The Hard Art of Standing Apart

I’m always struck by that question, ‘Are you a dreamer or a thinker?’ because it presupposes you can’t be both. I give you one example of why this isn’t true:

Lionel Richie, the silver-tongued musical god of such classics as ‘All Night Long’, was an accountant before he hit the easy listening big time. Irrefutable evidence that no individual is so binary that they must either have their head in the clouds, or their nose in a spreadsheet – yes, even accountants know how to let the music play on…

Increasingly, businesses are unlocking value by turning this misconception on its head and exploring the ways in which creativity across their organisations can drive commercial outcomes.

A new(ish) book called Business is Beautiful seeks to define “the hard art of standing apart” – it argues, amongst other things, that business is people and whilst “achievement can be easily measured through profit… value is a much bigger concept”.

Ultimately, if business metrics have been fixated on the science of success, “do intangible virtues such as creativity, passion, commitment or imagination play any quantifiable role in value creation?”

The authors’ use of ‘hard art’ is a deliberate confrontation of that most pernicious of myths – that business and pleasure, just like science and art, don’t mix.

Andy Warhol knew a fair amount about mixing it up – often exploiting the notion of brand identity through his art, and asking the viewer to decide where his involvement as an artist began and ended.

He had a marvellous line about business – ‘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’ – and you could say he was quite ahead of his time in terms of positioning a debate which rages across companies the world over today – how can we create good business?

Like Andy Warhol, should we make artists of our business leaders?

So what would you create, if your business gave you a blank canvas? The authors of Business is Beautiful have identified five hallmarks they believe provide a framework for beautiful businesses – integrity, curiosity, elegance, craft and prosperity.

Notably, all words we would typically use to describe people, not entities, but a telling pointer to those ‘immeasurables’ – the things which count but cannot be counted – which time and again are helping businesses of all shapes and sizes thrive and survive.

The book contains a lot of rich detail, and some wonderful case studies, but a few things really stood out for me which stretched my thinking.

First

…challenge is good. There is value in dissent, and it should be acknowledged and welcomed in the workplace. When a company is fixated on consensus, it will often only achieve the lowest common denominator.

Whilst an entire workforce of critics isn’t the goal, identifying the ‘wild ducks’ who will stretch and challenge the leadership more often than not leads to productive, creative outcomes.

Second

…there are different kinds of imagination, and you should use them all. Businesses need people with systematic imagination (the evolution of thought and design with a clear connection to the previous idea), as much as they need those with creative imagination (the wild leaps into the realms of the unknown).

Apple needs the drip-feed remodelling of its products as much as it needed the early and game-changing leap into the very notion of personal computers.

Third

…stories reveal truths that information alone cannot expose. Perhaps this is one of the more obvious creative assets we have at our disposal, but it is often confused for the dark arts that “shady marketing men in shiny suits” use – the trade in bullshit – as the authors so succinctly put it.

True storytelling hits the head, the heart and the stomach, and connects a business to its audience through its history, its present and its future. Business is Beautiful passes on a great legendary anecdote about the founder of Wal-Mart, Sam Walton, who was arrested in Brazil for crawling around a supermarket on his hands and knees in order to measure the width of their aisles. What a simple and powerful way of demonstrating unwavering passion and insatiable curiosity.

After I finished the book, I heard a timely and lovely story from James Burke, most famously known for his role as a broadcaster at the time of the moon landings, and as a presenter of Tomorrow’s World. As a Middle English scholar by trade, he didn’t believe he had the right credentials to front science programmes, but the BBC was putting people with arts degrees into the technical teams, and the scientists into the arts division, and it “all worked marvellously”.

What James understood was that disruption can release the most wonderful amount of creativity, and through this the BBC found a way of telling stories which speak to us all, not just the experts.

It’s a great example of the potential for creativity in all of us. So if you had a blank canvas, what would you create?

Like Lionel Richie didn’t quite sing, I believe we can make beautiful business all night long…

———–

My piece first ran on virgin.com

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