Rob Austin

An Artist Lives in the World Like Everyone Else- Interview with Rob Austin

Dirk Dobiéy Insights, Interview 0 Comments

Robert D. Austin is an innovation and technology management researcher and professor of Innovation and Information Technology at Ivey Business School in Canada. Together with dramaturg and emeritus professor of theatre Lee Devin he examines business innovation through the lens of art practice. Their two books Artful Making and The Soul of Design explore the striking structural similarities between theatre artistry and production and today’s business projects. For Austin, there is no doubt artistic practices are highly relevant in today’s’ business environment, and particularly “in developed economies because communication and transportation networks have become so usable and inexpensive that it devalues cost-leadership approaches to business. Many companies in many places can enter into price competition when goods move around the globe so cheaply. And there are many places you can produce for a lower cost than in developed economies because of structural advantages (e.g., lower wages in developing economies). So, if you are based in developed economies you have a structural cost disadvantage. It doesn’t really matter how good you are, you may still have trouble defeating the competition based on cost. That forces more and more companies to differentiate themselves. Business differentiation usually arises from some sort of a creative act. It involves a shake-up for you that frees you from historical patterns, habits, processes and procedures and comes up with something truly new. That is something artists are striving for and good at.”

At the same time, Austin rejects an idealistic starry-eyed view into the matter. “Especially the arts, but every creative activity, are in a kind of enriching your view or in other terms, they are good for your soul. They have a spiritual dimension but I think in my work I have veered away from pressing that too far. Partly I worry a little bit that it is a slippery slope. I think there is a certain line of logic you can encounter that kind of expects art to save the world. That’s a lot to ask. We have to be kind of careful with what we approach. I emphasize that, and don’t mean to say that it is not a real effect, but I do think it can be of overly dramatized and romanticized. I know academics that are guilty of that. They do research in what I would call arts in management. Deep down what they have at heart is a rather more romantic notion of the arts than I think most real artists have. I think artists approach their work from the standpoint that it is nourishing for them and for their soul but it is for them quite a practical matter.  My co-author was a playwright for a while and did many things in the theater. One of the things he likes to say is that writing, for him, was about putting his head into the work and keeping it down for a certain number of hours. Then do it again the next day. He was always quite skeptical on others who overly romanticized things. There are some concepts that come up into the discussion that can be dramatically romanticized. There is also a sense where some artists, in order to cultivate image and aura, cultivate a romantic notion of what they do for external consumption, but I think it has relatively little to do with what they actually do. Most of the artists I interviewed over the years working on this kind of thing, don’t try to romanticize what they do. In fact, it doesn’t mean that their project is unimportant or mundane but for them, they like to make things”, Austin comments. And he is certain that “an artist lives in the world like everyone else.”

Yet a world experienced through the four qualities of artful making allows to reconceive much of what one does along artful lines, Austin and Devin write in their first book. Those four qualities are release, collaboration, ensemble and play and while they sound not very sophisticated they represent some major differences to most established business practices. “[…M]any of the things that are expressed in these four processes are things that are not built into the reflexes of business managers who have learned to manage in a more industrial setting, where they are oriented to terms like maximizing, exploiting and value creation”, Austin clarifies. “I would say that what we are describing in our book is very much the exploration inclination. There are a lot of things in that process you would never do in a more industrial exploitation process like the whole idea of release, is not consistent with what you would try to do in a factory. There is also literature in the management research on what’s called organizational ambidexterity. Organizations are trying to do both, exploration and exploitation and are succeeding to differing degrees and we are trying to discover those companies. The decision attitude is based on logical frameworks where you focus on the machinery to choose between alternatives. The creation of entirely new attitudes like the design attitude would be much more focused on a creative act.” For Austin one major difference is the concept of emergence. “In a lot of creative processes, you don’t choose between alternatives but create the right alternative. At that point, the choice is obvious.  In the final situation of a creative act you have worked your way to an alternative through what is basically an emergent process. Many businesses are historically rooted in the decision attitude. They need to move the direction to a design attitude.” A design attitude for Austin also involves a certain resilience; an ability to define an objective but to remain open enough to end up somewhere different than originally planned. “Often when you are in a creative process you start out going from A to B but you end up at C and that’s just the nature of things. I do agree that often creative processes especially in practical settings start with an objective but there are always multiple ways of finding the objective. What distinguishes the creative processes is that the outcome of those processes sometimes doesn’t solve the problem that they set out to solve. They reframe it in a new way that is more solvable or more satisfactorily solvable. Part of the creative act, especially in the field of design, is not to take the problem or objective as a given but to see as something that is subject to reframing and redefinition. A classic, elegant design solution is something that reframes the problem, solves the reframed problem, and in the process which also solves the original problem. You start out thinking the problem and objective were defined in a certain way and often this is where in the field of design a lot of user research comes in.”

Clearly, approaching a creative act with a design attitude involves not having all the answers, sometimes not even knowing the questions to begin with. For leaders with an orientation towards efficiency this is not easy to overcome, Austin explains. “They don’t enjoy not being able to make sense of things. They like to think they have already a good grip on the world. One of the things that’s fundamentally difficult about the arts is that they are continually evolving the meaning of things. In certain kinds of activities, especially if you are a manager who has focused on an industry for a long time, you don’t want to see much evolving at all. You want to see everything under control. When something as major as meaning starts to evolve; that doesn’t look like a good thing. It looks like something that needs to get under control, it runs against your reflexes.” Many artistic reflexes seem run against traditional management reflexes, many practices challenge classical business practices. While Austin does not favor one side over another, he is convinced creativity and innovation require the artful side of things. “An artful leader would probably be much more attuned to the emergent nature of creative acts and the way creative activities need to feed on each other: reactions to reactions to reactions as a way of moving ideas. They would be much more open to differences of perspectives because creative acts see things in different ways and are able to create something truly original. A second part is that once you’ve created something original and valuable, to recognize that that’s what you’ve done. That is something businesses have a lot of trouble with. Sometimes they create something new and quite valuable but their habitual procedures, practices and mindsets keep them from seeing the value. It is a very common pattern in business that companies that invent things are not the ones which eventually make that into a business. They are too busy in a different kind of businesses; it’s a pattern that repeats again and again. […] Another thing is that an open realization, that variation is at the heart of innovation and creativity, whereas it is the thing to be discouraged in a more industrial process. Randomness is a bad thing if you’re in an exploitation mode, but it’s an absolute requirement if you’re in an exploration mode.  Companies have all sorts of systems that try to minimize variation in their processes, all of which work against creative and artful processes. Often in a creative activity you are making judgments about esthetic quality of a thing versus their practicality. In a design firm a limitation might be a certain budget of a number of hours for a certain activity. If we go beyond this number of hours we start to lose money, it would be an unprofitable job, if we go too far beyond the budget. That is one set of pressures. Another set of pressures might be, we’re at the budgeted amount that we expected to spend on this but we don’t have a solution that we think is satisfactory, of a sufficient esthetic quality. A designer’s inclination is to work beyond that boundary. A business manager’s inclination is to say, ‘no, we have to restrict the budget because the job needs to be profitable.’ One thing we see in creative companies is that the managers are sometimes willing to go beyond those boundaries because they see it as an investment in future reputation, in creation of creative capabilities that they will get to reuse, and even creation of ideas that would come back in other products or work with other clients. I guess it boils down to an inclination to set aside the classic cost minimization or profit maximization reflexes, for a lot of reasons: to create new capabilities, to keep the creative people happy because they don’t want to do only profitable jobs, they want to do interesting jobs. One of the things we see in a lot of creative companies is that they will engage in projects that they know are not very lucrative or profitable, even going in, but these projects might be very interesting or stretch the creative capabilities in an interesting way.  These companies talk about it in very practical terms: ‘we do this one and it’s going to be fun but the next job we take has to be one where we pay the bills’, Austin exemplifies. “There is that balancing act that a lot of creative companies engage in.” When listening to Austin, it becomes clear that the balance he is describing is not aiming at keeping the balance at all times but allowing a company to achieve it by also going through various conditions. “

I see another thing which is part of the paper we just written. The company we were studying there is having the right number of crisis in a year. When they have too many crises it is too disruptive, if they have too few crises then they are not poking their process enough. That’s really not much like someone running a factory would think. The optimal number of crisis in a factory is zero. Those are just a few things and there are probably a lot of them, tolerance for ambiguity, and a capacity in a leader to help the people who work for them to tolerate ambiguity, in an important characteristic. To tolerate the fact that in a creative act you necessarily don’t know where you are going and that can be uncomfortable.”

Austin realizes learning from art for better outcomes in business and society is a topic of great promise and  significance but he is also realistic enough to understand it is not an easy task to convince traditional leaders. “We have more than 150 years of industrial thinking to overcome. The problem is always, when you are proposing new things and thinking in new categories and naming categories with different terminology, that terminology in that world lives at a disadvantage to the much more established terminology that’s all been settled. Anything truly new is at first unfamiliar and therefore kind of uncomfortable and therefore without respectability and meaning for a while.” But Austin is also full of hope due to the simultaneousness of many initiatives in the field. “We all use slightly different terminology, but I have the feeling that we are talking about the same kinds of things.”

Please access the complete interview here.


Transcript: Eugen Buss, Stephanie Barnes
Blog: Dirk Dobiéy, Adina Asbeck
Picture Source: Rob Austin

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