Ensemble Structure II: Towers, Clouds, and Exponential Growth

Sunday, September 13, 2009 Leave a Comment

(This is a continuation of thoughts on Ensemble structure - read the first post here.)

I just read Rob Cross' post on ONA, aka Organizational Network Analysis, via Beth's Blog on nonprofits and Social Media (just the way to start a Sunday). ONA looks like a wonderful tool for analyzing how a company/Ensemble actually works. Instead of looking at the traditional hierarchy of decision making power, it looks at who is connected in an essential way to the work of his/her colleagues.

The result looks more like a cloud than a tower; with central nodes of people who are meaningfully connected with many co-workers, and those on the periphery who have little contact with the rest of the organization. As the post has it, these central nodes are not always particularly high up on hierarchy, but without these central people, everyone else isn't able to do their jobs. Here's what it looks like:

As Beth notes, this ONA structure connects with Mark Pescue's essay "Tower and the Clouds", a thesis on the tension between tradition hierarchical models (tower to the left) and social media networks (cloud to the right).

This work is valuable on an administrative level for Ensemble theatres because our structure naturally tends towards the cloud rather than the tower. In thinking of how to grow organizational capacity, the cloud model is a much more accurate tool for our collaborative, flexible structure.

But what really excites me is applying this tool towards the artistic growth of the company, because it involves a conceptual shift. If we employed ONA on the artistic side, we would see a dense web with the show's director, SM and Core Members at the center, with everyone's work being directly connected (as we do try to more closely intertwine the usually separate actor/designer relationships).

In that web structure of production, an improvement to one part directly affects every other part of the whole. A great actor or SM doesn't just make their role better, but everyone on the stage (and hopefully in the process) better. Likewise, a hamful artist's negative impact will lower the quality of everyone's work, because in the web structure, everyone is connected.

But here's where it gets really exciting: that improvement is exponential, not linear. Great artist A makes artists B-F all improve; but then the growth of artist B also affects A-F; and the growth of artist C does the same; so that the impact of a great artist multiplies rather than adds; and the cost of a damaging artist divides rather than subtracts.

This exponential growth or decay happens most dramatically in the web, less so in the cloud, and is barely felt in the tower. Over the long term collaboration of an Ensemble, the exponential impact of each Member on the other is perhaps the most profound engine of growth. This is why there is no more significant decision than inviting a new Member into the Ensemble, or in asking a harmful Member to leave. We have to ask, will this new Member make each of our existing Members better? Will they lead to that exponential growth of the web, or are they merely filling a temporary gap in a tower?

This is also why the emphasis on mission, values and aesthetics, though very important, may in the end be secondary to an Ensemble's success when compared to the importance of Membership.

What is the model of your company? If you're an Ensemble, what has been the history of your Membership's growth? I see some company's membership never change; others seems to have a completely new group of artists every year. How do those two scenarios play out?