The pressure to continuously scale reach and grow profits provokes leaders to urge their people to be more creative. To be more innovative. To think outside the box. But, in truth, when push comes to shove, most organizations snap back to enforcing policies designed to keep things highly predictable and to minimize the risk of anything going wrong. That is, they revert to putting Jack back in the box.
A downward spiral of ever-increasing cynicism fueled by “Fostering a culture of innovation” and “Everyone in the organization is an innovator” sloganeering. Leader’s words ring empty when their organizational Outlaws are constantly obstructed by Sheriffs and Posses deputized to maintain the law and order of the status quo.
“Lip service” is the phrase that comes to mind.
The impact of this spiral was brought to life by conversations I had last week with some of the more than 300 artists and champions of the arts gathered at the 2018 Connecticut Arts Day in Hartford, where I had been invited to give a keynote talk.
CT Arts Day 2018, organized by Kristina Newman-Scott and her remarkable team, is an annual celebration of the positive impact Connecticut’s artists have on that state’s culture and economy. The Hartford Stage was filled with speakers and performers, being honored, paying tribute, and shooting arrows of pain, joy, and enlightenment straight into our brains and our hearts as they brought to life this year’s theme of resilience.
In my talk, I shared the Deflection Point Framework, the Practice Mismatch Framework,
and the Think Wrong Practices, hoping to arm my audience with mental models they could use to have more productive conversations and collaborations with those who resist their work.
After my talk, several people approached me remarking that the Think Wrong Practices map to directly to their problem-solving processes as artists. They were excited to have new language and models for understanding the resistance they encounter. They were comforted by the insight that this resistance is a natural response to ideas that challenge what is—rather than a rejection of them or their art. Some thanked me for recognizing and calling out that as artists, they have a special role and opportunity to help others navigate uncertainty while they invent what’s next.
Some also shared with me that they are pulled between the Think Right Box, where they are forced to work to earn a living, and the wide-open Think Wrong Territory, where they practiced their art.
They spoke of the constant pressure they experienced in their inside-the-box jobs to be right, to not rock the boat, to keep things predictable and safe. They spoke longingly of being able to work fulltime in the Think Wrong space, where they would be free to explore, experiment, discover, continuously learn, and make their art. They spoke dejectedly of being “trapped” in organizations that, rather than celebrate their artist-by-night accomplishments—systematically discouraged the very kind of endeavors that their bosses were giving lip service to valuing during their day jobs.
Mohamad Hafez has spent his nights and weekends over the last 10 years transforming the demons of the Syrian War—and the devastation that it has brought on his family and his people—into stunningly beautiful, tragic, and engrossing immersive works of art. Most recently recreating scenes and telling the stories of individual refugees within the luggage they brought with them to their new land. By day he is an architect operating in the upper-right hand box of corporate real estate. By night a master artist roaming the wide open plains of possibility.
Valentine is the creator, editor, and publisher of Kulture Mag—an urban, elegant, lifestyle magazine, built on the ideals of achievement, leadership, individuality, hope, and faith. Described by Valentine as a contemporary Scholastic magazine, Kulture tells the stories of young adults and how they are using their talents to make a positive impact in their communities and the world. He keeps his in-the-box job secret, to avoid having it define him rather than his true passion and chosen vocation.
Kelly Bigelow Becerra and Roland Becerra are filmmakers blending live-action with animation from their living room while crafting a hauntingly beautiful story set in the brownfields and abandoned buildings of a dramatically illustrated Connecticut. Kelly shared with me that, where many young couples were investing their savings in their first home, she and Roland are investing their entire savings in Agatha, a 60-minute, animated film they’ve been working on for more than 5 years.
Dr. Bettina Love revealed how kids in a hip hop cypher are demonstrating every competency we endeavor to instill in our children in the classroom: critical thinking and problem solving, social and emotional intelligence, social responsibility, grit and optimism, self-advocacy, research, and integrity. Yet, because it is not expressed in conventional (read, mainstream white culture forms) we fail to recognize their brilliance, reward it, and hold it up as an example for all. In fact, many disregard it, disrespect it, and dismiss it.
[Note: if you want to be intellectually and emotionally moved, pay attention to Dr. Love. I am counting her as an artist, because she, like other great artists, reflects on culture—providing us with context, empathy, and deeper understanding of the way things are; reframes—providing us with new insights that inspire new possibilities beyond our limited ways of seeing and understanding; and reaffirms—connecting us to what matters today and motivating us to imagine, advocate for, and create a better tomorrow.]
These artists, like many founders of startups, are bootstrapping their artistic lives. They are raising funds through their in-the-box-jobs and putting that money directly into their art—uncertain if there will be financial returns, yet compelled to do their work.
So, how might organizations tap into the passion and transformative power of artists like these—rather than alienate and run them off?
In 2013 we ran a Think Wrong Blitz with Carol Padberg, which resulted in the creation of Nomad/9—a low-residency MFA at the University of Connecticut, Hartford. To kick off that Blitz, Carol asked, “What kind of world would we live in today if every major institution and business had a resident artist?”
Leaders who understand the potential of inviting artists to take residence in their organizations are few and far between. Facebook has an Artist in Residence program, recognizing the power of having artists continuously hack their culture. Recology also has such a program, which celebrates the afterlife of waste—elevating the by-products of consumption to something higher and more profound—while making the work of waste management a bit nobler and more inspiring.
The leaders of those organizations are rare. They get it. They know that artists help their people access deeper meaning in their work; help their people transcend their own limits; help them connect with what it means to be human; inspire them and to make the world a better place; open their hearts and minds to be more curious, more compassionate, more empathetic, more welcoming, more collaborative, and more unified. Organizations that merely give lip service to the idea of creativity and innovation don’t get it.
In a word: Fear. The fear of being wrong. The fear of ridicule. The fear of losing what they’ve got. Too many leaders revert to a very human position of duck, cover, and protect.
What they should really fear is not evolving. Not shaping what’s next. Not equipping their organizations with the muscles they will need to transform, operate, and dominate tomorrow.
What they should fear is being left behind by new ways of working, new technologies, and what the next generation of talent will value in their work (hint: it isn't just $).
How might leaders mitigate those risks?
Artists are natural born Wrong Thinkers. They are most comfortable, energized, and prolific in the realm of the unknown and uncertain. Artists can help leaders, and their entire organizations innovate faster, safer, and with more profound and human impact than any business plan, PowerPoint deck, or spreadsheet ever will. It’s time leaders started allowing the artists in their organizations to establish residence.
Leaders should use the elegant buildings designed by their architects as galleries for their artist’s work. Not just to showcase their talents, but to infect the spirit and mindset of everyone who experiences the works of those artists with a creative virus.
Senators should let the poetry of their staffers echo through the halls of their Capitol Buildings, to uplift the souls of the legislators, citizens, and workers making policy and striving for change.
Leaders should post the interviews, essays, and photos that amplify the best of youth culture to greet people in hospital waiting rooms, community clinics, and other places of stress and hardship—to inspire hope through what is good and what is possible for each of us.
Administrators should let our students, parents, and teachers nurture and celebrate the skills and intelligence passed on by generations—through families and friends in the larger classrooms of the kitchen table, the front porch, the street, the courts, and the neighborhood. To empower those young people to achieve even greater heights and so that they might lift us up with them.
Leaders should invest in their artists already in residence. Inviting them to be scouts who can help their organizations navigate the uncharted territory outside their self-imposed boxes to imagine, build, and operate what’s next.
And rewarding them for it.
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