frog: What Innovators Can Learn From Artists

frog: What Innovators Can Learn From Artists

Although they may not always seem like the best business people, the creative class can teach a few lessons to those of us behind the desks.

  • 4 january 2013

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 bookRedesigning 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 acompelling case for the role of poetry in business. Intel named pop musician 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:

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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 withsignificance. 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.

4. 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).

5. 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.

6. 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.”

7. 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).

8. 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 Radjouhave 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.

9. 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.

This post was first published by CNNMoney/Fortune and MIX (Management Innovation Exchange)

Image credit: Komonews

(Continue reading here.)

[Written by Tim Leberecht. Reprinted with kind permission from design mind, a publication of global innovation firm frog.]

Design Mind is a publication of global innovation firm frog that is updated daily to keep the design and innovation community updated with fresh perspectives on industry trends, emerging technologies, and global consumer culture. Learn more about design mind and frog.

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