Artists as Innovators in Business

©Suzanne Moss PhD

This article was first published on LinkedIn  August 8, 2017

Isaac Kaplan captured my attention last week with his article “Upstart Co-Lab Wants Businesses to Hire More Artists” where he reports on the work of Laura Callanan, founding partner of the non-profit Upstart Co-Lab. Callanan argues that artists bring singular problem-solving abilities, challenging how a given issue needs to be tackled: “You especially want [artist employees] at the early stage of a new initiative, to ask the questions that aren’t obvious.” Rather than traditional roles, she suggests artists might be integrated into a team looking to address problems beyond the arts. Co-Lab’s report “Great Minds Don’t Think Alike,” cites research on the benefits of artists in the workplace—including creative thinking, innovation, and diversity of thought.


Referring to this and the landmark IBM 2010 Global CEO Study: Creativity Selected as Most Crucial Factor for Future Success Kaplan asks why then are not more artists involved in the workplace?


Let’s get the biggest assumption out of the way first: only artists, or ‘creatives’, are creative. Yes, they are very creative people, and not exclusively so. NASA researchers George Land and Beth Jarman showed that almost everyone was actually a creative genius at the age of 4 or 5, and given the steady decline in creativity scores, asserted ‘non-creative behavior is learned’.[1] Trained during the school years to find solutions fast, expansive ways of thinking – divergently and creatively – tend to function less and less. It seems reasonable to suggest artists might be people who’ve developed their divergent thinking rather than reduced it.


Why not foster people’s accessing of their creativity? Having an artist around can have many kinds of impact. The positive side is that it is a different and disruptive input and we need that for our best ideas. The downside is folks compare themselves and will actually name themselves as not artistic which tends to shut the door on any good ideas. (I’d like a dollar for every time I’ve heard: I don’t have a creative bone in my body!)


Callanan, says the lack of artists’ involvement in the workplace is partly because the value and importance of integrating artists into existing structures is still not fully embraced by businesses.[2] While Co-Lab’s campaign promotes the idea of the artist as innovator, a deeper enquiry is not presented. Why might artists not be ‘embraced’?

For a long time I’ve seen/heard ‘lip service’ given to creative thinking, so much so that it has become synonymous with brainstorming. And you know the research says how lacking brainstorming can be.


So…if creative thinking is not brainstorming, then what is it? Truth be known, many people don’t really know what creative thinking is. From what I’ve heard over the years, there’s two main ways of thinking about it. There’s the link with being creatively underhanded, and there’s the more contemporary sense of sparkles and dollar signs around the word innovation, without further mention of where it comes from – if not from some ‘creative’ in a small room out the back, like a chook laying golden eggs for the company.


Creative thinking is divergent, whole brain, expansive and speculative usually in response to a question or a challenge. It does not arrive at ‘solutions’ – this is convergence. Rather, creative thinking proposes a range of possibilities that are then chosen from according to certain criteria, which are then tested and evaluated. Innovation may or may not happen immediately. Failures inform and are necessary for the process to be its’ best. Creative thinking – part of any creative process – is fostered by certain conditions, and these I coach in my Creative Visionary Capability System.


Whether it be an artist or an artist-consultant-coach like myself, introducing an artist into a workplace means that the possibility of creative thinking might become real. And that might mean change, which is scary, right?


Drawing on my experience as an artist, Artist-in-Residence, Visiting Artist, Visual Arts academic, private teacher, mentor and coach, I’ll raise relevant concerns and respond to them. Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2016) and Allan Parker’s Negotiator’s Toolkit (2016) are valuable resources that I’ll refer to.


CONCERN: Goodness knows what might happen! Some crazy thing with unpredictable outcomes could be set in motion. Like introducing a wildcard, this is uncertain and risky territory. Things might change…and change might be scary.


RESPONSE: Certainly artists’ influence can be disruptive and initiate change. And we cannot predict how inspiration for extraordinary ideas might occur, we just know they need to happen. There is choice at every point in the processes of transformation. Accepting a certain amount of risk opens us and our businesses up to fresh possibilities; an essential part of a growth mindset, as Carol Dweck notes when writing about Jack Welch at GE, Lou Gerstner at IBM and Anne Mulcahy of Xerox who each transformed their companies:


“When you enter the world of the growth mindset leaders, everything changes. It brightens, it expands, it fills with energy, with possibility.”[3]


The term creative thinking was not mentioned, this is the right kind of energy for it to be fostered. Meanwhile, fear would have been not far away. One of my teachers, Brandon Bays, speaks of fears as ‘paper tigers’ meaning you need to get close to them to see they’re harmless, rather than be deluded and overwhelmed. Best find out what they’re about first! One approach is The Journey Method of introspective enquiry Bays developed around 25 years ago.


Another of my teachers, Allan Parker’s number 1 tool for negotiating change in the corporate context is listening. No surprise really, however, Parker’s listening is very fine indeed; about discerning agreement and disagreement; distortions, misunderstandings, doubts, fears and concerns; perceived benefits and problems, and to follow with acknowledging feelings. The impact of this approach is astonishingly powerful. One feels not just heard but comforted – a rare and compassionate experience from which change can happen panic-free.


Google’s Project Oxygen researched what it takes to be a top manager. The first of 5 stand-out dynamics of an effective team was psychological safety: “A shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”[4]


Rose Crane and I, as students of Parkers’ and artists with a diverse range of other skills and experience, can help upgrade skills so that anxieties can be traded for brain-stimulating disruption and creative thinking.


Crane, a film-maker and consultant with considerable government and NGO experience, has worked with Parker for many years. I was founder and co-principal of a Physiotherapy practice before serious exploration of the visual arts; painting and teaching as a professional artist. Education, coaching, mentoring and Visionary Leadership training bridge my experience fostering well-being and creativity.


Artists’ role, I believe, is essentially one of ‘benign disruption’ as assigned Tedi Asher, neuroscientist employed to help their viewers upgrade their experience of the collection more fully at the Peabody Essex Museum north of Boston.[5] In the corporate context, artists might be better known as change agents, assisting with shifting people out of thinking on auto-pilot. This can only be a good thing!


CONCERN: Callanan promotes the idea of ‘artist as innovator’, but can’t anyone be an innovator?


RESPONSE: Yes. Everyone, from the cleaner to the CEO, has the potential to have great ideas. They may not know how to use those ideas. And it is possible to develop creative visionary capability – to foster conditions for generating fresh options and knowing how to use them.


The first step is about shifting mindset from fixed – I’m not creative or any other limiting statement you can think of – to one of curiosity signaled by an open question such as I wonder what might happen if…?


CONCERN: Aren’t artists flaky?


RESPONSE: People can have very weird ideas about what kind of person an artist is. Suggesting unreliability, the term ‘flaky’ is derogatory and unproven. In my experience, professional artists are highly dedicated and disciplined people who work very long hours. Involvement of an artist in a business environment might be far more effective if stereotypes are addressed. Sometimes artists take care of this themselves. Most artists do an Artist’s Talk or have folks visit their working space when they’re on a residency. This can bring the opportunity of the DSD – doing something different – into the work place, which alone can be very stimulating for creative thinking.


Artists are as many and varied as any labeled group. Chances are you have some on staff. Generally though, people that are not part of your system see with ‘fresh eyes’ and are open to responding creatively. They would likely suggest far more ways they might contribute than you could think of.


Consultants who specialize in negotiating change in the workplace can help you prepare your people for growth and integrate a Visiting Artist.


Visiting Artist can be for as brief as a day or as long as a year. An Artist in Residence can live in, as the term suggests, or nearby in a small apartment provided with studio space. They can be employed on a short-term contract as a great way to make a commitment to fostering benign disruption and creative thinking. And so you know their impact, it’s a good idea to have some ideas for measurable outcomes. Photos of the workplace and your people before and at the end of the artist’s stay can be visually indicative of positive change.


Different ways of thinking can be cultivated at any time, artist in the workplace or not. Consider having a staff library or resource shelf in the tea-room. Inform and even delight your staff with inspiring books such as those by SARK, Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull or Muppets’ inventor Jim Henson: The Biography, and children’s books are a must. Even one thing different in the work environment can be enough to trigger more openness to positive change and growth.


CONCERN: I don’t get how artists might contribute to innovation? What role should they fill? What tasks might they complete? What’s their value?


RESPONSE: Designing, making or coming up with ideas in a brainstorming session might be the most obvious contributions. However, research has shown that most ideas taken up from brain-storming come from the loudest people who put forward the most obvious solutions first. Most artists I know are not loud. The bias inherent in brainstorming suggests the need for more effective methods for generating fresh ideas. My article from April focuses on this.[6]


Here are just a few examples of unpredictable kinds of disruption artists have provided me with:


An illegal mural in an unexpected place at art school, showcasing a visual word play, made me laugh out loud and changed the course of my lecture and my day.


When I was an art student helping install the show of Betsebee Romero, she completely covered a car with toast. Toasters were cranking and the gallery smelled deliciously of hot toast. Unforgettable.


A fellow student came in very late to visiting artist Guan Wei’s class. She was quite unprepared and flustered. He gave her his paints to use and the demonstration painting he was working on. I’ve never seen a person running late treated so kindly before or since. Compassionate disruption.


Now because it’s an interesting one, and amusing in retrospect, I’ll give you a problematic example. In 2015, I was an artist-in-residence at a 5-star private hotel in Europe. At least 2 weeks after being briefed by head of staff, a senior staff member told me to ‘look like an artist!’ i.e. work on the easel outside and make conversation with the guests at breakfast so they will take your classes. Now, it was early Spring (cold), I’m an abstract painter and guests’ first language was usually not English: a lesson in how not to treat your artist.


Fascinated by creativity, I’ve been researching by learning and creating for well over 20 years, and teaching, mentoring and coaching during the last ten. My own practice as an artist gradually became more mindful especially through learning about Zen and its’ huge impact on contemporary art.


I’ve read articles and books with keen interest as the business world has given a wink and a nod to creativity, and slowly made more serious efforts to foster creative thinking, taking on growth mindsets in the process. And I’ve responded, creating a step-by-step system to foster creative thinking for people who want to be more effective, particularly when it seems counter-intuitive – during times of increased pressure.


Since profits can be hugely and positively impacted and businesses turned around by the openness, curiosity and creativity of a growth mindset as repeatedly reported by Dweck, more people want to know how to go about getting it. Engaging professional development could well bridge the gap between what you have now and what you want.


With regard to professional development, Dweck notes the evidence of a fixed mindset can be seen where “Much corporate training is ineffective because many managers do not believe in personal change.”[7] On the other hand, “Managers with a growth mindset think talent is a starting point and are committed to employees’ development.”[8] With a growth mindset, development of specific skills are targeted rather than a hit and miss approach.


When Lou Gerstner, Jack Welch and Anne Mulcahy reversed the fortunes of IBM, GE and Xerox respectively, Dweck notes they talked to people at all levels, got expertise and created teamwork, rewarding staff who helped their colleagues, demanded the job got done and focused on the customer.[9] They re-invented their companies and continued to do so. Big changes were necessary, and ongoing change essential – massive creative processes, each.


One thing is sure: if people are scared, they find it difficult to think ‘outside the square’ or welcome anyone else who does. Moving toward where you want to be might begin by laying the foundations for negotiating change in ways that allay fears. Essentially, Parker in his Negotiator’s Toolbox of fundamentals, provides practical ways to develop and practice a growth mindset that can greatly increase the success of your interactions.[10]


So getting back to the original question about artists as innovators and disruptors in your business… The first part of such a project is about getting ready for change – consultation and preparation. Step two: select your artist or creative consultant to discuss your needs. Step three: allow them both freedom and appropriate constraints to foster creativity and creative thinking. Step four, respond: consider, trial, create, evaluate and…repeat as required. Innovation will come.

[1] George Land and Beth Jarman, Breaking Point and Beyond. San Francisco: Harper Business, 1993

[2] Laura Callanan cited by Isaac Kaplan, “Upstart Co-Lab Wants Businesses to Hire More Artists”,, August 1, 2017

[3] Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Press, 2016, p.125

[4] Julie Rozovsky cited by Richard Feloni, Google has found that its most successful teams have 5 traits in common in Business Insider, Australia, NOV 19, 2015



[7] Dweck, p.139

[8] Dweck, p.140

[9] Dweck, p.129

[10] Allan Parker, The Negotiator’s Toolkit. 4th Ed. Sydney: Peak Performance Development, 2016