Category Archives: The Globe and Mail

The Queen of Arts

The Globe & Mail 
November 25, 2006

The Queen of Arts
With a successful arts school, a citywide non-profit program and training for execs, Lola Rasminsky inspires kids – and adults – to channel their creativity, VAL ROSS writes

You used to see a lot of Lola Rasminsky in the front hall of the Avenue Road Arts School, chatting in her soft voice with intimidatingly stylish parents as they waited for their little ones to troop out bearing masks and cardboard architectural models. Some parents were friends; some knew her from taking the school’s adult classes; in their professional lives, some attended her corporate workshops.

These days, Ms. Rasminsky spends far more time in places like Portage Trail Middle School, near Jane Street and Weston Road. On a Wednesday morning, Ms. Rasminsky stands in the school’s entryway admiring a mural in progress, as kids, some on scaffolding, daub images on the theme of “peace.” One 12-year-old stops his work to tell her that he loves to draw and wants to design robots. This may be off the topic of peace, but it’s very much in the spirit of Ms. Rasminsky’s philosophy: “I have three endeavours with one message,” she says. “People need to recognize that they’re talented.”

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Taming creativity

The Globe & Mail
December 24, 2003

Taming creativity
There are ways to foster innovation without tossing
productivity out the window, writes Lola Rasminsky

Have you ever met an aging bachelor who insists that all he wants in life is a wife and family, but when confronted with a realistic prospect, runs for the hills? Like this gentleman, many companies that talk about the need for innovation very quickly turn cold when asked to make a real commitment.

Most chief executive officers today would agree that their companies need to innovate in order to keep a competitive edge. They understand innovation to be creativity applied to producing new value in the marketplace. Yet, in many organizations, senior managers are afraid to place too great an emphasis on creative thinking.

Why would they fear the very thing that could save them?

Being creative means taking risks, seeing new possibilities, not feeling bound by traditional ways of solving problems, and often breaking long-standing rules. A creative thinker can question basic assumptions and turn conventional thinking upside down.

In today’s workplace, people are constantly being asked to adapt to new technologies, new working groups and new types of projects. This situation requires their minds to be nimble and open — the very qualities that creativity training sharpens. Yet many executives do not want an innovative culture they can no longer manage — or control.

The dilemma is that creative thinking is both necessary for survival and a potentially subversive force.

Are there times when creative thinking is simply inappropriate? This is like asking whether children who express themselves by writing on the walls should be stopped. Of course they should.

Both children and adults can comfortably learn that they are still valued as creative people even when limits are placed on their self-expression.

For much of the time, management needs its people to be onside, not offering challenges or alternative directions. The creative attitude of constantly questioning can be inappropriate and counterproductive. There are certainly times when the values of innovation and productivity can collide.

How then can we strike the delicate balance of encouraging creativity, but not too much of it?

On the control side, everyone in the company must understand that creative thinking should propel the business to realize its strategic goals. There are a couple of ways to achieve that:

Make sure that every employee understands where the company is going and that these goals do not change from month to month. This requires refining, committing to and communicating the vision of the organization to everyone who works there.

Make clear what the budgetary constraints of the company are so that people will police themselves accordingly. If people can be encouraged to take responsibility and motivation upon themselves by embracing the values and aspirations of the company, they will not want to waste time pursuing possibilities that lead in another direction. They will know that ideas should be pursued only if they are useful, not simply intriguing.

In the effort to manage creative output, managers must be careful not to undermine creative thinking and shut people down. Here are some guidelines for keeping the creative spirit alive:

Find ways to engage the imagination and passions of the employees so that their motivation comes from within. This means understanding who your employees really are — what are their interests and skill sets — and then matching them up with work that will challenge them.

Build a trusting and flexible team that will be supportive enough to deal with inevitable setbacks and unexpected demands. A team that includes people from diverse backgrounds is more likely to spark truly original thinking.

Recognize that creative thinking is not just about “big” new product ideas. There’s always a better way of doing a job. Original thinking can be applied to building trust, dealing with conflict, changing company structures and refining processes. The company’s strategic goals must always remain the driving force.

Give people the freedom and resources to think innovatively, where and when it is required. It is not enough to say “Go innovate.” Innovative thinkers must feel supported, not just financially, but they must be allowed to fail in order to learn. It’s almost as valuable to find out what doesn’t work as to find out what does. Managers need to come to terms with the unfortunate reality that this process takes time.

Recognize that what motivates people is feeling valued for their efforts, not just for their successes. Managers need to acknowledge how important their employees’ work is to the organization. We all need to feel that what we do matters — and that we matter as well.

There is a time and place for everything, including creative ideas. For leaders to feel comfortable fostering an ecosystem that nurtures innovation, they will need to be sure that the people who work for the company are committed to achieving the company’s goals. With this trust established, they must listen carefully and keep a true space open for different ideas. Deep commitment from all parties builds an energy base for creativity and productivity.

Like our putative bachelor, with a little bit of trust a company can overcome the fear of the unknown and take a chance on a richer and more expansive world.

Lola Rasminsky is the director of a Toronto training program for executives that encourages them to “think like artists.”

Getting junior into the “right” art class

The Globe and Mail
October 25, 2003

Getting junior into the “right” art class
by Leanne Delap

“I had a dream,” read the e-mail from a girlfriend whose daughter is named after a semi-precious stone, “that I forgot to enroll her in the toddler class at Avenue Road Arts School!”

The integrated arts preschool, just one component of the facility at Avenue Road below St. Clair, is one of the most popular and renowned of its kind in Toronto — and has stirred the blood of the city’s competitive mothers.

Yes, in a certain, cozily privileged sector of the city, forgetting to register one’s budding Picasso would indeed be a nightmare. The school, which offers dozens of courses in everything from life drawing and pottery to musical theatre (for which local preteens must audition), has waiting lists that grow each year. Some of the summer programs are locked down by March.

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Lessons to Master Business

The Globe and Mail
March 11, 2002

Lessons to Master Business
LOLA RASMINSKY writes that a pianist’s advice
can apply to management practices

While attending a master class in piano performance by well-known Vancouver pianist Robert Silverstein recently, I was struck by how transferable his advice was to non-musical settings. Had I not been sitting in the concert hall of the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, I could have well imagined myself taking in a lecture on leadership or strategic management at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

I have always been intrigued by how much business executives can learn from artists about how to conduct themselves within a corporate context. In the business world, there is a premium on the ability to “think differently.” Who could teach us better than the people who spend their time creating, namely successful artists of any kind?

Mr. Silverman’s master class could easily have been a lesson in how to make sure your business goes forward productively. His first questions were: “Where are you going with this piece? Why are you interpreting the piece in this way?” Many management consultants insist that the first order of business for any organization is to clarify and distill exactly where the company is going. What is the vision? What are the important values driving senior management? What will move people to want to come to work in the morning?

Often, companies get into trouble because they oscillate between competing values. Let’s say, for example, they make a commitment to innovation. Developing new products and new ways of doing things becomes a stated priority. But the moment things stop going exactly as anticipated, senior management pulls the plug on the innovation priority and goes back to focusing on the bottom line. And then the cycle begins all over again, leaving everyone confused about what the company is really all about.

Tempo is another theme that crosses over. “Think about your tempo before you begin the piece,” Mr. Silverman insists. “Look at the most difficult passage in the work and assess how quickly you can manage that tempo.” He’s talking about sustainability. There’s no point bursting out of the starting gate at a breakneck speed if you can’t keep it up. How many businesses get into trouble because they cannot keep up with the pace they ambitiously set at the outset?

In this master class, Mr. Silverman often invoked the “imagine” priority. “Imagine a dialogue within the piece,” he suggested. “Imagine a different instruments playing the melody and the inner voices.” When our imagination is engaged, the result will have more energy.

Engaging the imagination is probably the most empowering activity any of us can participate in. The imagination is the one place we have unlimited possibilities to choose from. When we brainstorm to come up with new ideas, we use our imagination. When we go out on a limb to consider new ways of doing things, we use our imagination. When a musician plays a piece of music, it will be much more colourful if the imagination is involved.

Many of us want to pursue excellence in business as well as art, but don’t really know how. Mr. Silverman’s piano master class gives us a good start.

Lola Rasminsky is director of the Avenue Road Arts School in Toronto. She is also director of Beyond the Box, a corporate training program that encourages executives to “think differently” by employing strategies used by artists.