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Stop Destroying the Art

Jeff Hough on May 21, 2013 1:26:00 PM

“You have everything you need to build something far bigger than yourself.” - Seth Godin

National Gallery of Art museum6
On a recent trip to Washington D.C., I had the privilege of wandering through the National Art Gallery for an afternoon. As I looked at the masterpieces, I couldn’t help but compare the work of these “masters” to the work done by millions of workers each day in their own art studios.

In his book Linchpin, Seth Godin claims that we can all be artists if we choose. He defines artists as, “someone using bravery, insight, creativity, and boldness to challenge the status quo, and takes it personally”. A well-crafted PowerPoint presentation that engages an audience, a sales call that leaves a customer satisfied or a customer service agent who turns an angry customer into a company evangelist, are all examples of the artists that surround us every day.

Are all workers artists? No. Artists separate themselves from paycheck seekers by seeing beyond the moment and being able to envision what can be. Recently I took my 12 year old son to lunch at a local sandwich shop. While ordering, he misunderstood one of the questions and answered incorrectly. Being shy, he didn’t want to speak up and correct the problem when he discovered it, so I took the sandwich to the cashier and asked for help. While looking at me with dull eyes, she told me that she had heard the discussion with my son and that they made the sandwich exactly as he had asked and that there was nothing that could be done. As I began to getartist at work frustrated, the artist who made the sandwich overheard our discussion and suggested a simple solution to fix the sandwich to the chagrin of the cashier. Problem solved. This simple experience highlights the difference between an artist and a paycheck seeker.

Stop destroying the art that employees make by promoting them or asking them to supervise a department. Often, employers promote their most creative employees thinking that the artists can lead others to similar masterpieces. According to management consultant Barry Deutsch, 50% of personnel transitions – including promotions and lateral transfers – fail. The failures happen because the artist is no longer able to create the art about which they are so passionate. Innovation comes when management finds artists, compensates them fairly and allows for creative freedom. In 2008, Atlassian Software tried an experiment where they let their engineers’ use 20% of their time on new ideas that weren’t tied to projects to which they were assigned. At the conclusion of the year, a review of the records indicated that developers came up with 48 ideas for new projects, of which 16 were incorporated into new products. Sixteen new products, just because they let their “artists” create.

know your peopleLeaders need to recognize who their artists are and make sure they have an environment in which they can perfect their craft and inspire those around them. Here are three things that leaders can do to promote art in the workplace.

  1. Don't promote, just reward better. Keep in mind that not all artists are motivated by money, so get to know your people to find out what reward suits them best.
  2. Give the artists opportunities to teach. Great artists always have apprentices who are thrilled to have the opportunity to study with a master. Find the motivated learners and give them the chance to expand their horizons with colleagues who are passionate about their art.
  3. Remove the obstacles.A recent article in the USA Today listed creativity and problem solving skills as two of the top five desirable employee traits. Great leaders remove the organizational, cultural and environmental obstacles that hinder the production of art and encourage creative thinking.

I encourage leaders to stop destroying the art and think twice before removing the artists from their respective “studios”. Remember, your company’s bottom line depends on the quality of your art.


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