Bringing Creative Balance To Business (And Vice Versa)

There was an interesting piece in Fast Company a couple weeks ago that seems to bolster the idea that creativity is an important component of business success. University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management held a design challenge “To help TD Bank foster lifelong customer relationships with students and recent graduates while encouraging healthy financial behaviors.” They invited participants from other MBA and design programs from across North America.

According to the article’s author and competition judge Melissa Quinn,

Both this year and last–the two years that Rotman invited other schools to participate–business school students were slaughtered by the design school students. Of the 12 Rotman teams this year, not one of them made the final round. And while only seven of the 23 competing teams were from design schools (including California College of Arts, Ontario College of Art and Design, and the University of Cincinnati), design teams scooped the top three places in the competition, doing significantly better than their MBA counterparts. So what does this tell us?

It might tell us that MBAs significantly underestimate the skill and expertise a designer brings to the table.

Later in the article Quinn notes that where the design school teams fell short was in providing a sense of the economic value of their plans,

I should point out that only the winning team from the Institute of Design at IIT actually charged a fee for the service they developed (a fact that was not overlooked by my final-round co-judge Ray Chun, the senior vice president of retail banking at TD). Some competitors were able to offer a vague notion that their ideas would generally create economic value, but crisp articulations of a profit model and underlying assumptions were hard to come by.

In talking about how both MBA and MFA training programs need to change, Quinn expressed the idea we in the arts all love to hate: artists need to focus on being more business minded. But you know, when you are pitching an idea to a bank, highlighting economic benefits are pretty much de rigueur.

What really caught my eye in the article was Quinn’s mention that the design school teams’ approach was effective in convincing “a skeptical panel of experienced professionals about a new idea that doesn’t exist in the world today.” When I read that, I had the sudden realization that creative types aren’t going to necessarily do well in a business environment as part of the structure which keeps things running effectively. The value of the creatives would be in bringing those new ideas for products and services to the fore and getting people engaged.

As Quinn mentions, in order to effectively convince people of the value of these ideas, creative types are going to have to possess enough business knowledge to be able to explain how it might be monetized. When I have read about how important creatives will be to businesses in the future, I have mainly thought about how they might influence the culture to be more nimble and responsive, bolster team building and cultivate creative practices.

This is all true, of course. But even more the value will be in, as Steve Jobs has said, creating products and services for which consumers can’t necessarily express a desire.

The process Quinn says the design school teams used was:

“…they shared real user insights to engage us emotionally, used narrative and stories to compel us, drew sketches and visualizations to inspire us, and simplified the complex to focus us. It’s proof positive that numbers and bullet points, while important, aren’t necessarily what drive executive decision making. “

Some commenters to the article, which included members of the MBA school teams suggest that the differences in the presentations were not as clearcut as Quinn depicts them. I wanted to mention this because it appears from the article’s URL that it may have been retitled from “Need To Solve a Tough Business Problem Don’t Hire An MBA.” From the content of the piece, I don’t think that is anywhere near it’s message.

Regardless of who used the techniques, it appears the storytelling and visualizations approach was viewed as more effective at convincing the judges. I think this fact is generally recognized, but perhaps few think of employing it alongside bullet points and numbers. There definitely needs to be a balance between the two because storytelling can easily slip into attempting to use sentimentality to convince and you don’t want to base business decisions entirely on emotion.

Present Ability≠Quality Of Creative Taste

Brain Pickings had an animated kinetic typography video of Ira Glass’ advice about how to succeed in creative work. Essentially he says when you are starting out to produce creative work, your taste is likely excellent but your execution is probably going to suck. You need to refine your work by exercising your abilities at every opportunity.

This topic has been on my mind quite a bit recently. I had a slightly new understanding about that advice we usually give to young people about entering a career in the arts: “Don’t do it unless you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else for the rest of your life.”

When that advice was first given to me, I interpreted it to mean that if there was any other career path that appealed to me, I should pursue it instead. I recently realized it also means you should be prepared to spend the rest of your life honing your skills through exploration and repetition.

Depending on your specific discipline, in every moment of your life, some part of your consciousness needs to be observing the interaction and behavior of everything around you-living things, light, sound, smells, movement, material properties, physics, speech, text, color etc,. Then you need to choose to take what you observed and make it part of your practice.

Perhaps it is just being the child of two teachers, but I don’t understand people who don’t want to learn a little something more each day. I suspect most people of an artistic temperament similarly have an underlying curiosity that drives them to ask, observe and experiment.

The thing that is tough is having patience with your own failings for weeks, months and years. I pursued certification in secondary education when I was an undergraduate and I remember that one of the things my cohort suggested for our training program was a refresher in grammar. Once we got up in front of the class, we realized we couldn’t properly teach it having ignored it for so long as students ourselves.

A couple weeks ago I properly used “fewer” rather than “less” in a sentence and a woman who just started teaching second grade about five years ago asked me about the grammar rules. There were some implications in her tone that she viewed me with some respect but also as a grammar nerd. I chuckled inside recalling being at uncertain about grammar rules when I was fresh out of college. I decided not to tell her that even though I had about 20 years on her, I really only felt like I started to understand many of the grammar rules in the last 8 years I have been writing this blog.

Now I worry that my writing is getting a little too stilted every time I go back to revise sentences to read “with whom/which.”

I am not trying to promote the pursuit of good grammar as something everyone should do. Nor am I trying to say it will take 30 years to attain. I have always been a voracious reader and have done a lot of writing throughout my life so I have had a lot of exposure. I am not sure when better grammar started to matter to me.

And I certainly don’t follow all the rules. <—-I will start sentences with "and" and will use the singular "they." At some point I realized better grammar would improve the quality of my blog posts and give me a better understanding of grammar and started to make incremental changes in my practice.

I recognized an important point in Ira Glass’ assurances that inability to express one’s creativity has no bearing on the quality of your taste. There are plenty of people who have great taste who have no ambitions to express it as an avocation or vocation and suffer no anxiety over it. It is only when we are frustrated at our inability to express ourselves that we suddenly decide there is a direct relationship between our creativity and quality of its manifestation.

No one would claim you couldn’t have a great vision for an opera simply because you didn’t speak Italian. You just wouldn’t be able to create a good opera in Italian without help. Even after a year or so of learning Italian, your opera probably wouldn’t be too good because your understanding of Italian would only be overlaid on your English language skills, sitting awkwardly atop them.

It is only after long involvement with Italian when the language becomes organic that you can finally effectively express your great vision in Italian. That original vision didn’t suddenly get better because you learned Italian. Italian just happened to be superior to English as a mode for expressing your vision and it naturally took awhile to develop your proficiency.

I am digging Brain Pickings these days. You should visit the site. If you can’t do that, then at least take 2 minutes to watch Ira Glass’ advice

Be Here, With Me

Like many of you, my dear readers, I am of a split mind about the inclusion of social media in live performances. Overall, I think this is a good place to be. I have often written here that one should not jump on the hottest trend, but obviously one should not entirely dismiss it. A healthy mix of skepticism and self-education on the matter is valuable.

There was recently a post on the Drucker Exchange that pushed me toward the “against” column. I have talked about the benefits of tweet seats and such in other entries so I am not going to try to balance the “con” argument here.

In reference to employees using headphones and having social media chat window open at work, the Drucker Exchange piece cites former entertainment executive Anne Kreamer,

“The majority of these young workers said that they felt far more connected moment to moment with people outside their workplaces than with any co-workers,” she writes. The problem, according to Kreamer, is that they miss out on crucial exchanges, become less loyal to the company and one another, and innovate less. As studies on innovation show, physical proximity matters.

… For one thing, it’s the reason many people go to work at all. “Work is for most people the one bond outside of their own family—and often more important than the family,” Drucker observed in People and Performance. “The work place becomes their community, their social club, their escape from loneliness.”

[…]

More important, such contact influences productivity, and creating satisfying informal work arrangements among co-workers is especially important for good output. Research conducted by General Motors during the 1940s, for example found that “‘good fellowship’ or ‘good relations with fellow workers’ showed as the leading causes of job satisfaction,” Drucker recalled.

The Drucker Exchange piece echos a rhetorical corollary many arts people ask of those who feel the need to engage in social media exchanges during a live performance experience, “What is the reason you come to the performance at all?”

For many it may be that a friend or significant other encouraged them–but then they aren’t really dancing with the one that brought them, either. (Though granted, that person may also be connecting with outsiders as well.) Or maybe they are getting extra credit for a class or looking to advance their career.

The mention that employees who isolate themselves in this manner at work are less loyal to the company makes me think audience members who do the same probably aren’t developing a lot of loyalty to the arts organization. True, the act of actually writing about what they are seeing may actually forge a connection that passively watching the show wouldn’t, but there is no guarantee the person is relating their feelings about the show.

While arts organizations probably can’t have the same expectations about audiences they could during the days of high subscription rates, audience churn is a big problem. It costs a lot more to attract a new attendee than to maintain a relationship with frequent attendees. It seems ill-advised to encourage activities that don’t cultivate a connection and may even erode it.

Simply forbidding people to use mobile devices isn’t going to magically result in the scales falling from people’s eyes and have them realize how disconnected they were. The arts organization has to provide a reason to get engaged in the immediate experience as an alternative to connecting to friends who are elsewhere.

As much as we may want to believe it, the experience of the performance may be insufficient to get a person invested. For some people, texting, tweeting, etc may simply be filling the void of uncertainty about the experience with a safe activity.

The solution may not be any more complicated than encouraging front of house staff to actively ask people what brings them to the performance and find out what their expectations are. Or perhaps changing the layout of the lobby to facilitate people gathering and chatting in certain areas. Essentially replace the friends who are elsewhere with friendly faces right where they are.

This song went through my mind as I wrote this entry-
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LkiU4ruREgI

Talking About Your Debates

I had an interesting conversation the other day that convinced me I don’t spend enough time talking to people from other arts disciplines. We were backstage talking to some visual arts professors about the mural project I wrote about a couple weeks ago.

The wall the mural is on is slated to come down soon. While I think it is is a little too soon, I was a little surprised to learn one of the professors (who wasn’t present) really wanted to preserve the mural and have it mounted. To me, the very media it was on–a plywood construction wall–implied a certain impermanence.

This got us to talking about theories of visual arts preservation and the extent you go to in order to keep art around. For example, if you take the chunk of wall a Banksy is on and put it in a gallery of some sort, aren’t you missing the point and leaving it bereft of its context?

When you restore a painting, how good a job do you do? Should it be absolutely indistinguishable from the original or is that fraudulent?

We talked about how theatre embraces the transitory nature of art. Sure you can have a video of the performance, but we always stress that it isn’t the same as having been there. (As it is with some visual arts pieces.) With the exception of the quest to exactly replicate all the original elements of Shakespeare’s plays, theatre people pretty much strive to find some new way frame a performance. (Some times trying far, far too hard to find an original approach.)

What theatre often obsesses about is the process of creating illusion. How does the performer depict their character? Whose approach do you subscribe to? Strasberg? Adler? Meisner? All of the above? None of the above?

There is a famous story that illustrates the conflicting theories. Dustin Hoffman is said to have stayed up two days while filming Marathon Man in order to fully empathize with his character who had also been awake for two days. Sir Laurence Olivier reportedly said, “Why don’t you try acting?”

Hoffman addresses this story in a 2003 NPR interview (around 15 min mark) giving a great testimony to Olivier.

Where theatre people don’t worry overly much about presentation, visual artists don’t really view embracing another artist’s emotional state as crucial to understanding and replicating their technique. While emotion is important to dancers, discussing how one moves through space is of much greater importance.

Yet the conversation got me thinking that someone could make an interesting project out of focusing on those areas that other disciplines find important. For instance, trying to embody the emotions of a famous painter while creating a painting or explore if improved body awareness impacted sculpting techniques.

I am not sure how it would work in the opposite direction since attempts at preservation would make a performance static and dull.

Really, my concern isn’t really with creating new approaches to artistic expression. My point is that talking about the biggest points of debate in your artistic discipline with people from another discipline can be fun and informative. The folks from the other discipline will have a basic understanding about why things like preservation of an artistic expression would be a concern, but since they are not as emotionally invested in the debate, they can bring interesting perspectives.

Who know, it the conversation might plant the seeds for a collaboration on your next project.

Send this to a friend