This week we caught up with O’Brien McMahon, a Senior Vice President at Lockton, O’Brien helps HR and business leaders build better employee...
Hannah Reichardt & Dan McClure | The Choreographer
In this podcast, we continue our conversation with Hannah Reichardt and Dan McClure who are busy explaining a new unique business role: The Choreographer.
Hannah is an innovation strategist, with two decades of experience working in overseas aid and commercial sectors, getting stuck into big challenges and having a great time along the way.
Her innovation experience includes developing solutions across multiple collaborating entities, designing and implementing digital solutions for new markets, and devising and delivering approaches for rapid learning and iteration in complex contexts. She's a specialist in multi-stakeholder collaborative working, monitoring, and learning, as well as creative ideation.
Outside of work, Hannah is learning to skateboard and trying hard to channel her 'learn through action' belief (with helmet and pads).
Dan is a lifelong choreographer who has spent a four-decade career running into burning buildings. He has led ecosystem innovation efforts across industries undergoing deregulation and disruptive change, governments working to respond more nimbly to big opportunities, and international organizations taking on challenges in aid, climate, and the environment.
He has been a thought leader, shaping ecosystem innovation practices that intentionally embrace complex problems. Today, collaborating with the other choreographers in Innovation Ecosystem, he gets to dive into exciting messy challenges from across the globe, pursuing big ideas from Mongolia to Jamaica.
[00:00:00] - Hannah Reichardt
But choreographers can add a lot of magic where you've got a really complex, tricky problem with multiple parts that's dynamic, it's moving at the same time, and you need to be able to dive in and bring different stakeholders together, weave together a completely different vision, and really craft something that is going to move multiple parts at the same time and meet different stakeholders' needs.
[00:00:31] - Doug Foulkes
Hello and welcome to Episode 90 of Chaos & Rocketfuel, the Future of Work podcast. This is the podcast that looks at every aspect of work in the future. It's brought to you by WNDYR and Pattyrn, and I am your host, Doug Foulkes. Along with me is my co-host, Claire Haidar.
[00:00:47] - Doug Foulkes
Claire is also the CEO at WNDYR. Claire, we are busy chatting to Hannah and Dan about choreographers. If you missed the first episode, bring us up to speed on that, and what are we talking about specifically today?
[00:01:03] - Claire Haidar
So Doug, as we pointed out in episode number 1, this is not about dance choreographers, this is very much about a role that companies are starting to identify, and Hannah and Dan are actually putting a label on this and saying this is a critical role that exists in companies today but hasn't necessarily been called out and recognized as such.
[00:01:22] - Claire Haidar
So we look at the bare basic definitions in segment 1. And now in segment 2, we're starting to actually look at, okay, so yes, these people exist, what now? Should companies be actively hiring for them? Should job specs be written about this role? What exactly is their importance? What is the ROI that they bring to companies? So very much the practical side of this.
[00:01:48] - Claire Haidar
I'm an executive listening to this podcast, what do I do with this knowledge now? How, most importantly, do I just start at the very basic point of identifying the existing individuals who are choreographers in my organization?
[00:02:03] - Doug Foulkes
Fantastic. Let's continue our conversation with Hannah and Dan.
[00:02:08] - Claire Haidar
Yes, let's do it.
[00:02:11] - Doug Foulkes
I'm going to jump in here. Really now we know what choreographers are, what they do. Let's talk about some of the applications of that role. My first question really is to both of you is who should be hiring choreographers at the moment?
[00:02:25] - Hannah Reichardt
Well, I guess where choreographers are brilliant is not where you have a really clearly defined project with a really set of resources and a controlled context in which to put it all together. For that, you need someone who has really strong project management skills. But choreographers can add a lot of magic where you've got a really complex, tricky problem with multiple parts that's dynamic, it's moving at the same time, and you need to be able to dive in and bring different stakeholders together, weave together a completely different vision, and really craft something that is going to move multiple parts at the same time and meet different stakeholders' needs.
[00:03:06] - Hannah Reichardt
I think that problem, as Dan said, is growing in occurrence. We're seeing it more and more. I think also we're seeing companies, particularly in order to up their game in more competitive, more disruptive contexts, have to reconceive how they think about the spaces they're operating in and really think of them as more complex spaces.
[00:03:28] - Hannah Reichardt
Any organization or any initiative that is operating in that complexity can make really good use of a choreographer. That might mean working only within your entity or it might mean reaching out and forming really strong connections elsewhere, but that's what choreographers can help you do to really see beyond the limits of your existing toolkit, of your existing org, and existing set of doing things in a certain way.
[00:03:54] - Dan McClure
I think it's really interesting to look at the growth of that problem space. Hannah mentioned disrupted companies. You look at the fourth industrial revolution and they talk about all the technology changes, et cetera. The key themes underlying there are that the ecosystems that industries and businesses were built around aren't going to work the same in the future.
[00:04:21] - Dan McClure
As a result, if you're going to survive as an organization, you have to reimagine what you are at some fairly fundamental level. That challenge, most organizations aren't prepared for unless you bring somebody in who has this ability to see weird things fitting together in new ways and imagine how you could actually make that work for your organization. As more of these problem spaces emerge, I think we're going to see more and more organizations say, "I need somebody who can step into that role for me."
[00:04:57] - Doug Foulkes
It just dawned on me, we've been talking for over 20 minutes, and the word collaboration hasn't cropped up at all, and it's a big part of what I'm seeing for a choreographer, is almost like a very good collaborator on steroids. You said it has this ability to take it further out and up to the next level all at the same time. Is that a fair assumption?
[00:05:19] - Dan McClure
I think you might get a different answer here with Hannah and me. Let me try my version first. I think a collaborator is often imagined as somebody who's an incredibly good party planner. They bring people together, they convene, they get people talking, or a negotiator and a bridge builder of like, "I can establish a dialog between people with different prospects.
[00:05:48] - Dan McClure
I would say choreographers are a little more meat and potatoes about it. They really have a vision of how things need to be connected, and so they're not simply bringing people together to talk. They're bringing people together to connect an ecosystem in a meaningful, actionable way. As a result, there's more engineering, there's more strategy, there's more applied, making all the pieces work together and getting the right trade offs, rather than simply a soft, comfortable version of convening and collaboration.
[00:06:30] - Hannah Reichardt
They're not there just to rub people's backs and make people feel good. They want to make action happen, and that's maybe the big difference. It's collaboration, really, that's driven by a desire to do things, make things happen, not just allow people to feel heard and supported in that.
[00:06:48] - Claire Haidar
I had an interesting thought while I post our preparation call for this podcast and then in compiling the framework of our conversation. To me, my husband and I have just recently become pilots, and it definitely dawned on me that there's definitely a similarity between a pilot and a choreographer because essentially… But yet, at the beginning of this conversation, I actually thought, no, when the innovation component came through so strongly that maybe that analogy wasn't right in my mind. But now what you've just said about the meats and potatoes piece, the real actioning of that solution that they're seeing makes me go back to that pilot analogy.
[00:07:36] - Claire Haidar
The reason why I say that is because the main thing about piloting is not actually about flying the plane because the systems are so sophisticated today that you actually have to turn them off to be able to go back to old-fashioned pilotage, quite literally, which a lot of pilots choose to do to just get the thrill of that old-fashioned pilotage. Why the role of the pilot is still so critical is because it's the analysis of the whole environment. So the weather systems, the change in wind, the understanding of the weight and balance on the plane, and how that's going to impact the performance within the given external factors.
[00:08:14] - Claire Haidar
It's the speed at which those external factors change where the pilot literally in real time, set out with the plan, but the plan changes in real time. The pilot has to adjust according to that and bring it all together to actually land the plane safely. I think it's not only the understanding of the constantly changing external variables, it's being able to navigate them that's critical.
[00:08:42] - Dan McClure
Yeah. I think a lot of people when they think innovation, they think creativity. If you go to a bookstore and look at innovation books, it's all about how do I come up with ideas? How do I be more brilliant?
[00:08:58] - Dan McClure
We have, I think, a more practical definition of innovation, which is doing something new. That practical making something new happen, yes, it involves ideation. You got to come up with some ideas and things. But it also involves this architecture, it also involves the persuasion and bringing people along, as Hannah was saying, with storytelling.
[00:09:22] - Dan McClure
But crucially, you're not done when you've laid out the plan. You've got to navigate this journey of shaping a complex ecosystem with lots of different people and putting that into place. That's one of the big places where choreographers really step in is they're not just idea people. They're how do I pilot this change, this new vision of the way things could be into the future?
[00:09:51] - Hannah Reichardt
I would say they're really good at live learning. As a choreographer, you're dealing with uncertainty. You don't know that what you're going to do is going to solve the problem, but you're going to try things and see what happens and stay really curious about what you're learning. So choreographers have to be embodying and demonstrating with everyone they're working with around them what live learning actually looks like, and how you chart your course and change your course along the way.
[00:10:18] - Dan McClure
Contrast, just real quickly, the difference between live learning as a choreographer and fail fast from an Eric Ries product model. It's not simply, I have a hypothesis, I test it, yes or no, and if it fails, I come up with another hypothesis. It's, I'm looking at all the things around me and constantly using those to adapt my approach. So it's many more variables, seeing how they fit together and adapting the entire solution, rather than just running a bunch of one-off experiments where I can fail fast and just move on to the next one.
[00:10:56] - Claire Haidar
What we're talking about here has two very distinct characteristics within the business specifically. Is this is a highly disruptive person that causes stress to people around them and also at the same time requires a certain amount of resources that can't really be—just like they themselves can't be constrained into a role—that can't really be constrained into a pre-planned budget.
[00:11:28] - Claire Haidar
We're talking about a scenario that requires some level of funding or cushion in a business to make this really work. Can you guys talk us through that and comment on that specifically? Firstly, how does a business hold space for this person and navigate the chaos that they cause? Second one is, how do we manage that financial component?
[00:11:59] - Hannah Reichardt
I think what choreographers really need in order to succeed is both protection. So they need to have a protected space in which they work. They need to have some leadership support to enable them to do what they're doing. They can't do everything successfully under the radar, like hiding away and operating covert missions. They've got to be out there in the open. But they also need to have freedom and some authority to make things happen.
[00:12:29] - Hannah Reichardt
It's my experience, when I've been in a choreographer role within an organization before, I maybe thought I had one of those things. It turned out I didn't have the other. Therefore, I really wasn't able to be as impactful as I thought I was. I might have had lots and lots of freedom, which I did actually. In fact, I could start and think about all sorts of different things, pick up conversations externally, internally with lots of different people to get things moving, but it turned out I really didn't have that actually this freedom in that sense of having the authority to actually do things. When it came to the disruption and difficult conversations that you start, have someone back in your corner who's going to make sure that the work can continue.
[00:13:12] - Hannah Reichardt
So it's a really important question for organizations that are thinking about having choreographers is to answer that and make sense of what that means in your business context. The right amount of space, the right amount of protection for choreographers to be effective.
[00:13:25] - Dan McClure
One of the things we've said is that choreographers are very wed to these new problem spaces that we need to disrupt an industry or that we need to solve a big, hard problem, or that we need to expand out a pilot to really involve many more people and pieces. That's something the organization needs to commit to.
[00:13:49] - Dan McClure
It's worth remembering that we're not simply saying you have to support the choreographer role, you also actually have to support the choreographer's mission. You have to have an organization that's ready to say, "It's important for me to fundamentally change myself to compete in the marketplace." If you're not ready to make that mission commitment, no amount of protection of the choreographer is going to be enough.
[00:14:20] - Claire Haidar
I think that's really critical what you've pointed out there, Dan, because that's where my mind was going when I was alluding to the funding cushion that I was referencing because that's directly tied to shareholder buy in. That's directly tied to strategy commitment because this requires strategy. This requires... And that requires board sign off.
[00:14:46] - Claire Haidar
If you look at most companies today—this is just my personal opinion, I could be proven completely wrong if we went and looked at the data and actually surveyed this—but I don't see a lot of choreographers sitting on boards, and I think that's a problem.
[00:15:05] - Dan McClure
I think choreographers tend to get fired from almost any job they hold.
[00:15:12] - Claire Haidar
[00:15:12] - Dan McClure
Whether that's a board position or an executive. There was actually an interesting Bain study that showed that people with the NT, NF personality types from a Myers–Briggs perspective, were much more likely to be fired as executives than others.
[00:15:32] - Dan McClure
I think the misfit, the tension of this disruptive person is going to be felt almost no matter where they're at, whether it's board, executives, in the middle of the organization. I think your analogy, though, earlier of having to turn off the autopilot, turn off all the equipment of the plane so that you can actually steer it, is in some ways what needs to happen. Organizations need to turn off some of the systems that keep the organization locked in its existing world so that the choreographers can help you pilot into a new space.
[00:16:11] - Doug Foulkes
How do you actually then employ or look for a choreographer? Because maybe in today's environment, it's not a job specification as such. Is it something that they're taken on in one role and then find that, "Okay, I've got this interest in this area. I like being a bit more disruptive. I like to have a little bit more authority." Where does choreographers live when they're not choreographers?
[00:16:37] - Hannah Reichardt
I think it's a part of it, Doug, is that they are hiding in plain sight often in parts of your company where maybe they haven't successfully climbed the ladder because actually their skill set and their interest hasn't served them in that direction. They might be the people who are asking really difficult questions and trying to start new things and linking up different people and projects together that maybe hadn't thought of.
[00:17:02] - Hannah Reichardt
I do think they're often all around us and it's just about looking differently at what the skills have that they present and what you need. If you value this role, I think you have to intentionally go and look for them, whether it's internally or externally. Be intentional about hiring this role and making them work well within an organization structure.
[00:17:21] - Hannah Reichardt
Think about what it is that they need in order to be successful. What is support appropriate to them in the environment in which they were operating? How do they make sure they have the right executive-level sponsorship so that they have the permission to ask the bigger questions, to imagine perhaps a bigger system change, perhaps to start asking different questions around how value is created in your org, and really start challenging the things you've taken for granted? How do you make sure that they have then both the freedom and the protection to be able to do their jobs really well?
[00:17:52] - Claire Haidar
I think, Hannah, if I can ask you to get even a little bit more practical. Let's say, for example, myself, because if you look at our audience who's listening to this podcast, they're predominantly C-level executives in anything from midsize to enterprise-level companies is, I listen to this podcast, I have my aha moment where I'm like, I need more choreographers. I either need to go and surface them in my existing org, or I need to actually go and head hunt them.
[00:18:25] - Claire Haidar
We've spoken about uncovering them inside the org. I think we've spoken about that pretty accurately, but let's say we have to go and head hunt them. Where would you start? How would you actually go and head hunt this person?
[00:18:40] - Dan McClure
Actually, we've had an engagement where we've been head hunting for choreographers for an organization or enabling them to go head hunt. The first step in that is really spelling out the nature of the job. So clearly describing what it is that you envision this role to be. Cross-cutting, big picture thinking, generalist, somebody who's going to help you invent a bigger solution to a hard problem.
[00:19:10] - Dan McClure
What's interesting is for the people who are choreographers, who read those types of job descriptions, they get really excited. To an extent, getting a clear job description out there does a lot for you.
[00:19:28] - Dan McClure
As we were doing interviews with these folks, which were all the way from C level to mid manager director level roles, you would find people saying, "I've been doing this role my entire life. I never knew what it was that I was, but I guess I am this person." I think in some ways, the first pass here is just being very clear about the role and how it fits into your organization and being able to spell that out.
[00:20:01] - Dan McClure
I would suspect that two things are going to happen in the future as we go forward. One, there will become more general recognition around this role. You'll have more official academic curriculums, et cetera. This is what we saw in systems thinking and user-centered design, but you're also going to have more intense competition.
[00:20:23] - Dan McClure
Right now, I think simply saying, "I've got a job for you that doesn't insult your talent," may be enough for you to get a good choreographer on board. In the future, you're going to have to work harder to get these uniquely talented people.
[00:20:39] - Hannah Reichardt
If you want a starting point to think about how you craft a job description that will help you find this person, we've got one on our website, which is a really good place to start.
[00:20:48] - Claire Haidar
Amazing. We are definitely going to be linking back to that. I think what you guys have both just said is very similar to where we've seen engineering roles go, where before people were hiring front end, back end specialist in each of those areas, and that's where the full stack engineer has emerged.
[00:21:11] - Claire Haidar
There's a reason why they're paid so much more than the single specialist engineer. It's because they're full stack, it's because they work across the entire technology lifecycle, everything. You know what I mean? And that it's very similar to that.
[00:21:26] - Doug Foulkes
That is the end of part 2 of our conversation about the world of choreography with Hannah and Dan. If you missed the first part of our conversation, you can check it out on Spotify, Google or Apple podcast, or on WNDYR's website, WNDYR.com. We'll conclude our chat shortly. From Claire and myself, we'll see you soon.