What can we learn about organisational development from Danny Boyle?


August 2nd, 2012

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“The isle is full of noises ,sounds and sweet airs that give delight and harm not” the words of Caliban, spoken by Isambard Kingdom Brunel aka Kenneth Branagh whose vigorous voice gave life to Shakespeare’s  words in the opening of Danny Boyle’s Olympic Ceremony.

For the next three hours the isle was indeed full of noises as England’s idyll gave way to England’s Armageddon, the invention of our story tellers,  the brilliance of our engineers , the commitment of our nurses  gave way to the wit of our Queen and the energy of our musicians.

What Danny Boyle did in his Opening Ceremony was to allow the complexity of our nation to shine through.  He did not force a single story but allowed quirkiness, eccentricity, humour , brilliance , inspiration, endeavor, honour and humility to co-exist on one glorious stage, so that across the country people recognised something of themselves in what they saw. And they liked what they saw.

And what has that got to do with Organisational Development the discipline which has at its heart the responsibility to ensure that the organisation is fit for purpose? A lot as it happens; organisations, like Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony, are complex entities not best served by the straight jacket of conformity  or the tyranny of a single story. While the single story is appealing in its simplicity, it risks exclusion . Organisations need to be able to accommodate multiple perspectives,  to be inclusive not just for the sake of appearances but because in diversity lies innovation, challenge and the creativity. Organisations need to survive in a diverse world.

There is  much to learn from Danny Boyle whose commitment to inclusion was exemplified by the Wall of Memory.  Even those who could not be there in the Olympic Stadium were included .

OD is about seeing the big picture, seeing the interconnectedness of things and at the other end of the scale it’s also about sweating the small stuff. Ensuring that organisational values play out at a micro level as well as at a macro level  means they run more than skin deep and will really drive your business .Danny Boyle with a big picture commitment to inclusion made sure that even  the dresses of the young women accompanying the trams into the stadium carried a digital print of  images of those volunteers not able to be at the ceremony.  It seemed as though just like  the lettering on Brighton Rock those values ran right through the core of the production.

It is sometimes said in OD that the first question you ask in an organisation is fateful determining the outcome of the conversation. When asked by the BBC”s Hew Edwards “Where do you start trying to construct an event of this scale?”  Danny Boyle said “We sat down with a blank sheet of paper and asked what is it about us; you focus on the best of us…  Hew it’s a wonderful thing to do …… you do have to be slightly critical …

The results of that focus on the best of us writ large for 60 billion people around the world to see, played out in the Olympic Stadium on Friday night. When you look at the world through a lens which says let’s look at what’s working you find the energy for the challengers which lie ahead and that applies as much to organisational life as to the Olympic Games.

And finally leadership; Danny Boyle demonstrated that if you ask people to do something important in a way that makes sense to them; if you engage them in the challenge in a way which connects with them, they will do it. In the week leading up to the Opening Ceremony approximately 100,000 people must have become aware of the details of the ceremony. Danny Boyle asked them to “Save the Secret “and they did. Despite the lure of Facebook, Twitter, email and text they  saved the secret becoming part of what made one magical night .

Sue Bephoto of Sue Belgravelgrave is an associate of Roffey Park and organisational development specialist with 20 years experience gained in both senior management roles and consultancy work.