Orchestrating Collaboration at Work Using the Arts
by Linda Naiman

A growing number of Fortune 500 companies are using music, art and drama to learn new ways to think about leadership, communication, innovation and collaboration. As organizational life becomes increasingly complex, chaotic, and confusing, leaders are searching for solutions outside the traditional spheres of business. We cannot find all the answers to our problems in the world of the rational, logical, and scientific and consequently the arts are emerging as a role model for business to adopt.

The Wall Street Journal (2003) states that "Artists can illustrate how to be a leader of corporate staff ... There are similarities between successful artists and executives in their approaches to their work. Both are self-confident about making a product that can hold the attention of paying customers. They must be astute in assessing and developing talent, as well as making sure the talent works well together. Executives however could learn from artists' ability to dare to break molds, lead changes in taste, raise funds and be productive while being frugal."

Brandweek (1998), notes that "to understand the process of creative genius it is valid for business people to look at the model of the artist. The business of the artist is to create, navigate opportunity, explore possibility, and master creative breakthrough. We need to restore art, the creation of opportunity, to business."

The arts encompass the visual art forms of drawing, painting, sculpture, architecture, photography, electronic media, design, and video, as well as the performing arts, which include dance, story telling, poetry, music, film. and theatre. Art provides an opportunity for kaleidoscopic thinking. Each time we shift the lens of our perceptions, we gain new perspectives - and new opportunities for innovation.

The arts take us on adventures in creative expression that help us to safely explore unknown territory, overcome fear, and take risks. We can transfer these learning experiences to the workplace. Art-making has an alchemical effect on the imagination. It teaches us to think in symbols, metaphors, and to de-code complexity.

Many of the people I interviewed for the book Orchestrating Collaboration at Work assert the need for deeper levels of conversation, or for different kinds of conversation. Margaret Wheatley says, "I don't think we notice how much we've lost by this dead language that we use, and the jargon that we use; until we have an artistic experience and realize that life is so much richer, lively, funnier, sadder. The reason David Whyte is so successful with poetry [in organizations] is because it takes you into this subterranean level of human experience."

Whyte who wrote the book The Heart Aroused, uses poetry to reclaim the language and metaphors that are part of our broader human inheritance so that people understand and come to grips with many of the dynamics that they're actually confronted with. He contends we underestimate the drama of the workplace, "The inherited language in the work world is far too small for the kind of mythic drama that occurs there everyday, and we need a language that commensurates with the drama of work. I do think that most companies are like Shakespeare plays written large with dramatic entrances and exits, midnight assassinations, noble speeches while the grave diggers are telling it as it is, and every epoque ends with a lot of blood on the floor."

The Role of Drama in "Unfreezing" the Story

Theatre is also being used by organizations to explore problems that might be difficult to discuss, especially if the situation is emotionally charged. Having professional actors 'playback' the story, externalizes the situation, and makes it safe to discuss. Lena Bjørn, co-founder of The Decapo Theater (Denmark) says:

"We often work with companies in a period of transition. I think basically what we can do with the theater is to open up the dialogue. Maybe it has never been there; maybe it has been frozen for some reason. We activate their issues but we do it in a safe way because we come with this fiction. Theatre can effect a kind of relief because we use a lot of humor - Ha-ha! Look at what they are doing. It's like us. So we can bring relief by being able to look at our-selves and we can bring reflection."

Visual Art as a Vehicle for Collaboration in Organizations

John Seely Brown, former chief scientist at Xerox PARC and director of the PAIR program, (which paired artist with researchers at PARC), says,

"The artists revitalize the atmosphere by bringing in new ideas, new ways of thinking, new modes of seeing and new contexts for doing. This is radically different from most corporate support of the arts, where there is little intersection between the disciplines …

There are three ways I look at [the impact of an art experience]. One is the notion that engaging in these types of activities evokes deeper responses, deeper emotions. It brings forth many of the tacitly held beliefs and assumptions that you have. So think of it as evocative of the tacit knowledge. The second is that focused conversations are built and fused together around evocative objects that concern problems that the researcher has on his or her mind. I have said very often, it was the researcher that had the real problem, but the interaction with the artist actually made a big difference. The third concerns the power of simplicity. Simplicity prior to complexity doesn't mean much. But simplicity, after you pass through the wall of complexity, after you have marinated in a fully nuanced reading of the situation and then rendering it in very simple ways, is extraordinarily powerful."

Mining Group Gold

In my own work with organizations, I'm often asked to help leaders improve their skills in creative thinking, and to help them create an environment that fosters innovation. I've noticed that a collaborative art experience in an environment of trust and freedom, enhances our sense of belonging, and creates a crucible for deep conversation from which emerge caring, camaraderie, and genius-level thinking. I call this process mining group gold. Participants in my seminars have observed that:

"Art can be part of the process of bridging gaps/polarities."

"Art creates a different kind of conversation than the verbal/ cerebral one of the workplace."

"Painting was an experience of listening with other senses."

"Art gives us new ways to experience each other."

Art teaches us to sharpen our senses and perceive the world in new ways. Using art/imagery to visualize information is an effective means of knowledge creation. As a Chinese proverb points out, "Hearing something 100 times, is not the same as seeing it once."

Equiva Services: Art-Based Learning and Knowledge Creation

Equiva Services, a support services company for joint venture companies formed by Shell Oil Company, Texaco and Saudi Refining, established a learning lab to study successful new economy companies. Participants in the study embarked on field trips to learn how these companies leverage creativity and high performance. Once they completed their information gathering, their next challenge was to synthesize their findings, and make sense of it all. Participants made sculptural models incorporating words and images to give form to their ideas. Their artwork sparked inquiry, dialogue, storytelling and reflection among the group.

According to Nick Nissley and Gary Jusela, researchers involved in this project, these sculptures were the structural capital that "led to the telling of stories about how the energy of imagination and knowledge from the participants' field visits could be harnessed into intellectual capital." Using art to visualize information and ideas is a simple and powerful way to make knowledge explicit. The art process made visible what it takes to operate in the new economy. (Equiva ASTD 2002)

LexisNexis: Improv in Corporate Training and Development

Jerry Kail, senior OD consultant, LexisNexis, uses the principles of Improv to guide his work in what might otherwise be a chaotic environment. He says,

"Actors, especially improvisational actors, -have been training their minds for centuries to deal with the unanticipated or, rather, to 'anticipate surprise.' All of the learnings of improvisational acting apply to learning soft skills in the workplace … It's very common for me to facilitate the work of a group of people who haven't worked together before and who aren't located in the same city, country, or hemisphere. Their challenge can be equated to that of an improv team: to jointly create a coherent narrative from little more than 'Here's the goal. Figure out how to get there.' … Team members must identify promising directions to follow, accept offers for exploration, relate all the various stimuli to the emerging narrative, strike out into risky areas, relinquish trying to control the ultimate outcome, and ultimately create a coherent result that incorporates as many of the threads as possible. In the best improv and the best business teams, there are no stars, no upstaging. The team is the star."

The Art of Listening

If the art we confront is more complex and advanced than our social capacities, we have an opportunity for growth and transformation. Music, for example, has complexities beyond our capacities to perceive them. Miha Pogacnik, concert violinist, explains:

"Take for example the relatively simple 'Trio Sonata' by Bach. Three systems move in a complex way without losing their identity. If you are in a position to hear these three 'voices' moving in a contrapuntal way, individually and together as they relate to each other and unfold together in 5, 6, or 7 minutes, it is practically an impossible task. It is so difficult to be present in all that. That is what I mean by art being way ahead of our capacities."

Music can teach us to listen instantly and truly hear what is going on and not get stuck in conventions or patterns in which we usually operate - crucial skills in a business environment.

Tim Merry, a musician and organizational transformation practitioner, notes, "People need to go places inside themselves they can't go if they just sit there and talk. And if you want to create some kind of sustainable change, you have to connect to people's passion. And this is what the arts do. They connect people's passion, and when you're playing music, for example, it's the great leveler. The boss has a clave and you have a bass drum. And once that level ground has been established, then really important conversations can take place."

Art is a means to learn about ourselves and our relationships with each other, to uncover truth, knowledge, to sense emerging futures, to encourage dialogue that embraces many points of view, and to develop skills in logical and conceptual thinking - crucial for achieving success in any endeavor. For organizations to flourish, we must create environments that foster creativity in all its diversity. We must bring together multi-talented groups of people who collaborate and orchestrate the exchange of knowledge and ideas that shape the future.

This essay was adapted from Orchestrating Collaboration at Work: Using Music, Improv, Storytelling and Other Arts to Improve Teamwork, by Arthur B. VanGundy, and Linda Naiman. (Wiley/Pfeiffer/Jossey-Bass, 2003) © Copyright John Wiley & Sons 2003. Orchestrating Collaboration at Work is composed of 70 creative exercises and activities inspired by the arts that will help you and your team, your entire organization --achieve and maintain optimum team performance. This unique resource presents artistic forms of expression -- drawing, improvisational theater, music, painting, poetry, sculpture, and storytelling -- as a basis for improving collaboration at work. Visit www.creativityatwork.com to read Chapter 2, and receive a 15% discount on the purchase of the book.


Linda Naiman is founder of Linda Naiman & Associates Inc. which provides training and consultation in creativity and innovation to business and public sector organizations. Linda may be reached at 604.327.1565 or through www.creativityatwork.com .

Many more articles in Creative Leadership I and Creative Leadership II in
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Copyright 2003 by Linda Naiman. All rights reserved.

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