What any business can learn from Spider-Man’s comeback on Broadway

From Harvard Business Review:

As the 2012 Broadway season kicks off, Playbill lists 30 new shows that will vie for audience attention — and dollars — this year. All are no doubt aiming to match the success of a musical once predicted to be a total flop: Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Although the show has now grossed more than $160 million (a blockbuster by Broadway standards), it was widely ridiculed before its opening in 2011 for out-of-control costs, production delays, cast departures, rehearsal injuries and a preview debacle. The media likened Spider-Man to the Titanic. So how did co-lead producers Jere Harris and Michael Cohl stop the ship from sinking?

Work together. Harris and Cohl are each incredibly accomplished. Harris is the CEO of PRG, a leading supplier of production and event technology, and Cohl is arguably one of the most successful concert promoters in the world, having represented acts such as U2, The Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson and even Frank Sinatra. One might speculate that these two men could never share the spotlight — and instead might try to shift the blame to each other when Spider-Man ran into its early troubles. But just the opposite happened. As Harris explains, “Our dynamic was one and one equals three. We were able to work together as a team.” There was no competing for credit or pointing fingers. They knew they had to join forces to get the job done.

Ignore the outside noise. If chasing the approval of others is distracting for successful organizations, it’s disastrous for ones on the brink of failure. In the spring of 2011 you couldn’t pick up a New York newspaper without reading about Spider-Man’s problems. After a devastating preview performance (the first act was stopped five times and ended with Spider-Man stuck hanging above the audience), critics were basically calling for the show to be cancelled. But Harris and Cohl ignored the outside noise. They believed in the project, the committed cast and production team, and themselves. They focused on fixing the mistakes and improving the show.

But listen to customers. Harris and Cohl also turned to their customers for answers. Preview audiences were leaving Spider-Manconfused, so the co-producers conducted focus groups, asking early questions about specific aspects of the show. In a gutsy move, they then halted production to revise the show based on the feedback they’d received. They traded short-term pain — no one wants to go back to the drawing board in the 11th hour — for long-term success. Consumers spoke and they responded.

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