Using drama to better our businesses

Dr Aidan Daly

Dr Aidan Daly

He is the ultimate marketeer. Aidan Daly’s leadership spirit resembles that of a Braveheart warrior on horseback. He believes that our greatest glory as Confucianists is rising every time we fall, where each fall is a stepping stone to success.

As Adjunct Professor of Marketing in NUI Galway, Aidan Daly admits that over the course of his career he has witnessed failure. He points out that in the Ireland of today failure is defined as not achieving an objective, a view he wishes to challenge. “The fact that we die could be seen as the ultimate failure,” he laughs over a cup of coffee in a bright hotel foyer.

This admission, however, does not distract him from the seriousness of the failure issue.

Before joining the marketing department in 1982, Dr Daly held a series of challenging and demanding management positions in the sales and marketing area. He now holds non-executive director positions with a number of service companies.

From his experience, failings are often a societal issue. “I wouldn’t like to discourage people. Graduates who are unemployed and applying for jobs come to me and ask, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ There’s nothing wrong with you; we’re in a recession,” he said.

Nevertheless, the issue requires tackling and for Dr Daly, it’s within the control of the education system. “I deal with very bright students in university. The points they have to achieve to get into university, quite frankly, professors wouldn’t have got them in my time. However, creativity, confidence and commitment to a cause is lacking,” he suggests.

“I had a friend in college who if he got 42 per cent, he reckoned he worked too hard. Was he a failure? Certainly not. He involved himself in every aspect of university life. He was the auditor of the debating society, a member of the football team, part of the students’ union and led every protest. He had a tremendously rounded education. What we have created in students today is blotting papers.”

He has written extensively on this topic, along with how marketing academics should become business relevant. Much of his writing highlights how the marketing discipline in international universities is in a research cocoon. “That is of little value to anybody, but to impress our peers with our research techniques.”

As far as Dr Daly is concerned, it is time for healing through questioning and simulation. Twenty years ago, he started researching a technique to encourage innovation in organisations.

In his own discipline, he found that many service marketing academics accepted an analogy between interactive marketing in services and theatre. From here he began using the technique of using Forum Theatre as a means of stimulating innovation in both organisations and students.

“We are the first business school in Europe to introduce this Forum Theatre approach to creating innovation and thinking. There are seven of us in the world who are researching this area and only now is Ray Fisk, an American marketing professor, using this approach,” Dr Daly announced.

Forum Theatre was created by the innovative and influential practitioner Augusto Boal as part of what he called the “Theatre of the Oppressed”. It uses theatrical techniques to let a business see itself. It facilitates examination of how current work patterns, processes and behaviours could be changed to better achieve the organisation’s objectives.

Unlike other theatre where there are spectators and actors, Forum Theatre requires spectators, ie employees, to become ‘spect-actors’. They can suggest changes but also perform roles and scenes as they are being played.

According to Dr Daly, “The flow of ideas and suggestions that comes from a forum theatre audience confirms the power of fun in assisting innovation. It challenges people to question, enquire, probe and this is what you need to be innovative.”

Five years ago, he conducted a world-first experiment in Forum Theatre with Aer Arann. Newly recruited cabin crew were exposed to nine hours of improvisation training, simulating cabin activities by acting out duties. The results were astounding, according to Dr Daly. “Customer service and employee performance had improved. It stimulated new innovative ways of doing things.”

Daly endorses improvisation and Forum Theatre as a method to make a story tangible. He often pleads with his students to tell the story of the product or service. “I often find myself in a hotel lift looking at the restaurant’s promotional poster. The picture shows the restaurant with no one eating in it! What story does that tell?”

A great storyteller, he loves inspiring people to be better, to defeat the expected. Over the course of the conversation, he recounts a tale of coaching a group of lawyers in London, whose company’s morale had hit an all-time low. Daly acted as facilitator with the ‘specta-actors’ in the London theatre. Within moments of the play starting, the firm’s lawyers were actively participating, identifying their faults and creatively suggesting ways to overcome them. “Instead of 20 minutes, the play took about an hour for this first half. It invigorated the firm. They were bouncing with ideas.”

When asked if Irish organisations are embracing Forum Theatre as a technique to trigger innovation, he replies, “Unfortunately, Irish companies are a little resistant. My students, however, are finding it enthralling.”

At this point Dr Daly refers to Bono’s Six Thinking Hats. He uses this theory to challenge business owners. “We seem to have many black hats - the cautious hat, in Irish business. Although it’s necessary to some degree, it’s stagnating the growth of our economy. I think we haven’t quite released creativity Ireland; yet we’re all quite creative. If people find the confidence to explore, we would be a nation of innovators.”

Here another advantage is found for using Forum Theatre.

“We don’t seem to warm up in life! I mean, practise, pretend, act out what we’d like to see happen. Forum Theatre is wonderful for this. ‘Spect-actors’ let themselves go, act out their ultimate dream and in doing so, release inhibitions and fears,” commented Dr Daly.

During his research he spent much time in schools of acting observing their simulation skills. “I remember the first school of acting I visited in London. I was very excited and asked the director how he trained actors. His reply was, ‘Good god, what an interesting question. When you find out come back and tell me’.”

Dr Daly believes that this is a valuable point. He draws an analogy with actors where he sees that from confidence arises innovation, and the more you practice, the better you get.

“Improvisation instills teamwork with your fellow actors and peers. Through training together, team members gain courage to break the mould,” he said.

He has fallen many times over the years and recalls one particular occasion when he submitted a paper to the American Marketing Association’s Frontiers in Services conference. “It was a hell of a struggle to get them to accept a paper on international services marketing. Having failed on numerous occasions, we finally got them to accept.”

According to Dr Daly, it was belief in the topic and determination that enabled him push through the barriers. “I see an analogy between entrepreneurs and sports people. It’s determination. Maybe it’s the will to win, but also the actual denial of failure,” he said.

“Just look at the Tipperary team on Sunday week. There is just no question that these guys are going to win, that they are going to beat their opposite number. Now as can you imagine, the opposition is feeling the same, so it’s a determination,” remarks Dr Daly.

“It seems to me that in business you have to be different, attractive to whatever market or institution or group of people you are presenting your ideas to. Above, all inspire us with your confidence to rebound,” he said and as Winston Churchill put it, “Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.”

Dr Aidan Daly attended Bizcamp Galway last Saturday at NUI Galway as part of an expert panel discussing the idea of Failure in the Pursuit of Success.



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