Archive | November 2011

Bringing Arts Into Organizations, Not Just For Leadership Education: Art is about life for us all – Part II

Nowadays we seem to use “globalization” to explain many dramas; some explanations are valid and others are excuses.  I concur with the notion that globalization contributes to the feelings of unease, stress, even chaos, that are coursing through organizations these days; I am however not certain that therefore the art world offers the desired relief.  Certainly, taking a different perspective to begin thinking outside our box is healthy, but as usual, the details are in the how.  Just because it’s now trendy, many organizations are repeating their old, forlorn habits of copying what others are doing without understanding their own philosophy or even the truths of their own situations.  Is that the artist’s way?  Even when an artist finds inspiration in others’ work, she has to incorporate it into her own vision and philosophy to create something that’s hers.  Once again, it’s the whole, the complete system; the creative process is not a discrete process but an integrated process.

As I mentioned before, I love the notion of bringing arts into the organizational world, and not just for leadership.  However, how do you choose what art medium? Whose work? Do organizations only choose well-known artists? And popular art media?  So far, it seems so.  Then, they’d miss a brilliant star like Vincent Von Gogh, they’d dismiss Ludwig van Beethoven as a boor, reject a promiscuous Robert Schubert…and would they have recognized another path breaker in the early days of Picasso?  Would they be the ones that rejected J.K. Rowling’s silly idea of books about a wizard named Harry Potter?  (Comes to think of it, I can’t see von Gogh or Beethoven working with managers, talking to them through some creative ideas!)  As for choices of media, why not check out the quilting community?  That medium utilizes both visual representation as well as math, which is also true of knitting.  It’s so much easier to embrace art once the artists made it, or after they die.  That’s one of the reasons that I think the argument for “arts and leadership” is faddish.  There are plenty of starving artists out there whose creative process could be just as valuable.  Why not support some of them?  I recently met a young “graffiti” artist; I don’t get all of his work, but understanding what he’s trying to do just boggles my mind.  The list of art media and artists is pretty long.

Furthermore, I just don’t know what are the specific aspects of the creative process the organizations/leaders are looking for.  Who gets to choose?  Most of artists I have the privilege of knowing do not work in ‘planning mode;’ ‘evolving mode’ better describes how their future work is suggested by their present.  Listening beyond words is one critical component of such ‘evolution.’

But more importantly, each artist has a dominant skill-set with which to work.  What’s management’s dominant skill-set?  Someone who’s very good at analysis?  Can that manager also handle synthesis adroitly?  If she’s good at listening, can she follow up with actions?  A decisive manager can be an asset, but how does he handle doubt and uncertainty?  What are the average managers’ skills that have to be in the toolkit, without which they can’t be, or shouldn’t be considered for, managers?  In other words, what do managers want to be creative about?  A friend of mine once said, “art is about beauty; without it, life would be ugly.”  But we all know that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, and so how do we assess the “beauty” that’s been created?  Hence my objection to the notion of “reality as it is,” in the previous entry.  How do we gauge one manager’s creative reality over that of others?

When I imagine how a writer works, she would first of all pay attention to humanity, human nature, nuances of human behavior, intricate dynamics, psychological manifestations, etc.  A painter needs to see beyond that which can be described and defined.  A sculptor would see through the surface and grasp how the structure underneath an object really works. Most managers have little time to notice these details.  I think they should, but remember, the stress of globalization doesn’t give them much time to do so!  The profit-oriented companies dictate that humanity has to take a back seat (or no seat at all).  So, I am back to the same question:  What exactly are we looking for in arts to help management, especially against the stress of globalization? 

And if it’s so good for leadership and management, why can’t it be available to the whole organization?  Are we also to believe that in most organizations, especially those medium to big, there wouldn’t be individuals who are deemed more creative than others?  Frankly, I am not even clear how to judge someone’s creativity, but probably it’s akin to the test, “if it quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, it’s a duck!”

But seriously, if management really wants to pursue outside-of-the-box creative process, why not embrace James March’s “technology of foolishness, (link here)” and build in the organizational structure space and time for employees to “play?”  I’ll wager anything that the people who work on the “floor,” with the customers, or in laboratory space, and/or often face unexpected events, need to be creative.  If they are allowed to, i.e. without being punished when new ideas don’t work out, most of them can be quite creative.  Or, why go searching among the known artists out there for creative process?  Troop down to the local kindergartens, elementary schools (only the 1st or 2nd grades), and just hang out with our next generation for a few hours.   Most of us will be amazed by their enormous creativity, and perhaps begin to reclaim that spirit that once resided in ourselves?!  Furthermore, these young and innocent minds would not try to be pretentious in their games, or justify their rules or lack of them, or spout smart-sounding explanations.  Being creative is all about experiencing the journey. 

I do know one aspect of the artistic process, the art of letting go, that still bedevils me at times.  I do almost exclusively watercolors, and the nature of watercolor has forced me to learn to relax control most of the time.  One of the biggest items in management education is control.  This may not necessarily mean that management can never learn to let go; it’s one of the many life paradoxes to which there are no solutions.  To learn to live with paradoxes is art.  I contend that in the future, the organizations that can live with and work with paradoxes are the ones that can make headway.  And business schools need to learn that management is more about art – the real core of art, where the future is accepted as evolving from today, control is recognized as an illusion, and paradoxes are welcomed as friends – than it is about science.  We shall see.  Till next time, after Thanksgiving weekend,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Bringing Arts Into Organizations, Not Just For Leadership Education: Art is about life for us all – Part I

In the Academy of Management Learning & Education December 2006 issue, there is a special section on “arts and leadership.”  I like some of the points, but overall, I feel disquiet and annoyance after reading the section.  I am a painter who’s still not ready to be labeled as “an artist,” even though some of my artist friends have tried to elevate my opinion of my work.  All artists, regardless of how their work is perceived and received, are creative, but not all painters, sculptors, writers, musicians, etc., are creative.  I am sure every artist has her/his own creative process.  How to help managers learn to benefit from what art entails, through creative process, is a huge and complicated issue, but the journal articles treat it mostly in generic terms.  Maybe that’s partly what accounted for my dissatisfaction.  But first of all, why bring arts into only “leadership” and not the entire organization?  I’ll address the former in this entry and the latter in the next entry.

Nancy Adler is a very respected management scholar who has done considerable work in the international/cross-cultural area; I referenced a lot of her work in my dissertation.  So, I was surprised by my own negative reaction to her piece on this topic.  I accepted her analysis of the five trends driving the need for businesses to totally retool their ways of doing things in light of globalization:

  1.    Rapidly increasing global interconnectedness
  2.     Increasing domination of market forces
  3.     An increasingly turbulent, complex, and chaotic environment
  4.     As advances in technology decrease the cost of experimentation,      organizations’ scarcest resource becomes their dreamers, not their testers
  5.     Yearning for significance – success is no longer enough”

Basically, her points are that as the global economy becomes ever more pervasive (does that mean we focus on primarily only those large organizations that carry business across borders?), we become more interconnected (both at the producer’s end and receiver’s end), and then any movement in one corner of the world is likely to be felt at other corners almost immediately.  With the omnipresent computer, emails, Skype, Blackberries, Smartphones, our communication is instant, indeed so instantaneous in nature that we get thrown into chaos at times.  With demands now present 24/7, we can no longer wait around for more data, evidence, or desired information; managers (who may not be leaders!) need to make decisions here and now.  Furthermore, the strategy and planning tools that were useful for the 20the century (not sure if they were even effective back then) are no longer adequate.

Managers/leaders need to be ever more creative; enter the artists.  Artists are regarded as more prescient than your average citizens; their creations are often timeless (the good ones, I presume) and transcend national and cultural boundaries.  But none of these authors in this special section made a clear case of how to choose artists and what kind of creative process is desired.  I’ll come to this issue in the next entry.

In order to “lead/manage” artistically or creatively, 20th century managers who stressed conformity need to let that go and allow dreams, unique perceptions or visions to come into play.  “…leaders today must have the courage to see reality as it actually is, even when no one else has yet appreciated that reality.  Such reality-based perception is not easily acquired, either for managers or for artists.”  I was beside myself when I read this passage.  Regular readers may recall from my comments on “socially constructed reality,” that the same event can be perceived as multiple realities by different players.  Can we ever pinpoint “reality as it actually is?”  How do we judge one person’s reality to be more convincing, more inviting, more real, than another person’s? If Adler were to emphasize the point that managers need to practice looking for possibilities to create a different reality for the future, that would be more palatable.  And “reality-based perception?”  Our perception is our reality; or, our reality is, by definition, our perception.  For multinational corporations, cross-cultural differences and perceptions must present very different realities.

The speed of global economic activity seems to increase with time.  The margin for error is shrinking.  Companies can no longer rely on their past successes to buy them time to develop the next generation of new products and services.  But such a frantic pace is causing havoc in the world, as we are still witnessing bailouts, countries on the brink of bankruptcy, stock markets’ wild swings…etc.  Part of Adler’s point is that business leaders in today’s environment need to be even more aware of the here and now and not fall for illusions or wishful thinking.  While that’s true, it is difficult to accept her assertion that Enron’s collapse and Arthur Anderson’s fall resulted from these companies’ denial of reality.  There is a profound difference between operating on illusions and willfully committing criminal acts.

And I do worry about the pace of this globalization.  If simultaneous listening-observing-while-doing is the norm, will we ever get a chance to sleep quietly and soundly?  Without rest – metaphorically — where do we find the energy to create?  It feels as if eventually, we’ll explode, or implode.

Adler calls for leaders of the 21st century to be courageous and to dream big.  This notion, while poetically encouraging, also invites danger.  This article was published in ’06.  Could she have envisioned the financial mess we experienced in ’08?  I’ll bet that those hedge fund managers were dreaming big; the mortgage companies’ CEO’s all thought they were being creative, and the bankers were all touting their “successes…” till the moment they needed bailouts.  These leaders (why do we insist on calling them “leaders?”) presented their bright “visions” to some segments of society, and quite a few people felt inspired to go along.  There were a few level-headed warnings prior to the global financial meltdown, but…  And we collectively seem to keep committing such suicidal acts again and again and again.

How shall business leaders in the 21st century establish their trustworthiness?  If being more artistic means closer and better connection with others, employees, customers, maybe even their families (I mean the employee’s and customers’), or being more compassionate about society at large, or being more concerned for humanity and our planet, I am all for it.  But if being artistic means crafting better ways for manipulation, then, that’s a total betrayal of art and what artists have always strived to do.

The ending of Adler’s article offers examples and pleas that are more promising:  Essentially, what’s required of leaders is to look for possibilities, outside our current ways of being and thinking, and to adopt the mode of abundance, not of limitations (the premise of appreciative inquiry).  In creating business environment, leaders need to think less about what resources to take but more about what to give and what to return to the environment.  Or, as other management scholars put it, “What we need is not an economy of hands or heads, but an economy of hearts.”  But shouldn’t all this have been our goal even in the last century?

Beautiful notion, not sure how to get there.  Definitely not convinced that infusing leaders with the creative artistic process would provide the answer.  Don’t get me wrong, I love the notion of marrying art and business worlds, but this special section on the topic feels a bit faddish.

This saga continues in the next entry.  Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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The Deficiencies Of The Deficit Thinking — Part x-1

I can’t think of any of my friends who don’t take pride in their commitment to professionalism.  The majority of them work 10-12 hours a day and more than five days a week – they continue their thinking and sometimes writing over the weekends.  But the signs of wear and tear are showing, and when those who work for government agencies are on salary freeze for the next few years, how can anyone blame them for re-adjusting their commitment?  We are stuck in deficit thinking, and I don’t mean just the national deficit, but the more far-reaching all-around negativity which preys upon our spirits and stresses our abilities to build or create, and for that matter, even inhibits our ability to deal thoughtfully with the financial deficit.  “Deficiency thinking” and its amorphous aspects, morale, trust, energy, etc., wrecks havoc in our collective system in both short and long terms.

forlorn chairlift looking for abundant snow!

My friends’ re-adjusting their commitment isn’t in cutting corners, shirking responsibilities, or doing just good-enough jobs.  They are still committed to putting in more than 100% when they are “on,” but they are trying to cut back the “on” mode.   Some of them are taking a little time off here and there. (Many have accumulated quite a bit of vacation time, and have previously lost weeks of vacation because they were “on” too much to take vacation.)  A few of them push back demands from the top; yet a few more are contemplating taking early retirement, and probably find some less demanding part-time jobs.  Or, they will retire as soon as they are eligible.

abundant yellow

I have no doubt that there are still a few organizations where people are happy at work, Google comes to mind.  But the number of these places seems to be shrinking around us.  We often hear the advice that “you are not irreplaceable.”  Or, “within a year after you are gone, the place won’t remember you or what you did.”  True, but for the ones who take pride in their professionalism and are internally motivated for their work, it’s about going beyond the expectations from others.  I would hazard to make this assertion:  The mediocre ones who would just clock in and meet expectations or slightly above, when they leave, you won’t notice much difference.  But when the top tier of really talented and committed members feel cheated or unappreciated, and start pulling back, the loss will impact all of us.  Remember, by definition, half of the workforce is below average.

looking toward the sun

I heard on a radio program that in Denmark, people can request part-time or half-time for their jobs, and the organizations have to honor the request unless the organizations can prove that the employees’s reduced hours would impact productivity and profit.  Now, I think this is rather drastic since a meaningful assessment isn’t cheap to undertake and the results would be suspect, at best.  However, the concept is rather attractive because when it’s in the culture – 40% of the workforce take such options in Denmark – it’s not considered unprofessional to do so.  In addition, they don’t mind paying taxes for better health care and other social services.  Germany is trending in that direction as well.  And you know what?  The productivity in these countries hasn’t suffered.

I don’t have systemic data to document this statement, but many organizations seem to be hell-bent on creating work for the sake of busy work, and this sense is especially acute to people working long hours.  What do I mean by busy work?  Suppose one has to have more than six signatures for requesting travel, 8 more upon return to process the reimbursement, reams of documents to simply make a purchase request, and a few more for quality control requirements … before actually doing the work.  If someone has to spend more than about 30% of office time doing things that only meet preliminary requirements for the actual work, that’s too much.  And as people, from bottom to top, feel stressed out, patience runs thin, and nurture would be the first casualty.  While half of the workforce will always be mediocre, the overall performance distribution is likely to shift to less productivity, less stellar performance, less work satisfaction, just about less of everything.

Any solutions?  At least any one of all that I have discussed so far would help, but the keys always lie in the initial desire and the how.  And if I could come up with any brilliant synthesis, that’d be worthy of a Nobel.

aster….before the freeze

Charles Peters writes in the latest Washington Monthly: “ When corporations build a factory, it is considered a positive, the creation of a capital assets.  But when government builds a road or a school, it’s an expense.  It’s simply spending money, treated the same as the most frivolous waste.  Why can’t we have a system of accounting that gives government credit for the creation of genuine assets like bridges and schools?”  It’s really about different ways of thinking.  And that’s the hardest battle.  Management generally does claim to desire better operations and improved productivity (and increased profit for for-profit organizations), and people who are managed just want to create meaning for their work.  But with the increasing stress and meaningless busy work, no one seems to have time to have conversations to make genuine improvement at work.

scarred trees from the summer fire…they’ll recover eventually

Sorry, yet another depressing entry.  But by keeping writing, I keep my energy going, and maybe along the way, I may bump into some brilliant aha’s.  If you have some positive stories, please share.  Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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