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What I Learned About Business From Making Art

My commitment to making art is helping me broaden my perspective and view problems through a different lens -- and with a much wider aperture.
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Making art has always been my stress relief. I can spend countless hours in my basement studio and I always feel better for it. I don't really draw or paint -- much. I'm primarily an assemblage artist. In the words of my son, that means I make things out of junk. "Cool things," he says. At least he gives me that positive endorsement. I like to think of myself as a sustainability artist of sorts. Using nomenclature that is de rigueur, I 'upcycle' found and discarded objects. Friends actually collect junk for me. They bring me their broken toasters and waffle irons and such, along with their garage sale misfits. The items are always delivered with a casual "I thought you could make something out of this." And I usually do. I deconstruct and reconstruct all manner of things, and I appreciate the steady inflow of supplies.

When I was pondering my resolutions for 2015 I knew that making more art would figure prominently in my plan for the year. So, I resolved to spend time making art every day for at least 30 minutes. Not just on Saturdays or holidays, but every day. Every. Single. Day. Even when I was traveling on business. That didn't mean I would cart around a box of junk and a bunch of power tools with me, but I would find a way to incorporate making art into my daily routine in some way. It might simply be spending 30 minutes on a scavenger hunt for collage items. Or taking pictures with my smartphone for inspiration later. Or sketching conceptual ideas for a future project. Something that progresses the creative process and takes me out of the business of the day for a short time.

My commitment to making art is helping me broaden my perspective and view problems through a different lens -- and with a much wider aperture. It is also giving me renewed energy. I feel more grounded. I pause more readily for introspection, while at the same time I more confidently step outside of my comfort zone. I believe that I am a better leader as a result of my art exploration. And I know I'm much happier for it.

I can tell you that this modest indulgence in my creative spirit is a true blessing. It is most certainly helping me manage the stress of my demanding career, family responsibilities and charitable endeavors. Making art truly nourishes my soul. Mission accomplished. What I wasn't expecting are the business insights that come out of the process of making art. Following are some of the things that I have learned about business from making art.

Embrace the white space

Over the last several years, one of the strategic priorities at my company has been to 'strengthen the core.' We have focused on ensuring that our core businesses are as strong as they can be and firing on all cylinders, while at the same time looking for opportunities to expand into adjacencies and identify new growth platforms. Expanding into adjacencies is what you would expect any well-run company to do. But with the pace of change, the ever-shrinking technology adoption curve, and the startling transformation of entire industries, adjacencies are not enough to sustain a company in the future. It can be hard to step away from what has made you successful in the past.

In order to really think outside of the box, there can't be a box. You need to be able to think beyond your current business, your current competitors and your current customers. If only temporarily, you must embrace the white space of no boundaries. It can certainly be daunting when there are no guardrails, but if you allow yourself the freedom to let go of orthodoxies and step into unchartered territory you may discover hidden treasure.

Everything is easier with the right tools

In business as in art, having the right tools makes all the difference. Whether or not it is the right technology or the right adhesive, both the process itself and the outcome is so much better when you are working with the correct tool. While I fully appreciate the value of experimentation and my lesson to embrace the white space, there are times when having the right tool just can't be underestimated. And I have learned that there really is a tool for everything, whether it's an angle grinder, a sliding miter saw, or simply a pair of pinking shears. Whether you decide to purchase, borrow from a friend or rent from your local hardware store, the investment in quality tools always pays off.

Less is sometimes just less

Generally speaking, I support the notion that simple is better. Clean simple lines, white space, easy on the eyes. The strength is in the idea and not the embellishment. But there are times when less is just, well, less. Detail slows you down. It forces you to pause. It forces you to reflect on the individual components while trying to make sense of the whole. Sometimes you need more detail to better understand the context. You need a fuller story. From there you can decide what is important and relevant; what to focus on; what to carry forward and what to discard.

But simple is still more

Having said that less is sometimes just less, simplicity remains core. That doesn't mean, however, lack of detail. Simple and austere are not the same thing. Simple is beautiful in so many ways. It can be quite aesthetically pleasing. It can be bold. It can be intriguing. It can be clear. Actually, simple is not really simple at all. It is pure, but complex much like a fine wine, a rich musical score or an extraordinary fragrance.

There are layers and subtleties that are given space in the simple to emerge and grow. There is more hidden in the simple. But sometimes you have to look for it.

A bad idea well executed is still a bad idea

Strong execution can elevate a mediocre idea. We've all marveled at paintings or other works of art that are technically brilliant, but they never rise to the level of truly great art. They don't grab us emotionally or challenge us intellectually. We appreciate them for the craft. We don't love them and we often don't buy them.

A strong idea poorly executed may still succeed

The reverse is also true. A really strong idea can tug at the heartstrings, make us laugh, cry, scream or cover our eyes even if it is not flawlessly executed. When you have a really great idea, not everything has to go perfectly in the execution. There is a little room for error. The strength of the idea still shines through. It can certainly be further enhanced by great execution, but it won't be killed off by execution that is unremarkable.

Small is beautiful. Big is bold. The middle is just boring.

Scale is important. Scale gets attention whether it is miniature or gigantic. Something in the middle is just that: in the middle. Not necessarily distinctive unless, of course, it is a great idea. Scale is a device of sorts. Find the right device to get noticed. Don't get stuck in the middle of the pack. Break out the bold.

It's not always better in the morning.

I do acknowledge that often times a bad day seems much less hideous the next morning. Call it the benefit of 'perspective' or a 'cooling off period,' but there does seem to be a natural restorative effect with a little time. So, taking a pause in the heat of a battle can be a good thing. Avoiding the inclination -- or the request -- to get drawn into the emotion and theatre of an unpleasant situation usually serves you well. But every so often hitting the pause button is simply a delay. Deferring a tough decision or difficult conversation can also fan the flames rather than extinguish them. Issues addressed cold can sometimes freeze out options or receive a chilly response.

At times, even with incomplete information, it is best to face the issue head on and in the moment. Now, this doesn't mean that you lose your cool or succumb to bad behavior. But it does mean that solving the problem doesn't get any easier the longer you wait. So, rip off the Band-Aid now. In fact, don't even put a Band-Aid on in the first place until you have thoroughly cleansed and dressed the wound.

This thinking can also be applied to the notion of failing fast or, as I prefer, fast learning. Don't dwell on mistakes. Learn from them and move on. This new view is a welcome change. The companies that flourish in these dynamic times will not be those that strenuously avoid risk, but those that embrace the mantra of David Kelley, the founder of IDEO, who says, "We fail faster to succeed sooner."

Communication is everything.

Whether in art or business, the ability to communicate ideas effectively is a given. To do that successfully, you need to be clear on the reaction you are trying to generate.

Simply knowing your audience is not enough particularly if you are trying to affect change. Whether a change in perception or a change in behavior, you must understand motivation -- both your own and that of your audience. Yes, everything is easier with the right tools, and communication is the ultimate power tool.