Image: “Eugenio Montale” by Phil Sylvester.
After entering college as a music major I received 2 degrees in math. In my career I worked on rockets and the space shuttle before selling and marketing supercomputers yet have spent the past 25 years creating advertisements for innovative consumer goods and services sold at retail and online.
The range of consumer goods innovation I’ve worked with is extensive – DirecTV’s introduction, Apple Computers, The Joint Chiropractic, Kobalt hand tools, Rubbermaid paint products, innovative new Teflon products, a robotic dinosaur with voice commands, iOpener (the first internet appliance), DisneyMobile, and many more.
Along this path, one hidden factor was critical to my innovation success: In 1990 I started to study painting and drawing.
I studied with Phil Sylvester, a sophisticated explorer of painting and drawing and a committed abstract expressionist (he also blogs here). From Phil I learned about making art with passion, understanding, individual vision, and discovery as well as the search for brilliant finished work. As we worked in class, he would read from the artist’s writings about how they worked. It was amazing how much they revealed about innovation process. (On a personal note, along the way I also met my wife – a professional artist.)
Great art is the result of process – but not linear process. In business we obsess about processes and we love them to be linear. Rick Nason, in his book “It’s Not Complicated: The Art and Science of Complexity in Business“, suggests this is the result of assuming the world is “complicated” when it’s really complex.
Art may be one of the best ways to understand the complex. Artists work through search and exploration. They have a sense of where they’re going and a sense of the general “arc” that will get them there. But they also know that forcing that process into narrow boundaries dramatically hurts the final results.
It’s my experience that the best innovators and product designers rely on processes quite similar to those of the artist. Unfortunately, even among innovators there’s too often a straight-line mentality. And the innovation literature has become obsessed with attempting to perfect a linear process to discovery – leading to books that sell while the processes fail.
Process isn’t the only lesson I learned from art… Here are a few others:
Be wary of pre-conceptions. Innovation must be approached with an open mind.
Consider drawing a live model. As humans, we bring expectations (or pre-conceptions) about the human form to our work – our mind has created caricatures of the elements of the human figure. Great artists learn to suspend those pre-conceptions to truly and honestly look at what is there. Shadows, shapes, volumes, planes, feelings, responses, angles, passions. As they go, they build up that image we all recognize as human – but it carries more passion and depth because they weren’t distracted by caricature. Even more critically, it stands out fresh and unique because it reflects their individual view.
Artists must be disciplined about starting from what’s in front of them, what they feel about it, and the unique way they see things. Then they follow where that leads to capture what they uniquely “see”. Great art isn’t about photographic reproduction but capturing (in whatever style you work) the sense of what you see – a sense others respond to when they view the art.
In 35 years around innovation I’ve learned it’s difficult not to start a project with pre-conceptions. But when we don’t recognize those pre-conceptions or ignore them, we end up making merely caricatures of great products – products their creators think are great only because they fit pre-conceived ideas about the category.
Innovators have to ask: Am I seeing the true problem? Am I open to the unusual answer? Without expectation or pre-conception? Am I open to an answer that won’t fit the arbitrary definition of “innovation” that other people hold? Only when you can answer “yes” will you find the greatest innovations.
It’s not possible to get it right the first time.
Artists don’t just sit down at one side of the canvas and work it to the other end – resulting in a fully finished painting. Paintings develop. The artist explores through drawings, smaller paintings, maquette’s (if a sculptor) and brings all their accumulated experience from prior work. Once working on the final canvas, painting often starts with pencil or charcoal drawing. Depending on the individual artist, those drawings may have little connection to the finished work once the artist has fully worked the canvas. And all artists will talk about how intimidating the blank canvas can be – they are as intimidated as writers are of blank pages.
Innovation is too often driven by the idea that you should invent and get it right the first time. That’s not possible. Some of the best innovations that reach the market have been around for decades – only no one ever put it all together in the right way.
When one element becomes strong, leave it and work on the weaker elements. Then re-examine the one you thought was strong – it may have only appeared strong by comparison.
Phil liked a process that re-works drawings and paintings – for good reason. When we sketch a model, for example, some elements will be stronger than others. As a result, we go and work on the elements that aren’t as strong. However, there’s a human tendency to “check off” that element which seems strong at first. But we may not perceive it correctly. Very, very, very often an element (an ear for example or a product feature in innovation) only appears strong because the rest of the drawing/product is weaker. Once the rest of the drawing is strong, that ear we loved might look pretty poor by comparison. So we must train ourselves to sit back look at the state of our work – to see it clearly and with honesty.
Bureaucracies innovating love to check things off their list as if to say “that’s all done”. Except, as with a drawing, the innovation part you might love today could be far too weak for the market – and you’ll only see that later when the other parts of the innovation become clear.
It takes individual vision for innovation to be brilliant.
Businesses may worship teams, but art is not a group project. Certainly there is sometimes collaborative art. But that usually works best when one collaborator works for a while then walks away and another collaborator takes over. Truth is, great art requires the insight only possible when one individual digs deeply into the expression of a subject. In particular, this is critical because what an artist sees can’t be articulated in a way that would help a committee approve it or work together.
The best innovation generally has someone who carries the heart and soul (think Steve Jobs here or Sergei Korolev who left a concentration camp to end up driving much of the Soviet Space success). Of course a complete project takes a team. But someone must lead by identifying the heart and soul in order to approve or reject other elements based on whether they build to a coherent whole. History is made by projects created by large groups when they are guided by the passion and insight of a single individual. Thomas Edison, Kelly Johnson (Lockheed Skunk Works), Walt Disney, Lee Iacocca, and thousands and thousands of unsung heroes of business who ensured products were all they should be.
Beyond these specific lessons, drawing and painting trained my instincts and my vision. It’s hard to describe how these instincts are continually active – impacting every day I work. When we immerse ourselves in learning to see clearly, there’s no way that it can’t end up having a very big impact.
Studying art makes it clear that innovating is not simple. It also makes it clear that innovation work is far less likely to succeed when you demand that the process become controllable and linear. (This is an area of concern I have with the Jobs-To-Be-Done mythology. Ulwick starts from the unquestionable truth that innovators should learn what those who use our products need. Then he constructs a process with such rigor that it’s likely to kill any powerful insights.)
When innovators trust their instincts and follow lessons like those I note above, their work becomes a whole lot more interesting as well as a whole lot more effective.
For a related post, you might enjoy “Practicing on the Bandstand: Some Thoughts about Miles Davis, Improvisation, & Business”.
Personal Note: So where did I end up with drawing and painting? I keep a drawing book handy at all times. But I don’t worry about publishing or showing my drawing. Drawing is a key part of my life of discovery and a way for me to consider many things that die when we attempt to articulate them. Fortunately, between my wife’s work and the work of our many good friends who are artists and musicians, I’m surrounded by creativity and innovation.
Copyright 2018 – Doug Garnett – All Rights Reserved