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Managing Specialists – interview med Robert Austin | Exart Performances

Managing Specialists – interview med Robert Austin

manAf Mads Olsen

”How can management supervise people who are highly specialized?”

Robert Austin (RA): “The question points out one of the ways work is becoming different from the way it was in the past. I once did an interview with a CEO of a software company in which she suggested that this is one of her most serious problems. She said it this way: “They sit there with 43 screens open on their 17 inch monitors and I have no idea of what they are doing.” So the academic way of putting it is that the nature of supervising is changing. There was a time when anyone who was supervising had done the work that he or she now was supervising. The work had not changed very much and therefore the supervisor was as good or better than the person on the front line. That is no longer true for a whole variety of work that can be called knowledge work. So the 21st century management question is “how do we manage people who a smarter than we are”?

This is where the art-anaology comes into play. Because this problem has long been familiar to the theatre director and the orchestra conductor. Those people are leading an ensemble that is composed of individuals that excel in particular areas to a far greater extent than the director or conductor does. This is one of the areas where business needs to learn from the arts.

My most interesting research at the moment comes out of theatre where it appears that the director allows a certain kind of interaction to happen.

Abigail Adams, Artistic Director of The People´s Light Theatre Company, is a fabulous manager and director of plays. She claims that she does both things the same way. She knows that her version of the play or her version of how the organisation operates is not as good as the version that can emerge from the collective processs. So her object is to create the space and environment in which people more specialized than herself can interact and produce a better thing than she can conceive of in the beginning of the processs. She does play a role in that process in directing focus of the work in this or that direction”.

“Directors do not have to be actors themselves to tell if an actor is giving his best. How can management know if these specialists are doing their best?”

RA: “There is a difference. The actor’s work is of course very observable whereas, say, a biotechnology researcher’s work is less observable. The theatre director has more visibility into the work as it evolves. Therefore in a business setting it is very important to create an environment where communication is open enough. A supervisor who can´t rely or direct observations may be able to rely on the information he or she can extract from the working communications and opinions of workers. The supervisor must be able to resist the urge to try to impose traditional controls. Because often the effect of traditional controls is to shut down lines of communication. You can´t measure specialists on a simple scale and still encompass the value of their work. They will figure out ways to look very good on that measure without actually improving their work. Traditional control will just make the supervisor look stupid because he dosn´t know what to control. The enlightened supervisor has to understand his or her vulnerability and try to keep lines of communication open”.

“What role does art play in the attempt to keep lines of communication open?”

RA: “One thing has a lot to do with the structure or ‘shape’ of work processes. A word that I use a lot is “iterative”. The iterative structure of rehearsal means you try something, see how it works, talk about it and then try it again. So you have this circle of rapid exploration and experimentation in hopes of producing a lot of variations and then selectively retaining the things that you think are working well. So one role that art practice can have is to act as a process model. If we think about the way innovative work ought to occur, it should produce variation not avoid it. That is something that the arts are very good at. Business often think of cheap and rapid variation as a more efficient exploitation strategy but I think it is more than that. And artists understand that it is more than that. It is not just a way of more rapidly exploring a space that you know about, it is a way of stumbling upon spaces that you are not looking at. The stumbling part makes business quite nervous. Stumbling is not something you are supposed to do in business. Stumbling in a more favourable direction is a part of arts processes. Artist often introduce variations into their practice to see what happens, to produce outcomes that cannot be foreseen. In innovative work there is a degree of randomness that has to enter and that is not an easy thing for business. It is almost the definition of what we mean by “new”: That if you find something where you expected it, it probably means that it is not very new. So there is a lot for the artists to teach the business about these kinds of processes”.

“Is it then art itself or the processes surrounding art that business can learn from?”

RA: “I´m never sure how one separates art from the process of art. Is art the product or the process? One of the conclusions I often reach, whether it is software development or theatre making, is that it is a mistake to focus too much on the static version of the final product. Many art forms don´t produce final products. The rehearsal continues after the play opens. They don´t call it rehearsal but as the violinist Paul Robertson says: “You are always rehearsing even when you are performing.” When we look at a Matisse on the wall we think of it as a final product. I wonder if Matisse thought of it as a final product or a snapshot of an ongoing process”?

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