What Musical Theatre Can Teach Us About Business Strategy

What Musical Theatre Can Teach Us About Business Strategy

Musical theatre actors are amazing strategists. The similarities between the types of strategic decisions by a single actor in a musical and someone running a large organization are striking. Those actors make strategic decisions every day and we can learn some very important lessons from them. Let me explain.

Deliberate and Detailed

This week, I had the pleasure of listening to an actor speak about preparing for a recent audition. It was truly amazing. Each of the three main elements of a business strategy were clearly articulated through the choices she described. She had a clear objective for the character. She thought through her advantage – things the casting team wanted that she might be able to bring to the role that someone else may not. She also thought about what others might bring that she might not, and she thought about how to leverage both. But what truly impressed me was her attention to detail in the scope of her strategy.

Even for an audition, acting is more about making choices than I ever imagined. As she spoke about her preparation, the level of detail and the number of clear, deliberate scope choices she had to make was mind-numbing. “Should I deliver this monologue forcefully or softly – even if the character is hardnosed?” “Should I hold this note back in this bar and sing it softly, or blow the audience’s hair back?” “What is my character feeling when she says this – one – word?” “Where would this character look? Where wouldn’t she look?”

Back to Business

Throughout my career, I have helped develop strategies for very small and very large businesses and organizations. I have evaluated business ideas and program pitches, and held a position where it was my job to help many businesses to articulate and improve their strategies. In my experience, the second most common cause of poor performance was not being deliberate about scope. (The first was not truly having a strategy, but that’s a topic for another article.)

Like this actor, businesses need to make deliberate choices about what they will – and will not – do. They need deliberate answers to questions like:

• Which components will we build? Which won’t we build?
• Which components will we buy?
• Where will we build it? Where will we buy it?
• Which customers will we serve?
• Which potential customers will we deliberately not serve?

It would surprise you how often teams have no answer to either of the last two items.

Which languages (human and programming) to support, which geographies… at times it may feel as if the list is infinite. Though, your choices must be deliberate. Failure to make deliberate choices is abdicating your strategy to “luck”. While my father used to joke that he’d “rather be lucky than good” at anything, as a strategy, that one does not have a great track record of success.

Be Deliberate

The next time you’re thinking through strategy put yourselves in the shoes of our actor. The casting team liked what they saw, and they’ve called you back so they can see more. The stakes are high and you’ve decided you’re “not throwing away your shot”! So “Rise up!”, and:

• Ensure your strategy has a clear objective
• Clearly articulate your own advantage and how you can leverage it
• Make clear, deliberate choices about what is in scope, and what is not
• “Listen to the data” as you deploy; things might not be as you thought they were
• Inspect and adapt; things change, and your strategy will need to evolve


About the author

George Watt is a Partner at Becker-Carroll, a Converge Company, and is responsible for Strategy and Lean Innovation. A transformative leader, George has spearheaded initiatives that have enabled businesses and global enterprises to address complex technology problems, deliver new business benefits, and drive millions of dollars in savings and productivity gains. He has delivered innovations of his own such as a knowledge base for a neural network-based predictive performance management solution, one of the earliest private clouds (2005), and a lightweight event management agent.

As VP of Strategy for a multibillion-dollar technology company, he was responsible for global scientific research, worldwide innovation initiatives, and the design and operation of an innovative startup accelerator program. He has held many national and global leadership positions and has led global teams spanning North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. George is co-author of “The Innovative CIO” and “Lean Entrepreneurship” and tweets as @GeorgeDWatt.