A Commonplace

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30/9/2017

Improvisational Theatre and Project Management - what have they got in common?

- the need to make it up as you go along - Part 2

The Hero's Journey and the MORAL CHOICE

This one's going to sound a bit mental, but stick with it. One of the really interesting things about improvisation, especially Keith Johnstone's take on improvisation is what it has to say about story. If you imagine a graph, with time along the bottom and one of these - craziness, risk, danger, uncertainty - along the other axis, a story, in it's most basic form can be thought of as a triangular path. You start the story with a steady state of certainty and low risk - then something happens. Something is shown to be not quite right - or a opportunity reveals itself. It's at this point that the hero of the story has to make a choice - do they explore the opportunity, or do they ignore it? Do they leave the safety of home and go on the journey or do they shut the door and turn on the telly?

Why doesn't the hero want to go on the journey? Because people don't want to be changed (see the last post).

And exactly this is what happens in projects. Really. Most projects start of being regarded as straight-forward and uncomplicated by somebody. In fact, if they weren't at least made to appear safe and straight-forward to somebody, they wouldn't get funded (fake certainty and safety is one of the main uses of plans). But pretty soon in the first act of most projects it becomes obvious that things aren't going to be as simple and straight-forward as everybody hoped. And this is where the hero has to make a moral choice.

And who's the hero? Good question? One thing I've realised just writing this is that the "hero" can't be the project manager(I put hero in scare quotes there because otherwise it would just look too ridiculous). The hero is the person who has the authority to make a choice and decide to go on the journey. The project manager is more of a "forerunner" who makes it clear to the hero that they have to make this choice. OK, this is sounding really mental. Fuck it, I'm going to see it through. In the stories I can think of, this character is older and more senior (Dr Emmett Brown in back to the future, Gandalf, Obi-Wan Kenobi, John the Baptist - in Greek he is called the "forerunner"). Which is why in projects rather than stories it goes so badly in projects the seniority relationship is mostly the other way round - the hero is notionally the boss.

But another thing that becomes really obvious now, that wasn't so obvious just a few minutes ago when I started writing this is that being the hero and having to make that choice is fucking difficult. They aren't called heroes for nothing. Acknowledging that things are uncertain and difficult and the project isn't going swimmingly, changing time lines, changing cost estimates, making the choice to put things right (I'm talking about projects now, not Death Stars). Who wants that? But of course now, thinking about this and writing it down, what I realise is that in many stories, the hero's choice isn't made on a farm in Tatooine, or in the Shire. It's made after the hero has watched an alien burst out of a crew member's chest. Or after he's been chained to a bed by one of his biggest and craziest fans. Or after the most beautiful women he's ever met turns up with her husband and asks him to save her form the Nazis! In many stories, the hero has to make a choice after already being thrown into a crisis. And out of this thought comes a very interesting conclusion and the following logical argument:

1. All interesting projects and stories involve the hero making a moral choice
2. Heroes don't want to make moral choices
3. One way of helping them is having an alien burst out of the chest of one of the crew members.

Just plugging my seminar now on November 12th. Where else in London, or even the planet are you going to hear someone talking about project management in terms of manufacturing crises - and aliens? What does a crisis give you? A different, more informed, view of the world and a different (hopefully, much more short-term and motivated) plan of action. Either that or death.