Richard Batchelor

Change Management & Strategic Human Resources

June 30 2014

Shakespearean Transformation

I was recently fortunate enough to visit Stratford Ontario for a couple of performances in their Shakespeare Festival. This got me thinking that for stories that are over 400 years old, a lot of transformation and change within the plot lines and many of the humour and emotive responses found throughout can be related to modern day change resistance, acceptance and approach! So I thought it would be fun to reference content that resonates with myself and discuss their relevance today.

Now a disclaimer and an alert before we begin. I’m not going to attempt a blog post in rhyming couplets, that’s just a little beyond my capability index. Apologies if I don’t mention your favourite, I’m sure there are many other quotes I could use, but I have not been privy to the full canon of Shakespeare – yes its one for the bucket list – but I’m most definitely short of a few kings, some other comical interludes and probably only about fifty percent exposed. I guess I should also give a spoiler alert to those that have not seen a production of one of the mentioned plays – yes plot lines may be shared!

Where is a good place to begin? Maybe with one of my favourites – a play full of transformation and reactions to change – A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The story is summed up in “The course of true love never did run smooth” because the play is about those that do and don’t fall in love and change the focus of their affections through the interference of fairies but also the views of their parents. Now it may be anchored in personal love, but it makes me consider how totally committed to an opinion someone can become when they are convinced (even with magic!) to believe a certain viewpoint. There are lots of transformational events in the play, with key character Bottom, being given an ass’s head to reflect his foolery but as a local villager – getting to interact and have acceptance by Titania, Queen of the fairies and may be a reflection on the acceptance of change and a focus on message rather than the vehicle that brings the message. Throughout the play, the character of Puck is a devilish catalyst for the changes, often being instigator or at a least enabling supporter. Now I’m not saying he’s a good change manager as he does most things underhand and with mischief, but I do see him as a revolutionary catalyst for change that may shake things up significantly in good and bad ways but in so doing moves a group of people outside of their normal comfort zones with an end result of a better set up and greater appreciation of all players. I’m not a supporter of the activity generally, but sometime the end justifies the means – as long as there are no permanent casualties en route!

Let’s briefly move away from comedy and touch base on the gender changing roles within Shakespeare across all plays. We have the likes of Viola and Rosalind in As You Like It and Twelfth Night, Portia in the Merchant of Venice and to some degree Lady Macbeth, all assuming Male roles to assert a message and deal with a challenge faced within their world. I wouldn’t necessarily condone the lack of sexual equality – why does a woman have to be like a man to act this way – but let us not forget 400 years have passed since these stories formed. I would like to take the lesson that in order to enable, deliver or encourage a change, it is sometime necessary to take on a somewhat different role or persona to normal. I have many a time had to summon up the energy to perform a part in front of a town hall meeting to rally the assembled masses on to “the train” before they get left behind. The change is coming and I need to appeal to their needs to get buy-in and show myself as a role model that they can relate to, using their language and terminology to engage trust and respect. For me this normally exhausts me after the event but the performance is normally such that I get the groups convinced of the next steps and heading in the right direction, not unlike the character mentioned above!

The Shakespearean kings are generally much darker storylines and some of their transformations tend to me much more final. However, for most of them there is a transformation of mindset, whether it’s Lear’s slow disintegration into madness or the single minded need for revenge in Hamlet and Macbeth. It’s a reflection of how circumstance turns a mind to think or react differently and in so doing become an integral part of the way a person acts or does things. Consider how we encourage the integration, absorption or total acceptance of a new or different way of doing things within the change management world. Is it a fair reflection to say that sometime we drive folks crazy or slightly unhinged with our desire to get them on board with the new? I wonder if we should have more exit routes available to the establishment that provides a safer end result for those who struggle with doing different or accepting the new, before they sink into a Shakespearean mind storm.

My final reference comes from the star-crossed lovers of Romeo and Juliet. Now I could relate the houses of Capulet and Montague to most merger and acquisitions. Interestingly the reactions of members of each house reflect the general mix of reaction for any merger – some good, some bad, some totally sure they can sabotage the idea. But I wanted to reflect on the sad result at the end of the play, caused through lack of good communication. If only they had shared their plans there may well have been a different outcome, but its perhaps the fact that as an audience, you know the tragic irony of the outcome of the story from the prologue, and you are just watching the story unfold. How many times have you considered a change management plan, applied all elements and then realised you knew what was going to happen all along? Far too many times. However, it is wrong to assume from the outset what the result will be and great communication can challenge that expectation.

I am sure there are many more change management references within the tenets of Shakespeare – I have but scraped the surface here. I may return to this at a future time. For me the biggest take away from this is for people to realise that change has been dealt with by people for many years and is not some new thing! Perhaps we now label and categorise differently and my reflection of Shakespearean prose is not a direct historical reflection but does support the time honoured tradition of dealing with change successfully or not  – “To be or not to be, that is the question”.


Let me know what you think email me or tweet me @richbatchelor

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