The Artful Management

Rob Austin, The Professor of Creativity at Denmark’s Centre for Art and Leadership explains the concept of ‘artful making’ and why it leads to competitive advantage.

Published: Jul 15, 2010
Prof. Rob Austin of Creativity at Denmark’s Centre for Art and Leadership
Prof. Rob Austin of Creativity at Denmark’s Centre for Art and Leadership

You have said that, “As business becomes more dependent on knowledge to create value, work becomes more like art.”  Please explain.

Modern managers increasingly work in the in realm of knowledge and ideas.  Whether you are designing a new product, running a business in volatile conditions or just trying to figure out what to do with your life, the journey will involve exploration, improvisation and adjustment. Often, you cannot know your destination in advance.   With this kind of work, time spent planning what to do will be better spent actually doing – trying something that you haven’t thought out in detail and quickly incorporating what you learn into the next attempt.  This is what artists do when they work, and as a result, knowledge work can and often should be structured as artists structure their work.  My colleagues and I call this approach ‘artful making’.  

Artful making entails creating form out of disorganized materials and it can be applied to anything that exhibits interdependency among its parts – from strategies to product designs to software. It is artful because it derives from the theory and practice of collaborative art and requires an artist-like attitude; and making because it requires that you conceive of your work as altering or combining materials into a form, for a purpose.  Artful making differs from ‘industrial making’, which emphasizes the importance of detailed planning and tightly-specified objectives and processes. My research indicates that the artful approach can lead to sophisticated innovation at levels that many ‘scientific’ business processes can’t achieve. 

What has led to the switch from an industrial-making paradigm to an artful-making paradigm?
A couple of broad-stroke things have been going on. One involves our rapidly-evolving communication and transportation networks, which make it easier for us to move work that is programmable and rountinizable to locations where it can be done at a low cost. At the same time, evolutions in technology allow us to experiment with things very cheaply and rapidly, which is causing work to be done much more iteratively, with shorter lead times.  Boeing has a great term for this: ‘try-storming’. Whereas with brainstorming you come up with a lot of ideas quickly and rapidly, with try-storming, you come up with them but you also do them.  The result is that we can more readily produce variations of things that might be valuable.

Businesses that are based in developed economies increasingly have to do something other than routinized work: they have to add value not by doing what some formula said, but by surprising people. If you think about it, this is what artists have been doing for years. They specialize in producing things that are novel and surprising and valuable in a way that is perhaps unexpected, so we can look to them start to figure out how to do that.

You believe that even common business situations – such as handling a sudden problem caused by a supplier – require artful activity.  How so?

Whenever you have no blueprint to tell you in detail what to do, you must work artfully. Rather than resorting to formulated problem solving, you are called upon to formulate the problem.   What the traditional business problem-solving paradigm gets wrong is, it acts as if the problem is just ‘there’, and there is no interpretation or reframing required. But the fact is, it is often quite a creative act to figure out what the problem is.

Are artful making and industrial making ever combined?
Definitely -- in fact, most productive efforts combine the two.  Toyota is one of my favourite examples.  Most of the work on its assembly line is quite scripted; but what is remarkable is that the whole process is geared for that moment when something happens unexpectedly. While the parts almost always fit in accordance with the specification, on rare occasions they don’t. At this moment, the worker and his teammates must create a new solution by improvising.   The widely-admired Toyota Production System is, in fact, built on the presumption that this kind of improvisation is both valuable and cost-effective.

At the other end of the spectrum, while it is mainly thought of as an artful activity, even professional theatre entails elements of industrial making. Long before rehearsals start, designers and artisans begin to construct the play’s set, furnishings, costumes, sounds and music, and think about ways to light it all.   The things they make become part of the rehearsal’s given circumstances: they are set early on and can be changed only at great expense and difficulty.  One of a director’s most pressing duties is to coordinate the development and building of these designs, orchestrating combinations of work so that as they progress, they all help rather than hinder each other.

You believe that the leadership of knowledge workers more closely resembles directing a theatre ensemble than supervising a factory floor.  Please explain.
For my book, my co-author and I studied a theatre company [People’s Light and Theatre] that takes a particularly ‘emergent’ approach to directing. Rather than getting the production to conform to some preconception, its directors orchestrate the creation of a play that will be a direct functioning of the available materials, the actors most significant among these. The director enters early rehearsals with ideas about how things might go, but deliberately avoid defining their notions in detail.  There is an assumption that each scene will be tried so many different ways that high-quality choices will appear.

The basic idea is pretty simple: that if value creation is about creating something better than what you can envision in the beginning -- and if that is increasingly what our economy is about -- we have to learn how to deal with the element of surprise. Whether your company is creating a new flat-screen TV or looking for improved technical performance for an automobile, the manager isn’t necessarily the one who is going to see the most promising direction as it arises, so you can’t approach this in the traditional, ‘I’m the manager: I’ve made a plan, you execute it’ mode. In truth, at the outset, nobody truly knows the best route to value creation and therefore, you have to work like this theater’s directors, using rapid iteration and relying on emergence. In the theater, this is done by rehearsing rather than ‘try-storming’, but it’s essentially the same idea.

What does ‘artful management’ entail?
Artful managers begin a project with some ideas of the outcomes they desire, but without controlling preconceptions.  They set up a low-cost, iterative process that facilitates exploratory production; they coach their performers on a journey that they themselves cannot take, using earned trust to influence the focus of the group.  They believe that good ideas will emerge from an impeccable process, and they moderate a complex, multi-layered interaction in which many elements converge over time, though they never lock in on exact replication.   An artful manager’s job isn’t easy: it requires an appreciation for the characteristics and capabilities of each unique ensemble and each unique ensemble member.

What role does risk play in artful making?
A willingness to work ‘at risk’ is vital in artful making, in part because exploration is uncomfortable:  it requires a willingness to supply partial answers, to look goofy, and to get things wrong.  The willingness of employees to work artfully depends partly on whether working conditions sufficiently lower the psychological cost of exploration, and partly on employee willingness to work on ‘the edge’.  Leaders can influence the former by ‘securing’ the workspace, instilling it with what Harvard’s Amy Edmondson calls ‘psychological safety’: in psychologically-safe environments, people believe that if they make a mistake, others will not penalize or think less of them for it.  Likewise, they can ask for help or feedback without penalty, which leads to optimal learning and progress.

You believe some conditions demand artful making, while others don’t.  How can we differentiate?
There are times when we should use intensive, up front planning and other times when we should use cheap and rapid prototyping. One is not ‘better’ than the other -- you have to match the conditions to the approach, because it’s not always true that something original and inventive will be valued. One of the cases we came across in our work involved a company that produces very-popular Broadway musicals. They told us is that, wherever they go in the world and however long this one particular musical runs, they will not attempt to produce a fresh interpretation of it.  This might seem surprising, but there is a good reason for it: when someone returns to see the musical with their children, 16 years after they first saw it, they want to share what they first saw with their children; they don’t want to see a fresh interpretation.  When this company did the show in Taiwan and Seoul, the local audience didn’t even want the play presented in the local language, because they wanted to experience ‘the real thing’. So even though this sounds like an artful environment, their customers didn’t want originality.

Artful making tends to make sense when experimentation will be cheap. It can be quite expensive to try something that doesn’t work out. My colleagues and I distinguish between two kinds of ‘expensive’: one is when something is expensive because it costs a lot to rearrange your production process to make something in a new way. So if you’re going to produce a new kind of airplane, you might need to find new equipment, retrain workers and build a new factory. These are all expensive things. And if you do all that and it turns out to be a lemon, that’s a pretty expensive thing to try.

Another kind of cost that is important is if you build a different kind of airplane and then you take off and it crashes. This isn’t quite the same kind of cost: the first one we usually refer to as reconfiguration costs, and the second we refer to as exploration costs.  For rapid iterations to make sense, you have to figure out a way to get both of these costs to be low.  I know from my Ford Motor Company days that it used to cost a few hundred thousand dollars to crash-test a real car. Of course, it now costs significantly less to crash test a virtual car: not only will save money but you can also crash test a lot more cars, which means you can experiment more. This is what’s driving the movement towards cheap and rapid iteration.

What does it take for a manager to become artful?
Traditional managers can emulate things like trystorming; but to capture the full power of such processes requires understanding at a different level.  It requires turning the ‘focus knob’ of your figurative microscope to bring into the foreground, not the external symptoms and discrete parts that our industrial metaphors predispose us to notice, but rather those qualities of work that artists know and use.  If we don’t shift our focus this way, we risk reproducing the surface features of successful knowledge work without capturing its essence.  Managers who understand how artists work will have a distinct advantage over those who don’t.

The Four Qualities of Artful Making
Release: The first quality of artful making, essential to the other qualities.  A method of control that accepts wide variation within known parameters. This contrasts with restraint, the usual method of industrial control.
Collaboration: The quality exhibited by conversation, in language and behaviour, during with each party, relased from preconceptions, vanity and inhibition, treats the contributions of other parties as matieral to make with, not as positions to argue with, so that new and unpredictable ideas emerge.

Ensemble: The quality exhibited by the work of a group dedicated to collaboration in which individual members relinquish sovereignty over their work and thus create something none could have made alone.

Play: The quality exhibited by a production while it is playing for an audience; or, the quality exhibited by interaction among members of a business group, and ultimately between the group and the customer.

Artful Management Signposts
1. Emergence: Nurture and trust emergence; don’t try to ‘get it right the first time’. Instead, create a team and a process that can ‘make it good before the deadline’.

2. Iteration: Build iteration into your processes.  Iteration creates and defines the problem as a way of searching for valuable outcomes.  Think of it as making rather than discovering.

3. Prerequisites: use artful and industrial making in conditions appropriate to each.  Don’t overestimate the usefulness of artful making; and don’t underestimate it either.  Apply technology to reduce the cost of iteration rather than to automate processes end-to-end. Focus on cheap and rapid iteration in the making process, not on the efficiency of the process as you conceive it today.

4. Control: Accept that you can’t conventionally supervise your employees anymore. Teach themto release, and release them.  You don’t take the journey with them.

5. Improvising, reconceiving, collaborating: Build the ability of your teams to improvise, to receonceive constraints and complications into new opportunities.

6. Secure the workspace: As you throw your team curveballs, make it safe for them to swing without restraint.  Support your people in their work on the edge.

7. Uncertainty: Embrace it, don’t protect against it. Let it drive the reconceiving process.


Reconceiving vs. Replicating 


Robert Austin is a professor of Creativity and Innovation at Copenhagen Business School’s Centre for Art and Leadership and a former associate professor at Harvard Business School. He is the co-author (with theatre director Lee Devin) of Artful Making: What Managers Need to Know About How Artists Work (FT Prentice Hall).

[This article has been reprinted, with permission, from Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management]

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