Hire an Artist, It’s Good for Business

Taken from the Globe and Mail, July 14, 2001

When it comes to productivity, corporate CEOs are the mirror image of artists. Many can command obscenely high pay packages, even as the value of their companies’ stocks declines, as recent media stories attest. It may be hard for the business world to admit, but impecunious artists who produce a lot for a little might have a thing or two to teach them.

Productivity is only one. Companies that want to hang on to their competitive edge must think and do things differently as they develop a new product, a unique marketing approach, or a cutting-edge financing model. The most successful enterprises harbour and support creative thinkers, people skilled at breaking the rules. An example: Dell Computers employees decided not to follow the tradition of using third parties to market and distribute their products. They did it themselves — successfully.

One of the most compelling questions for business today is how to come up with new ideas. Who knows more about creative thinking than the people who spend their days and nights creating?

In the 1980s, Sid Oland, then president of John Labatt Ltd., hired Canadian artist lain Baxter as creative consultant to stir up the thinking of senior management. Mr. Baxter attended board meetings and was on Labatt’s strategic planning team, taking on the role of resident iconoclast. Among other things, the artist is given credit for a Don’t Drink and Drive campaign which helped to boost the beer company’s image as a responsible corporate citizen.

More recently, Telus Corp., as part of its drive to become Canada’s leading Web hosting service provider, has developed an Unchain Your Brain program to encourage innovative thinking. The program relies heavily on facilitators such as Lorraine Behnam, professor of drama at Guelph University, to help people listen better and respond to new ideas.

The list of Fortune 500 companies that have engaged artists, actors and poets to accelerate their innovative thinking processes includes AT&T, Boeing, Chase Manhattan Bank, Eastman Kodak, Cheyron, IBM, and Motorola. These corporate giants recognize that artists can fortify the team’s ability to “think differently.”

Hire an actor and he will help attune your team to the need for ensemble work — how to listen and respond, and build on each other’s ideas. Hire a writer and she will help articulate a vision and recognize how your own voice and values can (or can’t) be aligned with the values of the company — an absolute necessity in building a committed working group. Hire a musician and he will help attune the group to disharmonies and to voices not being heard; he may even provide new perspectives on how to vary a theme and modify an old product to give it a new life. Hire a visual artist to help make connections between seemingly unrelated concepts.

It’s a myth to think that artistic people are only good at art. The brain isn’t compartmentalized in that way. In my experience as an arts school director, I’ve found most artists to be logical, articulate and thoughtful. Many artists, actors and musicians could have chosen careers in medicine, law or business. Their brains function perfectly well on both sides.

But artists do take more risks and are less afraid of chaos than the rest of us. As a result, they can shape order out of seemingly chaotic situations.

Roger Martin, dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, believes that the best business thinking is similar in form and process to the thinking of artistic geniuses like Frank Gehry and Martha Graham. As he puts it, “Great business thinking is an art, not a science.”

Lola Rasminsky is director of the Avenue Road Arts School and Beyond the Box, a training program for executives that encourages them to “think like artists.”

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