July 7, 2016
Editor's Choice: Art Thinking: How to Carve Out Creative Space in a World of Schedules, Budgets, and Bosses
Art Thinking: How to Carve Out Creative Space in a World of Schedules, Budgets, and Bosses by Amy Whitaker, HarperBusiness, 384 pages, $26.99, Hardcover, ISBN 9780062358271
Amy Whitaker references Dan Pink’s 2008 declaration that “The MFA is the new MBA” in the introduction to her new book, Art Thinking. No matter, Whitaker has both, and has written a book that blends the two. It is “a meditation and a manual, a manifesto and a love story, for how art—creativity writ large—and business go together,” and not just in her mind, but in the world.
She adapts Martin Heideger’s definition of art for this purpose, stating that it is “something new in the world that changes the world to allow itself to exist,” and tells us that:
By this definition, art is less an object and more a process of exploration.
You’ve probably encountered design thinking, a process that David Kelley, founder of Stanford’s famed d.school and the legendary design firm IDEO, first applied to the business world in the early ’90s. His brother Tom’s classic book, The Art of Innovation, brought it to a wider business audience in 2001, and it has provided a healthy dose of creativity and empathy for user experience to business ever since.
In Art Thinking, Amy Whitaker takes a step even closer to the source of creativity. She moves the question back from “What is the best way to do this?” to “Is this even possible?” to look at exactly how something new is brought into the world:
Design thinking values empathy with users and rapid prototypes so that you can build a better airplane. Art thinking is there with the Wright brothers as they crash-land and still believe that flight is possible.
That questioning of what’s possible, and process of exploration, can be messy. It involves a lot of questions, fits and starts, incremental improvements, and back-to-the-drawing-board moments. And Whitaker grants a great deal of permission to just be your messy self, telling us that “Finding space for that process allows amazing projects or whole enterprises to appear in the world the way most of us do, slightly gangly or shy or adolescently a work in progress.” Using another flight metaphor, she tells us that:
This is the central paradox of business: The core assumptions of economics—efficiency, productivity, and knowable value—work best when an organization is at cruising altitude, but they won’t get the plane off the ground in the first place.
Getting any idea off the ground is tricky, because in order to do so you eventually have to take it to market. It doesn’t matter if it’s in a song, a book, or a movie, an algorithm, medical device, college course, or an airplane, the market is the air in which our ideas, once built into something tangible, breathe. “There is no such thing as space outside the market,” Whitaker tells us, “only the possibility of space within it.”
Making sure you provide yourself space is the topic of the first chapter. She encourages us to set aside “Studio Time” for ourselves, open space in our lives and work for inquiry, experimentation, and learning—to practice and to have a practice for doing so. This is where the creative process starts. She also reminds us of the importance of setting aside time to doing nothing within the process for breaks and pauses, time for your brain to file some things away, reorganize, catch up to the problem at hand and see it in a new light. She tells us of studies done by Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow, author of Sleeping with Your Smartphone, and Boston Consulting Group, in which BCG gave team members a day off in the middle of the week or had them agree to not engage at all with work on certain evenings—no catching up, checking email, or taking calls. The results of both trials were that employees felt more refreshed and performed better when they were at work, which led to BCG instituting a “predictable time off” policy.
The book transitions gradually from the more intangible aspects of art to the very technical tools of business. So, at the beginning of the book, you’re going to be reading sentences like, “Whole-life thinking begins with managing energy and time and then building in space—mental, physical, and managerial—for exploration, observation, and discovery." Just halfway into the book you'll read that, “Building a framework for fractional ownership requires us to consider both law and technology.”
There are seven chapters, all of which correspond to different mindsets or tools. First, you’ll learn how to view your work “From a Wide Angle,” to let your whole life inform your life’s work. Then, you’ll dive into how to survive “In the Weeds” of the creative process. Next, you’ll see how one gets “To the Lighthouse,” and let questions about what might be possible light the way forward. Then it’s on to learn how “To Make a Boat” to take your creation out onto the open waters of the market, and how to manage the risk inherent in creating something new by employing portfolio thinking and ownership stakes. You’ll then read about how “To Be In the Fray,” how to manage the creative process within an organization. Finally, you’ll learn how “To Build a House,” or how to develop an inventive business model (as well as learning about the seven design constraints of capitalism). And just when you think it may be getting too technical even for a business book, Whitaker pulls the lens back out and talks about how “To See the Whole,” which discusses education, professional identity, how we collaborate and create on a societal level and in the community. Here you'll find perhaps my favorite part of the book: a great description of Adam Smith as an absent minded artist that asked a simple yet profound question about how humankind had progressed to its current state, and ended up inventing the field of economics.
So, Art Thinking is about how to create something new in the world, and how to manage it and profit from it so that not only does your creation have a life of its own, but that you’re also making a decent living off of it. And, it is also about but how to create a whole new world in the process. It is about finance, creativity, management, and personal development all at once—and more. It is such a peculiar and wonderful book, this mix of art and business, high-mindedness and technical detail for managing it. Like all creative projects, there are a few moments when it seems "slightly gangly" and potentially awkward, but it keeps going and growing into something intelligent, beautiful, and profound.
About Dylan Schleicher
Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books, and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.