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CREATIVE LEAPS - Journal of the Arts in Leadership and Organizational Learning

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Using the Arts for Organizational Development

by David Creelman


 Not long ago, an HR manager would be courting career suicide by bringing in poets and dancers for a training program. Even today most managers are, shall we say, appropriately sceptical.  However, the arts have more than begun to make in-roads into the world of organizational development.   This advance reflects a changing business culture, a deeper understanding of what it takes to drive change, and the experience of managers who tried it and found that it worked.


There are a number of people from the arts world on the speaking circuit.  Conductors and actors are always popular speakers.  However, this is not the type of connection between the arts and business that creates anything particularly new.  What is more significant are those groups who use the arts as a central tool for the delivery of a training or change message.  These groups include Creative Leaps International with their Concert of Ideas, The Banff Centre and Roger Nierenberg's Music Paradigm.


The performing artists of Creative Leaps International, one of many organizations providing innovative new inroads to management strategies

What They Do

I saw Roger Nierenberg perform at a management conference in 2002.  I was expecting it to be—from the perspective of a serious manager—a bit silly.  I thought I'd hear facile analogies between leading an orchestra and leading a company.  That's not what happened.  Nierenberg didn't talk about management; he didn’t even bring any theories of management to the event.  Rather, he used the orchestra as a real time experiment, a "micro-world" where we could easily observe the interactions between the leader and the players, as well as the interactions between the players themselves.  The orchestra was seated amongst the audience, giving the chance both for an immersive experience and close observation of the musicians.


Nierenberg could demonstrate an over-enthusiastic conductor, an uninspired one or even walk off the stage to see how well the players performed without a conductor.  The audience could observe how these different styles impacted the performance of the orchestra.  It was for the audience to make their own observations and draw their own lessons—all the while inspired by the music.  The experiment is not contrived in any way.  The musicians were recruited locally for the performance—they had no more idea what was going to happen than the audience did.  The result was far more engaging than any speech.  Rather than pouring learning into someone's head, the experiments with the orchestra helped participants construct their own insights.  It was a convincing demonstration of the power of the arts to develop management insights in a way completely different from traditional training programs.


Creative Leaps International brings music, poetry and drama to the training arena.  They have worked on topics such as leadership, authenticity, change management, and innovation with organizations such as Starbucks, GE, Pfizer and the Centre for Creative Leadership.  In a Creative Leaps International program there is a lot of pre-work for the artists as they meet with the client to understand what is really going on, what the client is really trying to accomplish, and grasp not just the presenting issues but what is not presenting yet.


Like Nierenberg they don't bring any theory to the table.  They don't present themselves as academics or consultants with expertise in leadership or authenticity.  Rather they work by drawing out lessons from the audience.


A typical Creative Leaps International program known a "Concert of Ideas" starts with music to capture the attention of the participants, they then engage the audience right away with exercises to activate the imagination. For example, they ask the audience to imagine what feelings a snippet of music inspires—which gets people talking to them right away. From there they would move on to the notion that imagination can be meaningless without purpose and commitment, an idea they can demonstrate through a musical retelling of the story of Don Quixote.  The next phase focuses on getting past the organizational barriers to implementing new ideas. The fundamental mechanism throughout is to engage the audience, show rather than tell, and draw the audience into reflection and conversation—all in an atmosphere that encourages them to speak from the heart.  Creative Leaps International leads people through their own learning and helps them connect with their own experience.  The use of the arts cuts through the normal ramp-up time to get the training event going—people are engaged in the first few minutes, not half-way through the second day.


A third organization that uses the arts in management training is The Banff Centre. The Banff Centre began 75 years ago as the Banff School of Fine Arts.  They have a very well developed program integrating the creative arts into management development courses.  Their view is that leadership is comprised of knowing, doing and being.  As leaders become more seasoned they need less emphasis on knowing and doing, and more emphasis on being—developing their character as a leader.  One exercise is to ask a leadership team to craft a vision of their desired future in clay, rather than just in words.  The work of creating the appropriate image can help the team reach things they found hard to articulate and inspires dialogue.   Another effective opening exercise is to make masks.  As Andre Mamprin, director of public and custom programs says, "Our participants are engineers and accountants so creative activities are strange to them at first—but mask making is a very accessible way to introduce them to another way of thinking."   They use many different artistic media and with 4,000 artists and 1,800 leaders passing through their center each year they have a unique opportunity to use creative techniques to help leaders reach deeper inside, and to reach deeper levels of conversation more quickly.


Why It Works

As soon as you get beyond the initial reaction that the arts doesn't belong in the no-nonsense world of business you begin to see how it connects to leading thinking in management.


Harvard's John Kotter is a well-respected researcher on change management and leadership. In his 2002 best seller, The Heart of Change, he explains that in the real world of business change is driven by the heart—not by numbers kicked out of a spreadsheet. The work of an artist is all about touching the heart—it's not just one of their tools, it is who they are.  This is perhaps the single most important reason why training programs that use the arts to connect to people's feeling can be more effective than the PowerPoint presentations we are all too familiar with.


The move to include the arts in business also fits with broad social trends.  In The Rise of the Creative Class, Dr. Richard Florida documents the rise of a new class in America that values diversity, tolerance, individuality and creativity.  This new class is much more open to the intersection of the arts and business than previous generations of managers.  Dr. Florida devotes a chapter to discussing the new generation's preference for working in hair salons and cafés where they can express their individuality, rather than as a high paid machinist where they are part of a production line.  So perhaps it is no coincidence that Starbucks was bold enough to put all its managers through a Creative Leaps International program.


Adult leaning theory also suggests that managers, particularly senior managers, learn best from reflection and conversation—drawing out ideas, rather than trying to pour ideas in.  All three of the creative arts grouped I've discussed, Creative Leaps International, the Banff Centre and Nierenberg's Music Paradigm operate in a way consistent with adult learning principles.


It still is not an easy sell.  You do not want to say to managers "Let's bring in artists!", instead John Cimino of Creative Leaps International recommends asking, "What are we trying to achieve?" and "What can we do to make the intervention more powerful, more efficient, and more effective?" The answer in many cases will be to draw on the unique capabilities of the creative arts.


What About the Risk?

The arts can play a powerful role in training and organizational development.  However, it's not unfair to fear that an arts led program could be an embarrassing flop.  The Creative Leaps International performers have distinguished solo careers as well as being seasoned educators who have been trained in adult learning techniques.  Nierenberg spend years evolving his program, and the Banff Centre is one of the world's premier arts schools.  The skill of these groups perhaps disguise just how difficult it is to do this well.


Yet, the arts are so powerful, that their use in organizational development is more robust than we would expect.  When KeySpan Energy was heading into deregulation in 1997, Kenny Moore, at the time manager of organizational development, gathered fifty managers to discuss the impending changes.  To tap the emotional energy of the team he decided it would be a fabulous idea to get an artist to draw what management was thinking and feeling.  The CEO, Bob Catell who was at home in the worlds of accounting and engineering was not quite so sure it was a "fabulous idea".  To manage the risk Kenny wrote Catell and opening speech and two closings—one for if it went well, and one in the event it bombed.  Unaware of groups like Creative Leaps International, Kenny went to the graphics department and approached their in-house artist Donald Jefferes.  Kenny asked Donald if he had ever worked with managers to capture their ideas for managing change in art work.  The closest thing Donald could come up with was drawing at bar mitzvahs.  This was good enough for Kenny. 


At the meeting the managers felt some trepidation in using art to express their thoughts, but as soon as the marker hit the page, the team burst with suggestions for additions.  Jefferes reported in the KeySpan newsletter "Ideas were flying fast and furious.  Everyone was candid and expressed their feelings honestly and openly.  It sure beats charts and graphs."


The event was such a success that Kenny decided to repeat it with another group of managers.  This time disaster struck.  Jefferes was caught in terrible traffic and the meeting opened without him.  Desperate, Kenny asked the participants, "Does anyone have some artistic talent?"  No one moved.  Kenny tried another tact, "Can anyone draw stick figures?"  This elicited a few hands.  Now, with no artistic talent they attempted the same process of capturing the team's ideas in drawings.  Again, once the marker hit the page ideas began to flow.  More than that, people leapt up to assist with the drawing.  The ownership of the output was complete.  Jefferes did eventually show up and added his considerable artistic talents to the process.  However, despite the great work Jefferes did at the end the team said, "We like our stick figure drawing best of all."


Where to Next?

Perhaps it is time we started to seriously reflect on what the success of the arts in organizational development tells us.  For a long time Rationalist philosophy has dominated Western thought.  It's a paradigm that explicitly denies the relevance of emotion and hence the arts.  People are increasingly recognizing the limits, even the sheer foolishness, of that view.  People want to bring "their full selves" to work, and organizations want to engage those full selves.  The separation of art and our lives in organizations was always an artificial one.  Perhaps in the future the use of the creative arts to drive learning and change will be the norm.   Managers of the future may be astounded that man once relied of PowerPoint slides and spreadsheet printouts to drive organizations forward.



Where to Learn More

Creative Leaps International

The Banff Centre

The Music Paradigm

The CEO and The Monk by Bob Catell and Kenny Moore


Reprinted with permission by David Creelman. © David Creelman, 2004.


David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research.  He does writing and research on human capital management. His clients include think tanks, consultants, academics and HR vendors in the US, Japan, Canada and the EU. He publishes regularly in Peru, Turkey, Brazil, South Africa, Holland and Singapore.


Prior to founding his own company David was Chief of Content and Research for For many years David was a management consultant in Canada and Malaysia, most notably with the Hay Group. He also taught at the University of Malaya. Before venturing into human resources consulting, David worked in finance for Gulf Canada and IT for Wood Gundy.


He holds an MBA from Western and an Hons. B.Sc. in Chemistry and Biochemistry from McMaster.

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