The Rise of Corporate Artistry: What business can learn from the arts

One of the perennial issues in the world of Lean Six Sigma is whether or not LSS is too rigid, numbers-focused, and left-brained to bring the qualitative, right-brain aspects to business issues. In my experience one can meld the left and right brains but it takes a conscious effort in who you hire and place into roles and it takes a unique environment to nurture and develop a blended approach.

This article by Hilary Austen provides a good example — the issues facing Starbucks.

She writes:

When it comes to solving real-world problems, executives could learn a lot from artists.

Wait. Artists guiding executives?

Before you dismiss the notion outright, consider the moment Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz realised his company was in trouble. For him, it all came down to the smell of burnt cheese. “Our breakfast sandwiches were selling extremely well”, Mr Schultz said in a recent interview, “but there was an aroma in the stores that I felt was diluting the integrity of the coffee romance”.

That was in 2007, and it wasn’t all that was being diluted: Starbucks shares had fallen below $10 from a high of $40.

Still, listen to Mr Schultz’s words. Aroma. Integrity. Coffee romance. These are hardly the metrics we expect from the billionaire executive. In fact, his insider’s critique of Starbucks cut even deeper. Automatic espresso machines had done wonders for speed and efficiency across the company’s 17,000 stores, he wrote in a memo to employees, yet “we removed much of the romance and theatre that was in play with the La Marzocca machines”. And, yes, flavor-locked packaging delivered fresh coffee to every Starbucks store in the world—but at the expense of aroma, “perhaps the most powerful nonverbal signal we had in our stores”.

Add it all up, and what do you get? “Our stores no longer have the soul of the past”.

What Mr Schultz acknowledges, as do many forward-thinking leaders today, is the presence of qualitative indicators—indicators upon which a company either thrives or dies every bit as much as it does on the numbers. As a culture, we’ve done a stellar job educating our executives to work the numbers. Yet when it comes to qualities, we’re falling short. And business is suffering for it.

This is where we can learn from what artists do. We business people have a tolerant fondness for the qualitative; when stumped by the numbers, we appeal to “gut feel”. But artists use the qualitative as a honed discipline. Artists are right at home thinking about qualities, then working those qualities into effective solutions even when no clear definition of success exists. This is exactly the kind of challenge we face in business today. How do we use a quality like the smell of burnt cheese to inform business decisions?

If qualitative intelligence in business, technology and science has been diminished, then where can we find it? Knowing that single answers to expansive problems never fly, artists willingly shape and engage ill-structured conundrums, vague situations, and problems without boundaries. They embrace the open-ended. Under these enigmatic conditions (so familiar to today’s executives), they create, master, explore, experiment, innovate, perfect, strive, and glory in their work. Artists drive themselves toward an unpredictable excellence that often reshapes the very nature of our world.

Unruly and sometimes disturbing on the surface, artistry has untapped benefits we can’t afford to fear. It produces original solutions that speak to our enduring problems when single-answer problem solving falls short, or even dramatically fails. Setting aside the preoccupation with single answers, we’d have the chance to design schools to develop human potential rather than maximize test scores; build a healthy macro economy rather than maximize a subset of individual salaries; and provide a nourishing diet of whole foods rather than packaged goods augmented by single nutrients.

Howard Schultz summed up his critique as “the commoditisation of the Starbucks experience”. Put another way, quantitative facts had swamped qualitative experience. Ultimately, he reckoned, they were killing the organization’s soul. The company and the man have made a show of addressing these things, together with some high-profile belt-tightening—because healthy numbers truly do matter, too—and today Starbucks’ stock price and the revenue growth are coming back.

How could qualitative intelligence help solve your organisation’s stickiest problems? To find out, learn from an artist at work.


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