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What Innovators Can Learn from Artists
Andy Warhol knew it all along: “Good business is the best art.” And lately, a number of business thinkers and leaders have begun to embrace the arts, not as an escapist notion, a parallel world after office hours, or a creative asset, but as an integral part of the human enterprise that ought to be woven into the fabric of every business—from the management team to operations to customer service.
John Maeda, the president of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and author of the book Redesigning Leadership, predicts that artists will emerge as the new business leaders and cites RISD graduates Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky, co-founders of Airbnb, as prominent examples. The author William Deresiewicz heralds reading as the most important task of any leader. John Coleman makes a compelling case for the role of poetry in business. Intel named pop musician will.i.am as director of creative innovation. And the World Economic Forum has been inviting arts and cultural leaders to its events for several years and this year added the ‘Role of the Arts’ to its Network of Global Agenda Councils.
Indeed, the “art” of business becomes ever more important as the “science” gets ever more ubiquitous. Against the backdrop of our hyper-connected economies and as Big Data and sophisticated analytical tools allow us to maximize process efficiencies and standardize best innovation practices worldwide, intuition and creativity remain as the only differentiating factors that enable truly game-changing innovations. Like any “soft asset,” they cannot be exploited, only explored. And like artists, innovators must develop a mindset and cultivate creative habits in order to see the world afresh and create something new.
How do artists think and behave? Here are twelve traits any individual aspires to make his or her mark on the world would do well to emulate:
- Artists are “neophiles.” They are in love with novelty and have an insatiable appetite for finding and creating new connections, for inventing and reinventing, even themselves. Art means changing the meaning of things or creating new meanings. That’s exactly what innovation is all about. Like artists, great innovators seek to create “black swans.” They know that variance, through the deliberate disruption of mental models and behavioral routines, creates that rare combination of awe that is characteristic of groundbreaking innovations.
- Artists are humanists. They are experts of the “human condition” and observe human desires, needs, emotions, and behavior with a sharp, discerning eye and a high degree of empathy. As the archeologists of human vulnerabilities and as genuine ethnographic researchers, they can feel with and for others, which should be every innovator’s distinct strength as well.
- Artists are craftspeople. They “think by making” and unite the “hand and the head,” as sociologist Richard Sennett describes it. Like art, every innovation combines excellence with significance. It has both a physical dimension (exhibiting mastery in craftsmanship) and a meta-physical dimension (connecting a new product, service, or business model with the broader zeitgeist and cultural climate). Nike’s Fuelband, for example, masterfully integrates software and hardware, while also being an expression of our society’s growing demand for self-managed, preventive healthcare embedded as a fun, positive activity into our everyday lives.
- Artists are like children. “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up,” Pablo Picasso famously said. Artists retain a child’s unique sense of possibility and wonder. Innovators should, too. It may sound paradoxical, but innovations are always nostalgic. The most meaningful of them, although seemingly all about novelty and the future, reconnect us with a basic human quest or even our childhood dreams (think of the iPhone and our desire to touch, or sharing sites such as Facebook or Pinterest which can be viewed as modern, digital versions of former trust-based tribal economies and cater to our innate urge to share).
- Artists rely on their intuition. It seems counter-intuitive but intuition is ever more important in the age of Big Data, because it is the only feature that is faster and deeper than the massive flow of real-time information. Nothing comes close to intuition as innovators seek to anticipate trends and make decisions swiftly. Data is knowledge, intuition is pre-emptive knowledge. Like artists, innovators trust their intuition, and then constantly experiment and prototype to validate it.
- Artists are comfortable with ambiguity. By design, they deal with things that are not measurable and can’t be easily quantified. Innovators, too, should value what may not be easily captured in quantitative terms. In stark contrast to more mechanistic models of management, they must be able to tolerate uncertainty and open-ended questions, hold two opposing truths in their mind, and appreciate the beauty of the “and.”
- Artists are holistic, interdisciplinary thinkers. Art can stimulate and challenge our understanding of the world around us and within us. Artists are masters of lateral thinking who can connect the dots and take things out of their original context. Likewise, innovators contextualize and re-contextualize, mash up and remix, and embrace the new insights and ideas that magically spark at unexpected, unlikely, and often serendipitous intersections (the most famous examples of such “accidental innovations” may be the pacemaker or 3M’s post-it notes).
- Artists thrive under constraints. They often have to work within very structured formats and meet scarce resources with ingenuity and resourcefulness. In fact, these constraints might even stimulate their creativity. Inspired by the phenomenon of “Jugaad” in India, innovation gurus like Navi Radjou have now popularized and globalized the concept of “frugal innovation” as a polycentric and improvisational mindset that can inform various product and business model innovations (e.g. the mobile SMS disaster response platform Ushahidi or the portable “roll-on” hospital hand-sanitizers SwipeSense). Frugal innovation has become the new hallmark for the art of creating maximum value with minimal resources.
- Artists are great storytellers. They tell a story with their art but also often tell the story of their art. The same holds true for meaningful innovations. The connected age requires products to have “aura” again. Great innovators design experiences that spawn (social media) conversations. Just look at ideas funded on Kickstarter: The product is also the story of the product.
- Artists are conduits and not “masters of the universe.” Most artists – painters, sculptors, writers, film makers, or musicians – will admit that they derived their inspiration from a spiritual sphere that transcends their own individual creativity and skills. This applies to innovators, too. Whether they’re spiritual or not, a new humility suits them well as the social web and its wave of crowd-based collaborations have rendered the myth of the lone genius obsolete. Great innovators transmit memes, they nurture ecosystems of ideas and co-create with employees, customers, and even competitors. They recognize that their new playing-field extends the institutional boundaries of their organization as their products themselves are becoming multi-purpose and involve multiple sectors and disciplines.
- Artists are passionate about their work. In fact, their work and life are impossible to separate. That doesn’t mean that innovators need to be workaholics, but basing their ideas on deep beliefs and fervent passions is crucial. Innovation is a leap of faith, and innovators need to be believers. Like artists, they will often face rejection, but if an idea is not worth fighting for, it might not have been the right one in the first place. Strong innovations are always the product of strong convictions.
- Artists are contrarians. Artists can see the “cracks through which the light gets in,” as the old adage goes. Likewise, great innovators come up with solutions to problems because they see what is missing. They are eccentric, which means they literally view things from the fringes – and that’s typically where the best ideas come from. Both artists and innovators see the world as it is not (but could be). They look upon our world, as Proust would say, with “fresh eyes.” You might also call that vision. They are always “initially wrong” to be “ultimately right” as Kathryn Schultz wrote in her book, Being Wrong. They are the fools who speak the truth, have “insane” ideas, and make change happen.
Like art, true innovation has the potential to make our lives better. It stretches our souls and combines the exploration of possibilities with action. It connects and reconnects us with deeply held truths and fundamental human desires; meets complexity with simple, elegant solutions; and rewards risk-taking and vulnerability with lasting value. However, businesses must refrain from making art a disciple of innovation—and they must refrain from designing innovation as a mere process. That is perhaps the golden rule artists and innovators have in common: only if they allow ample space for new things to happen that could happen, will they happen.
Share your innovation story or bold new idea in the MIX’s Innovating Innovation Challenge.
Tim Leberecht is the chief marketing officer of global design and innovation firm frog. He is also the publisher of frog’s award-winning magazine design mind, the producer of the Reinvent Business hackathon, and serves on the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Values.