Adopt a Cow: Strategy as Improvisational Theater

For entrepreneurs and innovators, it's absurd to equate strategy with a Plan, with a capital P, all wrapped up in one neat package to be studied and followed slavishly. Certainly they need a theme, a domain, and a target. And they must show investors that there's a market. But because they are creating something new, how can they possibly follow a script?

John Kao likened the work of innovators to the jamming of jazz musicians who improvise around a theme; Amar Bhide said hustle can be strategy. I think of this as the difference between traditional theater and improvisational theater, or between traditional television drama and reality TV.

In traditional theater, everything is pre-programmed. The playwrights from the strategic planning department write the script and run rehearsals, i.e., training sessions, to prepare the actors to act out their parts flawlessly, as conceived by the planners.

Improv throws out the book. The actors count on their own imagination and teamwork. They start with a rough theme and to play off of it, coming up with variations to which they each adjust, changing in response to audience reactions. In fact audiences sometimes define the theme. The actors must think fast and adapt quickly. In the fast-paced technology world, this is called rapid prototyping — developing a series of possibilities in close communication with users and without knowing in advance exactly what will emerge.

That brings me to the cow-based marketing programs created by Stonyfield. Stonyfield, an organic yogurt producer, began with more imagination than cash. But Stonyfield's "CE-Yo" Gary Hirshberg had a big goal: commitment to becoming a SuperCorp (as I call it), combining innovation, profitable growth, and social good, improving health and the environment.

Using cows as their theme, Hirshberg's team improvised their way around the obstacles to a small upstart in the huge food industry. With theatrical flair, Stonyfield uses the Web and live events to get close to consumers and garner free media, starring the cows. Fans can adopt a cow on the website and get regular emails from their cow. They can also tune into to You Tube videos of cows chewing their cuds. The videos proved popular in unexpected ways, finding a receptive audience among Wall Street bankers who found it relaxing to take a cow break.

Stonyfield had to find ways to live up to its green commitment, using science more than theater. But science, too, can have an improvisational quality.That's what experiments are all about: trying and testing, then learning and testing again.

After I first surfaced the idea of strategy as improvisational theater in my book Evolve!, I heard from numerous troupes of actors that had improvised their way to better-paid careers. They became corporate consultants, bringing the tools of improvisational acting to leadership development programs. It seems that even established companies want the entrepreneurial spirit of getting on with it, rather than waiting for the script. Like organic yogurt, it's a healthy development.

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