Creativity isn’t always welcomed in the world of business. Oh, there’s plenty of lip-service paid about “fostering a creative environment” or “looking for creative solutions”, but most if the time creativity itself must stay within tightly defined boundaries.
Who designed these boundaries no one can say. At some point, probably during the Industrial Revolution, there was a pressure to produce workers who knew how to operate their machinery, or fit in to their workplace hierarchy, and the education system complied with this requirement by teaching the value of regimentation, rules and ordered thought. In this way the schism between the serious business of “work” and the frivolous pursuit of “art” developed. I am sure many people who are reading this were pressured by family, school or society to abandon dreams of a career in the arts to “get a proper job” or a “good career”.
But… what if business truly welcomed back the deviant world of the arts? What could it learn? Here are a few thoughts...
1. Put your show on the road.
Let’s start with another kind of “business”. Show business. Many organisations could learn how to cope with a deadline from the performing arts. To put on a production multiple departments – props, lighting, stage management, front of house, and of course the performers – have to deliver on their commitments so that the curtain can go up on time on the opening night. There is no option, unlike in many businesses, to “push the deadline to the right”, citing “unforeseen circumstances” or “rollout delays”. The show must go on… and that means the show must go on, on opening night, on time, and in a way that can be shared with a paying audience. No excuses. No reimagined deadlines.
On top of the logistical challenges of putting on a production there are the soft skills that any successful theatrical practitioner has to acquire and develop. In a world where considerations of ego are never far under the surface, you have to develop coping strategies to get along with people that you may not like on a personal or professional basis. In a touring production you might be in close proximity, far from home, with individuals who rub you up the wrong way. Everyone has, at some point, faced this challenge at work, but in the performance world “just getting by” isn’t enough. Even if you don’t like a fellow actor, you have to be able to rely on them, and they on you, for the sake of the show. If you try to one-up someone else, score a political point or throw someone under the bus – behaviours seen many times in business – the whole show will suffer.
2. Don’t be your own critic.
Outside of performance and returning to the strictures placed upon us by convention, consider drawing as a skill. No one ever tells a small child that their scribble isn’t art. Fridges all over the world are festooned with children’s drawings that escape the criticism that constrains adult art… and that criticism isn’t always from outsiders. At some point, when you are still very young, the childlike joy of making marks on a paper is replaced by the self-censorship that comes from questioning whether what you have done is “good enough”. If an amateur artist shows someone their work, how often is it done with a self-deprecating “it’s not very good…” or “it’s just a doodle…”?
It would appear that the work-focused regimentation of education rapidly teaches that there is always a right and a wrong answer and that everything has a standard that must be achieved to make it worthwhile. While I accept that standards are important if you are building bridges or aeroplane engines, the leaching of these standards into areas of business that require creative thought is nothing less than toxic.
3. Don’t chase the money.
Standards also equate to value. “Good” art is worth money. But few, if any artists sit down to create something thinking of anything as prosaic and limiting as a Return on Investment. Most artistic creation isn’t so cynical, relegating the art of creation to a cold assessment of the saleability of the finished product. Art has soul. Few businesses can say the same of their output. Even fewer genuinely consider how interactions with them make other people feel, preferring to limit their consideration to the bottom line and to customer retention statistics… And that is outside of what has been termed the “Engagement Theatre” of employee engagement scores, where human emotions and sensibilities are converted into into the kind of cold, percentage-based metrics that business loves.
The limitation that this places upon business is that there is no space for experimentation. While “build it, and they will come” is not necessarily a suitable planning strategy for organisations, not building it because the plan doesn’t analyse well absolutely guarantees that taking a creative leap in what your company offers will never occur.
4. Don’t think of the finished product, because it doesn’t exist.
Perfection doesn’t exist. If you wait for perfection, you will miss the opportunity. Trying to produce the ultimate product is doomed - as soon as it is released it is obsolete. Furthermore, it could be that the product you have created, even if it is not “finished”, will be adopted, adapted and improved by the end users once it is released into the wild. However talented your developers are, in an age of Disruptive Innovation, it could be that the public will find a purpose in your “unfinished” product that is beyond what was initially planned. In art, nothing is ever “finished”. People just stop adding to it.
There is also a beauty and a creativity in seeing things not as a whole, but as individual elements. It is not possible to get through a day of listening to music on the radio without hearing parts of other artist’s compositions – that they deemed “finished” (for them at least) – sampled and reincorporated to make something new.
5. See the world in a different way.
Art allows people to “see” things in different ways. It evolves and challenges in ways that businesses are reluctant to do. What is “art” is constantly changing, whether it is a way of applying paint, a pile of bricks, an unmade bed, or, in the case of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain from 1917, a urinal purchased from a builders’ merchant, turned on its back and signed. Which brings us to another important lesson we can learn from art…
It provokes powerful emotions. Anyone seeing a urinal or a pile of bricks or an unmade bed that has been placed on display might be tempted to say “that’s not art!” or “I could have done that!”. Good! Even if you hate it, least it has generated a passionate response. It makes people talk. And, to the point of “I could have done that”, yes, you could. But you didn’t - either because you didn’t think of it, or the creative standards and frameworks that you have created for yourself limited your horizons and self-censorship took over.
Give in to the power of emotions.
Art is the realm of emotions. So is the business world, even though it attempts to deny it fervently. The fact is that every action you take in the day is driven by emotion, and the feeling that taking that action will give you. You don’t want a thing (a Ferrari, a nice cup of tea, a holiday); you want the feeling that you think you will have when you have that thing. Art lifts the transactional interchange of “things” to a higher plane, where multi-faceted elements combine to create a whole experience that transcends the object itself.
Art connects us to the world and understanding the importance of that connectivity is another vital lesson for business. Art can be a representation of hopes, fears and aspirations. The earliest human art, whether a cave painting or a primitive sculpture, linked the creator and those who viewed the creation on a profound level, but human creativity rapidly went beyond this.
Very early in our history people started making tools that were not just functional, but that were also beautiful. From the first people who carved ornamentation into their knife handles and stone implements, all the way to William Morris’ 19th century evocation to “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”, people have wanted a combination of utility and spiritual satisfaction. Human life seems to need this; business needs to recognise it too.
“Stories are just data with a soul”.
Above everything else, art is stories. In the written word this is obvious, and everyone knows the difference between a well-crafted story and one that doesn’t inspire and engage. But the stories, the connections and the inspiration in all fields of artistic endeavour are varied and infinite, and they lie in the way others relate to the piece that has been created.
What feelings and connections does your business inspire? What stories does it allow people to tell? If it was placed on a stage, hung on a wall, exhibited in a gallery or projected on a screen what responses would it elicit?
Put the art back into your business and see what happens.