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The Arts in Business

Given the assertion of a modern management guru–Tom Peters: “Imagination is the only source of real value in the new economy; and the observation of a world-acclaimed physicist–Einstein: “Imagination is more important than knowledge”–we have compelling evidence of the importance of using the arts in business. Add the frightening belief held by security experts–September 11 […]

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Given the assertion of a modern management guru–Tom Peters: “Imagination is the only source of real value in the new economy; and the observation of a world-acclaimed physicist–Einstein: “Imagination is more important than knowledge”–we have compelling evidence of the importance of using the arts in business. Add the frightening belief held by security experts–September 11 was not a failure of information; it was a failure of the imagination–and we have every reason in the world to apply creativity to business and national problems alike.

Among the artistic techniques business people can use to increase productivity, solve problems, make decisions, and improve communications are the following.

Juxtapose Opposites

Anne Geddes is the photographer whose work places babies in vegetables. For a hundred years, baby photographers have been photographing babies–usually against a backdrop of blue skies or jungle creatures. Geddes took two disparate items and, in their combination, found an irresistible means of portraying children.

On a related note, there are leadership lessons to be found in the work of French botanist Henri Fabre. His work with processionary caterpillars led to the realization that none would cease following their leader–even though food lay in the center of their processionary circle. The caterpillars followed their leader to their collective death. Parallels in the modern world? The Reverend Jim Jones, for one. Enron’s senior management, for another. 

To find creative solutions to everyday management issues, it’s important to read outside the field. (To illustrate: leaders would not typically turn to botany for lessons. And yet, there are undeniably valuable insights contained within the world of nature.) Experts recommend that one-third the reading you do should have nothing to do with what you do (for a living, that is).

Find Comfort in Confusion

Research has repeatedly revealed a prominent characteristic of creative individuals is their ability to tolerate ambiguity, to take comfort in confusion, to live with uncertainty. (Recall the words of educator John Dewey: “The first step in learning is confusion” and those of literary critic H.L. Mencken: “For every complex problem, there is one solution that is simple, neat, elegant….and wrong!”) Quick fixes usually lead to wicked problems. 

It’s important for today’s business leader to acclimate others to the ephemeral nature of policies (“No sooner said than changed”) and to the paradoxical need to both slow down and simultaneously move fast. We need to increase our tolerance for confusion for the times, they are a’changing with tornado-like speed. 

Harvard’s Charles Handy, in his classic, The Age of Paradox, deals with this schizoid scenario. We find examples of it in the exhortation to “do more with less,” paraphrased in some businesses as “do everything with nothing.” The business world abound with other examples–for example, the pride we Americans take in being “rugged individualists.” Couple this with the fact that we are expected to meld into team, which functions as a single unit and speaks with a single voice.

Seek Answers in Poetry

It was America’s president and Camelot resident who observed that “where power corrupts, poetry cleanses.” Beyond its cleansing power, poetry can be used to encourage careful and precise word choice. (“A problem well-defined,” it’s been said, “is a problem half-solved.”) A thesis offered by George Gopen (“Rhyme and reason,” College English, 46 (4), April 1984, pp. 333-347) argues for the incorporation of the study of poetry into the reasoning that law schools (and clear thinking) mandate.

We see use of the rhyme in Bruce Tuckman’s description of the stages of team formation: “Form, Storm, Norm, Perform.” And, thirty years later, we find the poetic device called parallelism appearing in the unforgettable words of George W. Bush, standing with his arm around a firefighter and responding to another firefight who couldn’t hear the president: “But I can hear you. The whole word can hear you. And very soon, those who destroyed these buildings will hear from all of us.”

Use Metaphors

Both Warren Bennis (in Leaders: The Strategies for Taking Charge) and James Kouzes (in The Leadership Challenge) note the power of metaphors, a power Aristotle recognized when he asserted that “to understand the metaphor is the beginning of genius.” Peter Silas, CEO of Philips Petroleum, employed this power when he advised his staff, ‘We can no longer afford to wait for the storm

And professor/author Warren Bennis once noted, “If I were asked to give off-the-cuff advice to anyone seeking to institute change, the first question   2 I would ask is, ‘How clear is your metaphor?’ ” 

We find the metaphorical concept of the glass ceiling infiltrating hiring/recruiting decisions in every organization.  We find the metaphorical comparison of mosaic and melting pot at the core of diversity training. In short, we find ourselves guided by metaphors that capture our imaginations (“The Iron Curtain”) and crystallize our intents.

The First Question

To draw an artistic parallel, if I were asked to give off-the-cuff advice to anyone seeking to improve work and/or the workplace, the first question I would ask is, “How committed are you to the arts in business?”

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