BOOK REVIEW: What business leaders can learn from musicians, poets and artists
Fin24’s ace book reviewer Ian Mann.
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Explained: From Music and Art to Innovation in Business, by David Priilaid
This book is truly different. The premise
is that there is much to be learned from the extraordinary creativity of
musicians, poets and visual artists, because the creative process is the same.
Author Professor David Priilaid, a business
teacher at the University of Cape Town, has assembled an intriguing array of
insights into creativity for use by people in business. This is a fresh and
different angle, drawn from artists of all kinds from the latter half of the 20th
It is easy to accept that the traditional
manner of conducting business will not yield creative ideas that can be turned
into, or adapted to enhance profitability. “The most constant and
irritating thing about creativity in business is its fixation on methods and
procedures, and its consequent negation of the importance of heart,” he
Creativity requires “artistic mindsets”
and “artistic disciplines”.
The artistic mindset takes “grit”;
that is, the fighter that knows what is right and keeps at it in the face of
both temptation and adversity. Many artists refuse to allow their work to be
licenced for commercial endorsements – with American singer-songwriter, and
actor Tom Waits (for example) condemning the practice, and Neil Young
asserting: “[It] makes me look like a joke.”
Passion is a well-recognised catalyst for
good art. Bruce Springsteen is quoted as saying: “When you came to work
with me, I had to be assured that you’d bring your heart… That’s why the E Street
Band plays steamroller strong and undiminished, forty years in, night after
Further, there is the “child”
mindset, which refers to innocence and simplicity, and a willingness to make
mistakes. But the child is also authentic. Actor Dustin Hoffman complains, “The
minute we get into school, whatever it is that makes us into individuals is
knocked out of us.”
power of fragility
Artists are often associated with
depression, madness and addiction. T.S. Eliot thought this affliction to be
the “handmaiden of creativity”.
Of these four mindsets, the one that sits
least comfortably with the creative spirit we would like in the workplace is clearly
this one! But it would be fair to say that mental fragility is acknowledged as
strongly connected to creativity, and it does enable the individual to
experience what others overlook. Google recruiters look for the ‘odd’ in their
candidates, knowing that it often comes with a creative streak.
The disciplines of the artist begin with “proactivity”,
the belief that he or she can make a difference. Great art comes from action –
with the determination to make do with what you have on hand to address
problems and opportunities. It is the creative spirit that separates the artist
from the worker.
It is propelled by the need to make it
happen, and not lose what may be one’s only chance.
The imperative of practice, obsessive
practice has been popularised, but more important for the artist rather than
the golfer, is the practice of deliberate refining and revision. Leonard
Cohen’s “Hallelujah” was refined out of 80 potential verses, over
He, like so many others, attributes his
success more to extremely hard work at perfecting his art, rather than talent.
Art takes a different perspective. Doing
things as they have always been done never produces great art – almost by
definition. This imperative is a critical discipline in the artistic process,
which is why art is always surprising in its freshness.
myth of brilliance
The most interesting ideas often come in
the light-bulb moments, or in dreams. Artists ranging from Bob Dylan to Jackson
Pollock and the Beatles report this experience.
However, the experience is often misunderstood,
blown out of context, leading many to believe that creativity is nothing more
than a flash of brilliance. So many artists covered in the book attribute their
success to obsessive work on the flash of inspiration rather than the flash of inspiration
Many report that withdrawing from the
turbulence of daily life into “still water” aids their creativity,
and withdraw as a deliberate practice.
So why should this carefully crafted
account of the creative process of musicians, poets, and painters be relevant
to business leaders? Firstly, because as Priilaid explains, “[t]here is a
lot of creativity in business – much more than is commonly imagined”.
Secondly, because today survival will not
be of the fittest, as Darwin explained. Survival will only be possible for the
most innovative: and the creative impulse is at the heart of innovation.
Companies that do not innovate their
processes, products, organisational format, route to market and so on, will
rapidly become irrelevant to clients and customers.
It is only relevancy that keeps the order
book full. Many of the companies that I consult to have placed forming a
creative environment front and centre of their functional strategy, but with
little insight into how to actualise this imperative.
This book is a call to revisit the
importance of art to the promotion of creativity in business. This sounds
rather obvious, but is nevertheless rarely implemented. Read this book slowly:
you will be entertained by its stories and enlightened by its insights.
Readability Light –+– Serious
Insights High +—- Low
- Ian Mann of Gateways consults
internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Executive Update. Views
expressed are his own.
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