Choreographers - The Missing Role


"It's really hard to find a job as a Renaissance Man" 

Choreographer Job Applicant

Every form of innovation has it's starring role.   Reductionist innovators favor Project Managers with their fixed processes and detailed work plans.  The Lean Product Innovation team that's looking for new ideas and running fast moving pilots, values Designers with strong streaks of creativity and user empathy.   

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The Messy Middle has its champion too, but unfortunately this has been a role without a name.   The person in this position must see the connections across a system, imagine an elegant architecture that serves the needs of diverse participants and balance tradeoffs, all the time working with incomplete information in a shifting ever changing reality.  

Call them Choreographers

The fact that the professional at the center of the innovation team has no recognized job title, is a sign that complex systems innovation is still a new practice in most organizations.  However, in the arts this isn't a problem.  There are lots of well recognized roles for these big picture, creative architects.  

In the arts there are choreographers, film directors, musical conductors, and television show runners.  They all have the same fundamental responsibility, shape the creative path of a complex endeavor, bringing together diverse elements to deliver on a promise.  

It's time this creative leadership role had a name in the rest of the world.  This is a proposal to call them Choreographers.  

It's easy to see the connection these big picture innovators have back to the arts.  They are typically passionate about original creation, happily rising to the challenge of doing something difficult in a messy and imperfect world. The best of them heroically lead teams, break rules, and follow hunches rather than directions.  They'll courageously (or stupidly) stand up to authorities who stands in the way of vision.   

The Missing Role  

Filling this role is essential for innovation team that is hoping to navigate the long journey to evolve an adaptive system.   The Choreographer contributes essential big picture thinking throughout the Messy Middle's long innovation lifecycle.   

  • Framing the problem space as a complex system
  • Integrating diverse interests and constraints
  • Helping envision a target system vision   
  • Telling a compelling story for change
  • Spotting gaps and dangers along the way
  • Pivoting the team around constraints
  • Seeing unexpected opportunities

The choreographer has the big picture view to see both problems and opportunities in a complex domain and know what to do about them.  Experienced choreographers bring a generalists broad based knowledge and an experts sensitivity to small deviations from normal.   

They make moving through complex, uncertain, creative terrain possible, which makes it ironic that organizations have for years been diligently working to clean them out.  The reason for this is that the same skills that make Choreographers effective when working with complex, shifting system innovations, are down right dysfunctional if some other type of innovation is being used.  

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An engineering innovator who wants to lock down a project plan and then execute each step on time and in budget, does not value a Choreographer's ability to throw out the rule book and imagine a new path forward.   Similarly, an executive that's being measured on fixed project metrics will be less than excited by the big picture thinker who thinks they see danger lurking two years down the road or is constantly pushing to expand scope.      

Wandering Careers

What does an organization do if they want to stock up on choreographers?   It's hard.  There is no college degree (yet) and the role lacks a generally recognized title outside the arts.  The hunt is made more difficult by a choreographers tendency to shift professions and business domains throughout their career.  Frequently their resumes look like fruit salad, with the hidden unifying factor being their role in pioneering complex change.     

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You can look for other signs too.   They will be grudgingly proud of their ability to cross silos, break rules, and charge in where fools would fear to tread.   They will have stories of rescuing efforts that were floundering under conventional guidance.   They'll confess their love of big ambitious challenges.  

For most, it seems that being a choreographer is who they are.  They have often been engaged in big picture thinking of some sort since they were young.   Even if they get a "regular" job, they'll end up reframing it to allow for bigger creative action.   

Filling  the Choreographer Gap

One organization that was fighting to maintain leadership of their industry, assessed their over 200 middle management positions in the product development organization and found precisely zero of those positions were filled by choreographers.   The rest were traditional engineering style project managers.  

These 200 dedicated project planners acted as a "frozen middle" layer of the organization.  Change driven from above or rising up from below slammed to a halt when it encountered the frozen middle layer of management.  Breaking through this wall requires finding choreographers and then getting them into place.  

With that shift, it then becomes possible for the organization to pursue complex system change.   Essential actually, because choreographers won't stay around if they are locked into small narrowly defined challenges.