Despite the alarm bells being sounded by the popular business press that innovation in America is in danger of becoming extinct, there’s a slowly rising tide of creativity among today’s workforce. More and more, people are beginning to adopt a different view of their work. In all walks of professional life, from entrepreneurs to executives to factory workers to part-timers, people are beginning to see themselves as something more than a job title on a business card.
"Millions of Americans are beginning to work and live the way creative people like artists and scientists always have," wrote Richard Florida, in his book The Rise of the Creative Class.
I'd like to unpack that statement in the context of business. What does it mean to be a "business artist" or a "business scientist"? What's behind the shift?
Taking the second question first, I think the answer is staring us in the face: the current business environment demands it. The demand for innovative thinking is at an all-time high and constantly increasing, placing personal ingenuity on par with business acumen as the needed professional capability.
At the same time, there's a general disenchantment with business, thanks to a shaky economy. I get a sense that people need some way to think about their work, a new perspective that enables them to manage the mounting tension between their ability to innovate and the ever-increasing demands placed on them. They need a way to get a better sense of control over their work and life amidst uncertainty and rapid change. Think about it: every year, our work gets more complex. Business gets more competitive. Jobs get more specialized. Careers get less stable. Goals get more challenging. Budgets shrink. Deadlines tighten. And all the while, the pace of change just keeps accelerating.
And where does the pressure to innovate fall? Squarely on the shoulders of the individual, who on a daily basis is asked for higher commitment, more adaptability, quicker progress, better execution, stronger decision-making, and freer thinking. At the same time, we’re told to manage risk, meet short-term objectives, and only bet on sure things. All within the confines of environments that are often anything but free: powerful systems, rigid structures, conflicting agendas, privileged information, political posturing and limiting rules.
How are you going to deal with all that? You’ve got more to do and less to do it with. You have no choice other than to get more creative, more resourceful. The solution is this: Work like an artist. Work like a scientist. Or, more accurately, a business artist or business scientist.
Sounds great, but what does that mean?
It means summoning up the only security that really exists: your competence. It means exploiting your expertise to pursue what appears out of reach, even impossible. It means courageously rejecting the status quo, and viewing pushback and opposition as an inventive challenge. It means refusing to let bureaucracy and hierarchy stifle your creativity. It means accepting and respecting the limitations of your specific medium—as any artist does—and work within the confines, leveraging cutbacks and resource constraints to drive new ideas and methods. That’s a mindshift for most. But a block of marble, a small canvas, or eight basic notes in music only has never stifled creativity. Quite the opposite.
It means relentlessly chasing with intensity the simple questions that drive the kind of new school thinking found at the heart every breakthrough, big or small: Is there a better way? What's possible, given my talents?
If you want to work like an artist, then "new, better, different" must be your creed, because for the artist or scientist, the world as it is just isn’t acceptable.
And here's the thing: there's a new definition of competency at play. It's not enough to be technically proficient at something. Sure, to be a true master at anything, one must first gain command of “old school” methods. But workmanship is just the ante to the game. Artistry is about transforming something, about the application of imagination. And the key ingredient, I believe, is something each can certainly do more of: explore.
It all starts with a question. And the right question is far more important than the right answer, no matter what your boss says. Author Milan Kundera once said, “I ask questions. The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything. Wisdom comes from having a question for everything.” And I submit to you that the universe has posed to each of us a very specific question of paramount importance that only we can answer in our own unique way.
The problem is that we forget how to ask questions, starting at around age five. That’s when childlike curiosity begins to fade. That’s when the formal, systematic indoctrination into the ritual of accumulating knowledge begins. But what we know is dwarfed by what we don’t, so if we want to actually know more, it seems a little strange to focus only on the known. We’ve lost the ability of a four-year old to ask questions. Lots of them. About everything. So we spend our lives learning all the right answers—the ones we’re being spoonfed—instead of chasing the right questions. Then we sit back and ask why we're going nowhere.
We've suppressed, if not surrendered, our childlike curiosity. We’re often so adamant about what we know and believe to be true that we limit ourselves to only the options right in front of us, and fail to consider what’s truly possible. But everything we know now was at one time undiscovered. So it makes sense to make discovery a major part of the daily work.
To work like an artist or scientist, you must view the question as your muse.
True artists and scientists sculpt their own job around a central question, so they own the work. Their world revolves around masterful work performed for worthy reasons toward a meaningful end. They go their own way in the face of what to most looks to be impossible. The ability to do so triggers the magic, the alchemy we call art.
For many people this represents a completely different mindset, and often anything different feels like risk. But it's the path to leadership, and there's a dark side to leadership; in fact, there’s a penalty for it: criticism, denial, rejection, dismissal, laughter.
Every artist and scientist knows they’ll face pushback from the keepers of the status quo, aka skeptics and critics (often masquerading as "peers"), but they trust in their strength, and believe in what they’ve developed, so they wouldn't dream of doing anything but continuing to employ their ingenuity to explore and experiment with new ways of doing things. They view defeat as the chance to begin again.
So expect it. And ignore it. Yes, you'll need thick skin. But don't let it stop your tinkering, tailoring and trying. And don’t expect big rewards. Don’t expect anyone to beat a path to your door to embrace your ideas. Don’t expect anyone to help or support you. Do it so you can look at yourself in the mirror every day with pride. That’s the biggest and best payoff.
As Andy Warhol once said: "Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art."
So, are you a business artist? If you find yourself leaning toward "no," then start now. Whatever your work may be, make it your art, your canvas and your sandbox. Good things will happen when you do.