I came across this wonderfully written story charting the final performances of Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus this week.
The whole circus travelled by train, nearly 70 carriages, over a mile long, some for storage and transport, but many forming the travelling town where the performers lived for 11 months of the year. There’s a great pathos in the story: some second or third generation performers, packing their bags, watching as the train draws away for the last time.
The story is significant: it’s a story of change.
Changing locations, as the circus moves from town to town, permanently impermanent. There are stories of learning and performance, adaptation, movement: the rise and fall of the ‘freak shows’, the loss of the elephants from the show, and finally the appointment of the first female Ring Master.
It’s not that the circus isn’t still relevant: Cirque du Soleil is wildly popular, contemporary, enabled by technology, whilst Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey was rooted not simply in the old traditions, but within the old infrastructure too. Until the threat of unionisation caused the family to drop it, they employed hundreds of ‘canvasmen’, who set up and tore down Big Bertha, the big top tent, at every location.
Increasingly i view change in two dimensions: change within the system, which forms the first dimension, and change outside it, which is the second. RBB&B changed within it’s system: they streamlined, adapted, often under pressure, often with pain, often at cost, but still failed: they failed because they failed to adapt to the second dimension of change: a fundamental shift in perspective, a social movement, a loss of acceptance for a core principle, that of using animals in performance, as well as a move away from mobile infrastructure.
Many highly capable Organisations face the same risk: they change in ways they know, whilst failing to recognise the scale of disruption in the ecosystem itself. They are often wilfully blind to the change.
Adapt in both dimensions, and you can thrive: fail, and you fail. But to adapt in the second dimension, to fundamentally adapt to the realities of the Social Age, is to become Socially Dynamic. To thrive in change. To have a mindset and capability that is rooted in agility, through the connectedness of community, through high trust, through fairness, through strong Social Leadership, through humility. It’s not an easy journey.
The Circus train was pulled by locomotives, but you cannot pull an organisation through change: you can inspire it, create individual agency, and channel that energy. Co-created change. If we do that, then we can perform, and continue to perform.