BOOK REVIEW: What business leaders can learn from musicians, poets and artists

Fin24's ace book reviewer Ian Mann.
Fin24's ace book reviewer Ian Mann.

Creativity 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 century.

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 explains.

Creativity requires "artistic mindsets" and "artistic disciplines".

Grit and innocence

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 night."

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."

The 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.

Obsessive practice

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 five years!

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.

The 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 itself.

Many report that withdrawing from the turbulence of daily life into "still water" aids their creativity, and withdraw as a deliberate practice.

Creativity in business

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

Practical               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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