During August, I was asked to write an article for Human Capital Review - on why I believe art is a vehicle for individual and business transformation. The article examines the application of the intrinsic benefits of art to the corporate environment.
Art as a vehicle for Individual and Business Transformation
"Logical and precise, left-brain thinking gave us the Information Age.
Now comes the Conceptual Age - ruled by artistry, empathy, and emotion."
— Daniel Pink, a Whole New Mind (2005)
A growing number of Fortune 500 companies are using music, art and drama to learn new ways to develop leadership, communication, innovation and collaboration.
Having obtained my Masters as an Industrial Psychologist, I have spent the last seven years as a strategy and change consultant. This involved travelling across South Africa to various clients and enabling sustainable transformation within organisations during their change challenges.
What became apparent is that organisations in South Africa now widely accept that people are the key differentiator and determiner of competitive edge and sustainability. People are the true value unlockers and wealth creators and are therefore central to sustainable organisational success. Most organisations however are fighting a war for talent in their Industries and have to constantly find new ways to attract, develop and retain talented staff. There are limited talent pools and the new generational ‘I/me/self’ mindset leads to very little organisational loyalty and commitment.
Within this context and whether engaging as a consultant in strategy, values, culture, diversity, leadership or team initiatives, what I began to notice was that the demands placed on people in organisations continues to increase exponentially. No longer are people required to just ‘do their jobs’ but organisations today require their people to constantly innovate, initiate and push boundaries. At all levels, and even more so at the leadership level, people are required to ‘think outside the box’, to be creative, to be motivated and to inspire others. So much more ‘heart’ and by this I mean passion, energy, commitment, consciousness and self-awareness is required and the interpersonal skills and emotional competencies that facilitate a productive workplace are of the utmost importance.
Yet as organisations - in our fast paced competitive environments - we continue to drive left-brained logical and rational thinking in our people as the key driver to success. The focus is on product, outcome, getting things done, reaching targets and end goals. Performing and performance excellence drives people and the organisations they work for. While critical to an organisations success an unintended consequence of this is that it can lead to the suppression of our creative selves – the very food needed for constant growth and success. Very little time is given to finding ways to enrich and explore creativity in the workplace and to nourish the innovation required by our organisations to be the best in their Industry.
I also believe that in order to retain staff, people need to feel valued as whole individuals. People have always sought meaning from their work and the organisations they work for. The people I met constantly expressed a need within their work environment to have more fun, to have the space to play and to find ways to cope with the constant pressure they face in order to remain effective and productive. People have a burning desire to reconnect with themselves and others in a meaningful way.
Art-making and stimulating creativity is a powerful way to address many of these challenges faced by organisations today.
In order to understand why art-making is so potent, it is important to first examine some definitions of art. Various definitions include:
- “A visual expression of life – in all its aspects, dimensions and or a comment thereof”
- “Attempt to communicate ideas or emotions to others / Attempt to evoke emotions, provoke thought”
- “Form of communication” - “a universal language expressed through the transformation of materials into visual media”
- “An expression of how you feel inside” / “a response to life around you/to your life”
These definitions speak to the power of art as a tool for transformation. For centuries human beings have used art-making as a tool for healing and transformation. This is because:
Art is non-verbal yet allows the expression of thoughts, feelings, emotions often at a deeper level than those expressed through words
As Lindy Solomon author of Creative Beginnings and Khula Udweba says “Art is medicine for the soul…when we use our imagination and express ourselves creatively we are making meaning of our experiences through images”
Art reconnects people to themselves because it reflects what’s inside us – it makes us more aware of how we are feeling, thinking and behaving and thus leads to greater self-awareness
Creativity is a form of play and much is learnt about life through play. As adults many of us have lost touch with – or never really had the chance – for our own creativity to flourish. Art-making reconnects us to the child-like innocence and freedom from self-imposed limitations to play, take chances and turn mistakes into opportunities
The creative act has intrinsic value. Just making art is healing in itself. Research shows that the brain goes into a relaxed, restful yet aware state (alpha waves), similar to meditation which enhances brain functioning and brain structure
Art is a tactile, sensory experience that connects one to the present moment and has been shown to greatly reduce stress.
Art making is revitalising and makes one feel alive. It has been shown to be as good for your health as exercise!
If we apply the above to the organisational context, the benefits for organisations become noteworthy. I categorise these benefits into three main themes.
1. Creativity and Innovation
2. Quality of working relationships by raising consciousness of self and others
3. Stress Reduction
1. Creativity and Innovation
Creativity is essential because it is at the heart of innovation, and innovation is a growth driver and, therefore, a business imperative. Terry McGraw, chairman and CEO of the McGraw Hill Companies, characterises creativity as a “business imperative,” and puts his companies’ successful experiences with arts-based learning in a broad strategic context of “surfacing creativity” through engagement with the arts and creativity. Daniel Pink, in his 2005 book A Whole New Mind, argues that we are entering a new age where creativity is becoming increasingly important. In this conceptual age, we will need to foster and encourage right-directed thinking (representing creativity and emotion) over left-directed thinking (representing logical, analytical thought).
Research into the thought processes of highly creative people reveals that they utilise both sides of their brains. While as mentioned organisations predominantly stimulate left-brain thinking, art making awakens the right-brain. Combining right-brain imagination with left-brain logic and analysis increases the capacity for breakthrough ideas and insights that lead to success. This is supported when examining models of creativity. I am not going to elaborate on the models in this article except to comment on the latest thinking on creativity.
While older models (such as Wallas’s Model for the Process of Creativity and Barron's Psychic Creation Model) are based on the principle that creativity is a somewhat magical and mysterious process, the predominant models of today (Parnes (1992) and Isaksen and Trefflinger (1985) Creative Problem Solving (CPS) Model; Koberg and Bagnall's Universal Traveler Model; Robert Fritz' Process for Creation) lean more toward the theory that new and creative ideas emerge from the conscious effort to balance analysis and imagination.
Modern theories of creativity assert that scientific, concrete, practical and analytical thinking are essential components of the creative process. What we do need to do, however, is to constantly feed our creative right-brain because without this food the intuitive, imaginative side of our brains becomes stunted.
2. Quality of working relationships by raising consciousness of self and others
Rapport, trust, and understanding of self and others are the essential building blocks of effective working relationships. The inherent qualities of art as a form of communication and an expression of thoughts, emotions and feelings speak directly to the relational nature of work and the fact that much work today is accomplished through teams. A shared art experience enhances our sense of belonging and enriches conversation.
At an individual level, the empowerment of making a mark allows one to meet oneself in a creative process and affirms ones own uniqueness. At a team level, through art making we can make it safe to ask the deeper questions that lead to the emotional truth about a situation. From deeper levels of conversation we build trust and camaraderie. So art creates a bonding experience that facilitates collaboration and accelerates the ability get to the heart of a problem.
Art-making requires people to slow down, listen more deeply, learn, and become less reactive. It requires more patience than most people are accustomed to exercising in their interpersonal communications. This allows them to become better connected.
Thequality of people’s working relationships form the context for their ability and willingness to work together effectively. Creative expression helps us explore unknown territory, take risks and overcome fear. These learning experiences can then be transferred to the workplace.
The unique transformation challenges in South Africa’s organisations have deeply impacted leader and employee mindset and behaviour. Issues related to diversity, affirmative action and Employment Equity continue to challenge organisations. The creative processes transcend traditional boundaries and through non-verbal expression enable appreciation of uniqueness and individuality. Drawing or painting images illustrates how differently we see things, and helps us appreciate that many points of view contribute to the whole.
3. Stress Reduction
During the past decade, globalisation, new technologies, and changes in workforce demographic characteristics have created new occupational health challenges. Workers have increasingly reported exposure to stressful work environments with tighter deadlines and increased production targets set with seemingly little consideration for individual workload. Downsizing and restructuring of companies appear to be taking their toll on functioning and worker health status. Managing stress in the work environment is critical to employee satisfaction, health and retention. As evidenced, when we create we are in a relaxed but aware state, similar to meditation. We lose ourselves in the creative process and forget our problems. This altered state of consciousness reduces stress. The ability to be completely present has profound benefits in stress reduction.
Art making aims to improve the balance between head and heart; performance and relationships; what is known and what is unknown; and mind, body, and spirit. We need the transformative experiences the arts give us to thrive in a world of change. As Linda Naiman states “in our fast-forward ‘doing’ culture, it is easy to lose sight of the importance of ‘being’. We all need balance in life between doing and being, between thinking and feeling, between work and play. Creative time moves us out of doing and into being, out of thinking and into feeling, out of work and into play, out of our left-brain and into our right”.
It is important to note that art is one of many tools that can be used within the organisational context. Music, storytelling, improvisation, theatre etc can all be used to stimulate creativity and improve individual and organisational performance. It is important to note however that incorporating art or alternative creative processes in your training programmes must be done with care, responsibility and awareness that these processes can surface deep-seated emotions. Being involved in creative processes oneself and understanding how to contain participants in a group setting is of utmost importance.
In conclusion, the regenerative benefits of creative time can have a profound impact on leaders and individuals unleashing the powerful creative forces that exist in every person and thus stimulates the innovation and the conscious awareness required in today’s competitive environment as well as reduce the stress inherent in such an environment. According to Deborah Jacroux, a work / life consultant with the Microsoft Corporation, “corporations of the future that understand the creative impulse within the human spirit will be the leaders of tomorrow.”