It is said in the world of theatre, that a theatre piece is only as good as its transitions.
If the stage is not reset cleanly and deliberately between scenes (known as a transition), the story does not progress well. The audience is left confused, stuck in the last scene instead of attentive to what’s next. Distracted by remnants of where characters have been, instead of alert to hints of where they are going.
In business, the same is often true. As leaders, we tell a narrative that is only as good as our transitions. Transitions are what carry us and our audience forward. They are the platforms from which we launch toward more: more impact, more money, more purpose, more joy.
Yet most of us pay little attention to transitions. We stay on our stage, because it’s where we are now. We repeat our lines, because they’re what we know. We give people what they expect, for fear they will not stay to watch something new. And then we wonder why our career or business has failed to move forward.
A more useful question to ponder is; what have we failed to reset? A reset signals transition. It makes overt the need to shift—however subtlety—to somewhere new. Most importantly, it creates the space and structure people need to confidently move forward with us.
Leaders move themselves and others forward when they reset the business stage. This can be done in three ways.
- Rewrite the script.
Our brains love predictability because it makes us efficient. We constantly look for cues and corresponding behaviours that lead us to successful outcomes. Once we find behavioural patterns that work well for us, our brains put these on automatic and indefinite repeat.
Some people call this habit, others instinct. Cognitive psychologists call it ‘schema’.
A schema is like a short-cut for our brains. It’s a story our unconscious brain tells us about what is happening and what to expect next. We use schema to quickly organise information and formulate a response.
A ‘script’ is a special type of schema that guides us what to do in a situation. Scripts are built from expectations about what is correct and useful. If we are the actor, then the script is our internal director telling us where to stand, what to say, how to react. Scripts are highly useful provided you’re happy where you are.
If you want to progress to somewhere new, scripts will sabotage you. To move forward, we need a rewrite.
Unfortunately, scripts mostly reside in our unconscious brain. This makes them tricky to rewrite. As leaders, we must help ourselves and others to reset scripts when they cease to be useful. If we don’t, we risk staying on repeat instead of moving forward.
To rewrite the script:
- Redefine success.
Ask: what does success look like in future (not how it looks now)?
- Highlight unhelpful.
Ask: what am I doing now that will not carry me forward?
- Reframe the scene.
The world holds too much information for us to consciously process every piece. Instead, we attend only to selected pieces and use these as a frame of reference from which to make sense of what’s happening. I call these pieces of information a ‘scene’.
In their book The Art of Possibility, authors Rosamund and Benjamin Zander suggest that everything we see and experience is invented. They argue it is not the scene around us, but the story we invent from this scene, that determines our actions. To move forward into new possibilities, we must first invent a new story. We do this by reframing our scene.
As a leader, you cannot control the invention of a new story for anyone other than yourself. It’s an internal psychological process. You can, however, reframe the scene that shapes the story.
Reframing a scene involves removing redundant pieces of information—information that is untrue, unimportant, or unhelpful. Removing these pieces creates space to attend to newer pieces, thus shifting our frame, our scene, and our invented story.
A common trap, is that we introduce new pieces of information to a scene before we’ve removed the old pieces. This is much like painting a picture over another picture without first wiping the canvas clean. The two scenes bleed together and neither can be seen clearly.
Whether you are leading yourself or leading others, think consciously about the scene that’s currently setting your story. Is it holding you in place or moving you forward?
To reframe the scene:
- Uncover cues.
Ask: what prompted that unhelpful behaviour and can I remove it?
- Delete distractions.
Ask: what is no longer useful to be doing/thinking and how do I stop?
- Reset the players
I ran a workshop recently with a leadership team, designing the capability they needed to deliver a new strategy. The team were excited by where they wanted to take their business, and eagerly set to work mapping out the capability they would need to get there.
As the workshop progressed, I noticed one leader grow increasingly anxious. How will we get there, he asked, when our people don’t currently do any of this? We ask them to, replied someone. He observed; but that’s not what they signed up for.
It’s a deceptively simple solution: ask them. In an ideal world, we ask people to move forward with us, they agree, and off we all go. The risk in the real world however, is that people sign up for the new game without understanding the rules of how to play.
In business, rules come in the form of agreed expectations: this is what I expect from you, this is what you can expect of me. These expectations form a structure; a guideline and—most importantly—an agreement for how people will play well together.
When we fail to reset expectations, we fail to reset the players. In the absence of reset expectations, people revert to old agreements. These become the excuses we use not to move forward, because we’re preoccupied delivering on old promises.
The leader from my workshop was correct to highlight the need for people to agree not only to move forward, but also to what moving forward entails. He observed the need to reset the players by resetting the rules. In doing so, he helped his team move their people forward.
To reset the players:
- Exchange expectations.
Ask: what can I now expect of you and what do you now expect of me?
- Remove excuses.
Ask: what’s in the way of moving forward and how do we work through that?
In business, as in theatre, it is the transitions that carry us forward smoothly and efficiently. Pay attention to yours, and when you want to move forward do so by resetting your business stage.