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Cheryl Heller On What Entrepreneurs Can Learn from Playwrights

Originally posted on Unreasonable.is

At the Goddard College MFA program in Creative Writing, where I’m in my last semester, I was given something so useful for entrepreneurs that I had to take a break from my final manuscript to write this.

He meant more than the fact that the incessant meetings and overthinking and talking in circles we are wont to do aren’t enough to realize our visions. He meant that acting is actually the only way we learn: that to act is to be fully human, and only when we are fully human are we capable of growth. That is neither a small nor unimportant concept. The late Jerry Sternin, who with his wife Monique developed the Positive Deviance method (a unique approach to social change leveraging the techniques of societal outliers), was the person I first heard say we must “act our way to change.”

Action is tricky though. Too much too fast, and we’re likely to fail or bungle. Worst case, without fully understanding the context or system in which our actions will intervene, there’s an excellent chance we will do more damage than good. Conversely, if action is too little, too late, then opportunities are lost, hope is dissipated, energy wasted and inertia rooted in community psyche.

What’s interesting is that the six-step process below was written for professional actors. If you trust, as Shakespeare said, that “All of life’s a stage,” then it will take you no time at all to see how its adaptation to social impact makes perfect and valuable sense. I find that in social enterprise, we have plenty of principles for how to think, but we don’t have principles for how to act effectively.

1. An action must be physically capable of being done.
Seemingly self-evident, this is profound. In many cases, entrepreneurs I meet (and my own grad students at DSI) have gloriously big ambitions that aren’t specific enough to act on. One cannot end poverty or injustice or stop war or make economies equitable. We can’t act on anything until we find something concrete enough to actually do. Then, if that action meets the criteria below, however small it begins, big things can happen.

2. An action must be specific.
Deborah Brevoort, the Goddard faculty member who taught us this process, told us to, “Think in terms of hot (not wimpy) verbs.” For a playwright, stage directions would bore audiences to sleep if actors “said” instead of “insisting” or “protesting,” or if they walked across the stage instead of “strutting” or “striding.” For an entrepreneur intent on having social impact, these words are also important because they define the character of the organization. They define the nature of the action. What action feels like to those it touches often determines whether it gathers or repels energy and support.

3. The test of an action must be in other people.
You can’t act on something or someone you can’t touch. To be an effective action, something needs to change. Things won’t change if they are not directly affected. As simple as this sounds, considering this when thinking about a user journey or planning a fundraising or communication strategy is crucial. The test of an action is in what it accomplishes; change doesn’t happen without contact.

4. The action is something where failure is possible.
A concrete way to think about this in entrepreneurship is a delivery mechanism. Will what you’re doing reach the people who need it? Have you designed for that in the most practical, action-oriented way?

When action is meaningful, something is at stake. If this filter were applied to every significant action your organization takes, how much would pass the test? How often do you consider it in this way before you determine priorities or resource allocation?

How many meetings or trips would you not take if you evaluated each in advance to see if not doing it came with a price? How much time would you save if you didn’t try to follow up on every opportunity to network and created a filter to evaluate their value in advance?

5. The action must have a “cap.”
When should an action end? When is an effort completed? When an enterprise is strategic, the answers are known before initiatives are begun. On the stage, this is important to build a narrative arc, to move from one scene to the next and to not leave the audience hanging. In business, this is about establishing criteria for success in advance of beginning any project.

6. The action must be in line with your circumstances.
For playwrights, this means that the act moves your plot along and makes sense within it. For entrepreneurs, I interpret this as alignment with mission. This is the notion that everything you act on should have the potential to get you closer to your north star.

If you take a little more time to think about them, these six steps will apply more deeply and more specifically to your own process of acting toward social impact. I’m keeping them on my wall.

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