Monday 9 March 2009

How do you measure innovation?

A frequent criticism of performance management and measurement is that it stifles creativity. Intuitively we believe this to be true – innovative endeavours cannot be time-boxed or benchmarked. That, we argue, is the nature of innovation.

On Saturday evening, however, I had the pleasure of witnessing a ballet performance that was both innovative and measurably excellent.

Northern Ballet Theatre’s production of Swan Lake was horrifyingly original and spectacularly successful. I say horrifyingly because this was Swan Lake – the perennial favourite of ballet lovers everywhere. The one classical ballet that pretty much guarantees the crowds. So it is a brave choreographer who messes with Swan Lake.

Northern Ballet, however, are unafraid of tackling large and contemporary topics with their dance.

They are gritty, humorous, and the very best of what you might expect from the North.

Their Swan Lake managed to pull off the seemingly impossible. They found heartbreak and depths of emotion in Tchaikovsky’s music through the storyline rather than pirouettes. Their athletic male dancers replaced the prettiness of the swans’ tutus but left no-one short changed. The final scene had us transported to a world only rarely glimpsed. And when the final curtain fell the audience was so caught up in the sheer drama of what they had just seen that no one could remember what the original Swan Lake was all about.

But how do you measure something as emotional and innovative as this? By the number of seats sold for the performance? By the rapturous applause? By the loud and unmistakably male northern voice behind me that pronounced “that were brilliant!” as the curtain fell. I guess all of this, and more.

Northern Ballet Theatre like any other business is accountable both commercially and artistically. In their 40th Anniversary year they are going from strength with glowing critical acclaim and performances in more theatres throughout the UK. But in this business, as in any other, the numbers matter. Whilst the numbers can only mirror the brilliance of their current artistic director, David Nixon, and not replace it, they are nonetheless important in securing funding and ensuring more people get to appreciate the power of dance.

The numbers also speak volumes about the standards that the artistic team set for their dancers and their company. Alongside Opera North this is another northern gem that is hitting well above its weight.

I’d wager seats in the stalls that both companies keep more than half an eye on their performance management statistics, silencing any critics who say that measurement stifles creativity.


  1. I like the post.

    It does take a lot of talent to keep audiences coming, and measuring it. In this case, it also proves that you should get the basics right (get something that works) and improve on it.

    Good talent will only work if you are applying it on a good plan. Measuring it is the next step.

  2. Thanks for the positive feedback. And I can’t agree more about the basics – none of the daring or boldness would have worked if these dancers hadn’t been absolutely first rate in their execution.

    I think there is so much to be gained by looking at completely different businesses to learn lessons and gain insights.

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