communication from the company.

An explicit discussion of goals as part of the artistic courtship while building a team for each production would avoid this kind of disconnect. In fact, such a discussion of goals might have caused the artistic director and director to have agreed amicably that they could not share the same goals for this production and therefore should not work together this time.

And there is one more big benefit to open discussion of goals – addressing the goals of every individual who is a candidate to be involved in a project might provide a more palatable way to work through the uncomfortable phase of time during which several artists are considering working together. I have observed, and read in Todd London’s Outrageous Fortune, that many in the field feel challenged to communicate openly during what I think of as the maybe space – the time from when people first float the idea of working together and when a definite decision is made.

Many people have trouble being clear enough about what they are considering as they move towards a decision, for all sorts of reasons – not wanting to eventually disappoint prospective partners who aren’t chosen, not wanting to have to have arguments about criteria for decisions. I suggest that a clear discussion of the goals of the whole production and how those goals align or fail to align with the goals of all prospective participants is a valid but less worthiness-laden topic for conversation while in the maybe space. I don’t mean to imply that goals are the only thing that matters, but they do serve as a good thing to talk about while you are building up enough trust in the relationship to tackle more personal issues.

To walk my own talk, my personal goal in offering this article is to learn whether others in the community see value in developing ways to bring goal sharing into the team building process in your processes and whether I can be any help to you if you do. I’m also very interested in hearing practices out there that you are currently using to achieve goal alignment around your productions.

Pete Miller

IT and Arts leader, playgoer, board game player, home brewer.
Self ordained chaplain of the American theatre.

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