BestFoods managed to instil behaviour changes and examine cultural issues
within the organisation, explains its marketing manager Annemieke Tromp
Interactive Forum Theatre
Presented by: Barking Productions, PO Box 597 Bristol BS99 2BB
Phone: 0117 908 5384
The challenge facing most training professionals is how to bring about
positive and lasting change. This is usually reasonably straightforward when
the concern is to develop hard skills. However, it is not always so easy when
it comes to instilling behavioural change – especially when the necessary
change links in to examining cultural issues within the organisation.
The marketing department of Unilever BestFoods wanted to explore these
issues and chose a contemporary training style to do so. It decided to bring in
Barking Productions which uses the vehicle of drama and humour to address
The department had worked with the company before to help develop its
marketing strategies for various products. However, Unilever BestFoods’
marketing manager Annemieke Tromp was initially unsure if the creative approach
that had worked well on products could be translated to working with people in
developing communications skills.
"The issue surrounding the training need was a sensitive one," she
says. "It centred on
accountability and clear objective-setting. An attitude had taken hold within
our marketing department where being honest and direct was not always part of
the culture. A situation had evolved that was almost the opposite of a blame
culture – no-one wanted to blame anyone to the extent there was very little
accountability at times," she says.
"People were also making assumptions, rescuing others from potentially
being put on the spot and this resulted in a loss of clarity and open
"We needed to introduce training to begin a shift in attitudes. We
wanted to introduce the concept of clearer communication as a positive and
acceptable way to behave, which would improve the working environment. This
need was being driven by a greater emphasis within the organisation on
delivery, as opposed to ‘softer’ areas such as innovation or creativity,"
To support this, a new model was designed to help people achieve better
communication, and ultimately better delivery.
"It was important for us to retain room for risk-taking – and therefore
potential failure – although not when that failure was a product of weak
objective-setting or avoidance of addressing poor performance," explains
Barking Productions’ brief was to design a three-hour session that would do
be far more than merely roll out the process. "We set them the challenge
to begin addressing this necessary shift in behaviour and to link it to the
department’s clear business objectives. I wanted a training experience that
would be engaging, non-patronising and encourage the delegates (80 managers) to
feel a sense of ownership and responsibility to drive the change," added
Barking Productions has developed a number of creative approaches to
communication skills training, says its director Neil Bett. "Interactive
forum theatre was the most appropriate fit for this situation as it provokes an
almost instantaneous reaction and involvement with the audience," he says.
"It was a perfect training vehicle for Unilever BestFoods given that
the session had been developed to operate as a high-impact catalyst –
specifically to challenge established attitudes and behaviours. We decided to
include a team-building ice-breaker to provide an energetic start and set the
scene in terms of ensuring the delegates’ buy-in to the interactive
process," he says.
"We spent time researching the organisation to understand their culture
and nuances of their training needs. This included two Barking facilitators
going into the working environment to conduct a fact-finding day and
participating in a number of interviews and meetings.
"We were also extensively briefed by Tromp on the precise nature of the
issues to be highlighted and their manifestations within the day-to-day running
of the department.
"During the research and design stage we absorbed the detail of the
Unilever BestFoods culture, the terminology, working practices and
styles," he says.
The information, impressions, personalities and feel of the department were
then converted into a script, which was performed live by three trainers – with
two assuming specific characters and the third acting as a facilitator, making
the crucial link between delegates and actors.
"Feedback from the event has been very positive," says Tromp.
"The issue was clearly highlighted, and as is common in these situations,
the content of the training event was not new to us. It was rather the style of
presentation and exploration that provided the impact we needed.
"It was an enjoyable experience and I would say the sense of reality
generated by the believable characters and interactive nature of the experience
meant participants were immersed in very good conditions for learning."
Tromp has found that a new attitude has emerged with people speaking far
more easily and freely. "We now have a very simple structure that provides
us with clearer ways to communicate. A common language for holding people
accountable has effectively evolved, accompanied by a new enthusiasm to bring
clarity into the culture," she says.
"I have come to value drama as a training and development tool. It is
very effective in that it is versatile, immediate and provides new ways of
looking at issues."
Communicating the need for change
Interactive Forum Theatre offers a
training approach that explores ways of improving communication rather than
providing quick-fix solutions, writes Neil Bett. It fitted in very well with
the training needs at Unilever BestFoods because it encouraged debate and got
people to talk more honestly and openly. It is also great fun – Unilever
BestFoods very much wanted a training event that would be entertaining, dynamic
and direct. The balance we needed to achieve was a delicate one. Our theatre
may be high impact and experiential, but it is also sensitive to its clients.
To develop and maintain trust it was essential that
participants felt safe as well as being fully engaged. The event was structured
around a variety of scenarios in which the actors assumed characteristics of
behaviour and attitudes that would be easily recognisable as typical among
people in the organisation.
The aim was for everyone to be able to identify themselves in
at least one of the characters. The stakes were high as, after extensive
consultation with Unilever BestFoods’ marketing manager Annemieke Tromp, we had
written scenarios that were deliberately close to the bone, but never personal.
The characters then set about relating to each other within the
scene, effectively demonstrating the very behaviour Unilever BestFoods was
attempting to confront. Infused with humour, each scene focused on the pitfalls
of certain behavioural practices within the organisation.
Humour is a valuable tool. From the performers’ point of view,
it provides a certain freedom and licence. In a training context this can mean
that it is safe to laugh at difficult issues, tensions or jargon-laden
The audience becomes more relaxed, in turn, and can look at the
subject from a new perspective. It is also often the case that more can be said
when a message is delivered with humour, there is less danger of alienation,
boredom or feeling patronised.
Interactivity is also a crucial element. The facilitator
communicates with the delegates in such a way that it compels them to take
responsibility. For example, the facilitator will stop the action at any point
and ask the audience for feedback – perhaps on a specific individual’s
The objective is for participants to effectively coach the
actors to reach a more positive outcome to the issues being presented.
The audience throws out comments, criticisms and advice which
the facilitator then communicates to the actor – who remains in character. They
then take the feedback on board and the scene continues. This reinforces a
sense of immediacy and reality with participants becoming directly involved.
Neil Bett, director, Barking Productions
Presentation had a lasting effect on staff
We were able to plan this session
thoroughly and very openly which meant we went into a potentially sensitive
topic feeling really confident, writes Annemieke Tromp.
The feedback from the session was excellent, but most
importantly people are ‘living and breathing’ the ideas introduced in that
session largely because it was presented it in such an open, interactive and
The Forum Theatre work has had a very positive and lasting
impact. I think the interactivity combined with the sense of reality that
skilled actors bring to the training arena helps to make the learning stick.
It is well worth considering alternative and non-mainstream
‘agencies’ when communicating with a large brand group or marketing department.
Value for money *
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Ability to meet business needs *
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Impact * * * *
Overall rating * * * *
Key: * = Disappointing
* * * * * = Excellent