Let’s be disruptive!

Teaching eight groups at a drama summer school recently I was struck by their different chemistry. In some groups the actors worked harmoniously together but other groups seemed disruptive. Personalities were clashing.

Alongside this, I’ve been training the CEO of a European company. One of the key features he is most proud of is that his company is on the MIT Review list of 2013’s “50 most disruptive companies” in the world. This is not a negative. Disruption here refers to the way companies have challenged the market leaders and opened up new markets. In other words, making change happen.

This leads me back to think of disruptive groups I’ve taught over the years around the world. At the time they could be hard going, both to teach and to be in. But there’s a curious phenomenon: it often happened that when the personality of the overall group was spiky – when individuals clashed – many of the actors went on to have very successful careers. Conversely, those in a mild group often, but not always, tended to do less well.

This also reminds me of one of my favourite books from the flower power movement in the late 1960s: Abbie Hoffman’s Revolution for the Hell of It. It was the manifesto of a joyously anarchic revolution where theatre – on the streets and in the parks – played a central part in challenging just about everything going.

What makes disruption positive rather than negative is its values. A company creating a new market. Revolution as a force for fun. Actors looking for new ways of exciting audiences. The disruption is driven by innovation.

Now the interesting point is: what causes a group to be disruptive? Is it mere chance that a certain number of ‘disruptive’ people come together in a group – a statistical blimp? Or does it take only one or two people within the group to be disruptive, thereby changing the group’s culture? Bernard Shaw wrote, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him… The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself… All progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Maybe we should aim to be less reasonable and more disruptive in our work.

The opposite of disruptive is compliant. The compliant group will generally be lacking in confidence or individuality and unwilling to challenge the status quo. People will be timid, not wanting to disturb, hesitant, self-conscious, unready to take risks, fearful of what others may be thinking. In such a group, the energy is sucked out of the room. After these people have worked together for a long period, habits of compliance become entrenched. The work becomes tentative and it never really thrills the audience. Compliant actors tend to get stuck.

What can you personally do, then, when you find yourself in a compliant group? And this will sometimes happen – in a drama school or the cast of a play, or film, or TV series. Researchers tell us that half our motivation comes from our environment and the other half comes from within us. But you can influence that by going back to your values – enthusiasm (which spreads joyful energy) warmth (which opens up everyone else), generosity (which makes people less stressfully competitive).

Gradually the culture of the group can shift. As a director, you can set the culture by encouraging these values at the outset, and you can make sure your cast lives up to them by constantly reminding them.

So, do you see yourself as Bernard Shaw’s reasonable or unreasonable individual? Give positive disruption a try and see where it takes you.