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The Last Mile? Try Starting in the Middle


By Kelly Leonard – Executive Director, Insights and Applied Improvisation

I really enjoyed using the term “disruptive,” until it became as ubiquitous as “thinking outside of the box.”

Every industry has its secret language. In the theatre world, we talk about  a show being “dark.” In this case, “dark” is when a show is not having performances; when a stage manager walks through the backstage yelling “Five!” and all the performers yell back, “Thank you, five.” That’s the cue that it’s five minutes before showtime and the stage manager needs to hear each cast member verbally respond to him – kind of like when you are sitting in an exit row on the plane. Nodding isn’t enough. When we created a show with Lyric Opera Chicago, we were warned that no one in opera says, “Break a leg” – which is theatre world’s way of saying, “good luck” before a show. In opera, you say “Toi, toi, toi” – an idiom used to ward off a hex or spell.

That stuff is all jargon and jargon is fine and good and kind of cool to learn about from an insider. Cliches are something different.

“Right-sizing,”  “Drinking the Kool-Aid,” “Becoming a change agent,” these are terms that may have had some resonance at some point, but through their overuse or, more likely, their misuse – have become corporate cliches.

A colleague recently asked me if I had heard the term “the last mile.” I hadn’t, but it made sense when she explained it. Originating as a term associated with the cable industry and representing the last leg of connectivity – the term has been broadened and built out to indicate the key area of focus for sales people, for client services and for the point of concentration on business deliverables.

It’s also become a cliche.

My colleague asked if there was a counter term to this in The Second City’s vernacular and I thought of one immediately: “Start in the middle.”

This is a term that is associated with both the improv part of our work as well as the storytelling part of our work. In improvisation, “start in the middle” is a suggestion that you begin in action, with bold character choices and strong initiations – if you spend too much time rooting around for why or where or who you are on stage, the audience gets bored and your scene will flounder. In the storytelling part of Second City, “start in the middle” is all about ridding yourself of unneeded exposition. That who, what or where? You can establish that quickly and purposefully while you are diving deep into the interesting stuff.

The business parallels abound: in sales: get to engagement at the top of the conversation; in communication: don’t waste so much time with the set up to the real point you want to express; in leadership: initiate strongly and in the moment.

I like “start in the middle” because it’s a suggested orientation – it’s not a prescribed rule. “The last mile,” conversely, suggests a focus on getting the check signed.

Improvisation teaches you to focus on the whole person and the whole process. I can spot a hundred failures on my part when instead of looking at a situation holistically, I was so focused on the run to get the deal signed, that I failed to see the pitfalls that inevitably rose up once that deal was locked.

A phrase that my friend and Second City Works co-worker Brynne Humphries says all the time is, “but what does the client want?”

A few years back, a group of us thought that the cult classic film “Slapshot” would make for a fantastic live theatrical adaptation. We got the rights, hired a terrific creative team and launched the show with a trial run in hockey-loving Toronto, Ontario. The critical reception was excellent and the folks who came and saw the show really seemed to like it. The problem was – not enough people bought tickets to the show. Sales were not good. Why? When we came up with this idea the one thing we failed to consider was what does the theatre ticket buying public want to see? That public is primarily made up of women in their forties. You know what women in their forties don’t want to see? A staged version of a show about hockey that has one female cast member. And it’s about hockey.

We started in the middle with the creative team and even the show content – we did a really  nice job with the creative. But as producers and business people, we went to “the last mile” when we conceived the plan for the project – we didn’t consider the whole audience; we didn’t factor in the audience we needed.

“The last mile” is a limiting place to be in business. It isn’t holistic. Conversely, “starting in the middle,” allows you the room to look back and forward – when needed – but primarily you are focused fully on the present.

innovation,  learning and development,  Navigate an Uncertain World in No Uncertain Terms,  talent development,  We can't innovate


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