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What can managers learn from artists?

Posted on from ESMT

Innovation is a buzzword for the 21st century manager – but maybe it's time to learn from those that have been doing it for centuries – creative artists.

Can art inspire leadership?

In 1974, Nam June Paik created one of his most famous works of art - TV Buddha. In 1982, Jospeh Beuys created the abstract masterpiece, 7,000 Oaks - City Foresting instead of City Government. In 2007, Damien Hirst unveiled a human skull that had been encased with platinum and studded with 8,601 diamonds White Cube Gallery in London, at £50 million the most expensive piece of art by a living artist in our time.

What do these three artworks have in common? They all have lessons for business.

Creating a new market

From a business point of view, the success of Damien Hirst, who is currently making headlines again with a diamond-studded skull of a child, is a model for how to create, and sell to, an entirely new market. In his case, this was the super high-end market for new art. Hirst’s idea was to use expensive materials such as diamonds, gold, and platinum to raise his production costs way above the norm. In this way, the price would become part of the artwork itself. Being more expensive than others would be the characteristic that made his art unique.

In analyzing this market he asked himself three questions:

  • Who would be interested in buying expensive art?
  • What should the artist offer this type of customer?
  • How should it be marketed and sold?


    Hirst clearly found answers to his first two his questions – he has been extraordinarily successful at creating pieces that the super wealthy want to buy and his new art has been bought by the likes of the Mugrabi family, hedge fund managers such as Steve Cohen, and the Russian businessman Victor Pinc.

But he also answered his third question in an innovative way. In order to sell his art he bypassed conventional distribution channels - dealers and gallery owners - and partnered directly with Sotheby’s auction house. He saw that, just as with the art itself, there was a need to redefine the rules. He felt that the established art world had become victim to a phenomenon that psychologists term “inattentional blindness”, meaning that when attention is very focused on specific approaches, humans often fail to perceive significant events, threats or opportunities that are outside their focus. By initiating shows and then leveraging these shows to position his own artwork, he gained focused attention on what he was trying to sell.

Harnessing creativity in your business

Businesses, like artists, thrive on creativity - perhaps now more than ever. Last year a survey conducted by IBM asked 1,500 CEOs from 60 countries and 33 industries worldwide what the most important factor for success within a complex business is. Their answer? Creativity.

When considering how to harness and drive creativity, managers could do worse than look at the installation artist Joseph Beuys. His 1982 installation of basalt stones that formed an arrow pointing to the location of a newly planted oak tree was the catalyst for 7,000 such oak trees to be planted across Germany. It was a typically creative approach from Beuys, with a specific end goal in mind. But it is less the art itself and rather his approach to understanding creativity, that managers can learn from.

According to Beuys, individual creativity is made up of three components: inspiration, intuition, and imagination. Inspiration is the short moment that we divine something new - a short ‘light bulb moment’. Intuition is where we pursue the idea and begin trying to check the practicality in our minds. Imagination is the development of a bankable picture that fills the idea with content and gives it the power to be realised. In order to be creative, organizations have to actively design and drive all three elements. Innovative companies such as Pixar and IDEO do this and regularly lead the competition when it comes to the generation and realization of new ideas.

Is complexity the answer?

Sometimes, making things more complex is a better answer to a business problem than making things simpler. Nam June Paik’s most famous work of art is ‘TV Buddha’ - a video of an antique Buddha statue that played with the idea of TV as a medium to support moving images (the Buddha stood completely still). It was an early and simple example of Paik adding layers of meaning to what appears to be a straightforward item.

Another example of this, although reversed, was his 1975 installation, Video Fish - a hugely complex artwork involving 20 monitors and various images that demonstrated a very simple meaning. And it is how Paik approached complexity - putting one layer of meaning on top of another - that can serve as an excellent example of innovation through complexity rather than simplification.

Mettler-Toledo, the global leader of precision scales, innovated by increasing complexity. At the end of the 1990s, the company’s management noticed that the timeframe between market entry of their own new products and the first copies kept getting shorter. In the end, it was only six months. As a result, they tried to speed up research and development but could not make it much faster. So what could they do?

The usual patent protection-period was too short, and taking legal measures took too long. The copycats simply produced in different countries as soon as there was a conflict. The solution, they discovered, lay in the product itself. A scale is a mechatronic system, which means that mechanics, hardware, and software all work closely together. At Mettler-Toledo, R&D was divided into these areas. In the end, they decided to combine these individual areas to develop new, more complex technologies for the weighing cell, to place the know-how of the cells in the software, and to move certain algorithms from the software to the hardware. The entire scale became harder to copy and Mettler-Toledo has since developed products that no one has been able to completely reproduce.

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