Defy the Data and Act on Intuition: Interview with Tim Leberecht (Part 2)

Dirk Dobiéy Business, Insights, Interview, Organization 0 Comments

Note: This is the second part of an Interview with Tim Leberecht, Chief marketing officer of NBBJ and Author of The Business Romantic. Please access the first part here.

Dirk: Tim, in your book The Business Romantic you propose to not just use quantitative measures to deal with complexity. What other options do we have?

Tim: Complexity begins when quants end. The truly complex things are the ones we can’t comprehend, those outside of our grasp. Everything we understand is already a simplification. The only answer to true complexity is creativity—and ultimately that of the non-problem-solving sort: art. Art doesn’t shut doors, it opens them. It doesn’t streamline meaning, it uncovers it. It gives us the ability to reframe what we experience, to reimagine the world or invent a new one.

As business leaders are confronted with increasingly complex tasks, there are real benefits for them to collaborate with artists. Artists are comfortable with complexity, ambiguity, and open-endedness. They ask the right questions instead of simply trying to problem-solve everything. They can help us lead a successful AND a beautiful life. They can teach us about the good life and highlight the important ethical choices that underpin every business decision. And they observe human desires, needs, emotions, and behavior with a sharp, discerning eye as well as a high degree of empathy. As Steve Jobs knew, artists are often the best innovators. They look upon our world, as Proust would say, with “fresh eyes.” Without the vision of such “fools” who see the world as it isn’t but could be, any company will struggle to chart new territory.

Smart business leaders recognize this: Some of them write poetry to make sense of their organization. Dana Gioia, a poet and former General Foods executive, said he had an advantage over his colleagues because of his “background in imagination.” Twitters’ editorial director, Karen Wickre, a liberal arts graduate, told me the exact same thing when I interviewed her. Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky, co-founders of Airbnb, are graduates of the Rhode Island School of Design and are widely considered a new type of design-savvy business leader. Maria Sebregondi, a co-founder of Moleskine, the notebook maker, told me their product was inspired by the legendary artists who used the original notebooks, and that the company was keen on retaining that romantic spirit across its entire marketing effort.

It is not just the arts, though. At even broader scale, the capabilities of philosophy, liberal arts, and the humanities can help keep organizations entrepreneurial, imagine disruptive innovations, and navigate ambiguous, complex environments in which data and analytical smarts alone prove to be insufficient.

Dirk: How do you maintain your autonomy in between contributing to an organization in romantic ways and maintaining your personal identity?

Tim: It’s a fine line and a balance we all must negotiate every day. I, for one, sometimes feel like I belong (spiritually), other times I feel like I belong to the firm (technically), and on other days again I just feel like a free agent whose resources one or more firms are leveraging.

Today, many of us knowledge workers enjoy unprecedented flexibility when it comes to how we organize our work. This autonomy over our tasks and schedules is accompanied by a high degree of agency over our careers.

The degree to which we “make or break ourselves at work,” as the poet and consultant David Whyte put it, can vary greatly: from giving it all and giving our best, to performing with excellence but not wanting to allow work to monopolize our identity. We can live “slash lives” now and be a father/writer/soccer coach/project manager at the same time. We have a choice: we can pursue meaning outside of work or pursue meaning at work. Increasingly, we can decide how much we want to devote ourselves to an organization. That is liberating, but it also puts a lot of pressure on both employers and employees as it is becoming much fuzzier what makes for a satisfactory performance or experience at work.

In fact, the full emancipation of our selves might not come from fulfillment, but refusal. The US-magazine The New Republic recently contended that meaning in business may just be the latest corporate fad (“In Praise of Meaningless Work”): just another tool in the corporate arsenal to control employees. In a similar vein, a recent Harvard Business Review article proposed “Stop Trying to Find Your True Self at Work”. So there is some backlash against the notion of meaning and mindfulness in business, and apparently a renewed focus on a fulfilled life outside of work.

I welcome that, but, regardless, it doesn’t release us from the quest to make life in business more meaningful, especially given that many of us spend the majority of our lives on the job. It is easier if your heart isn’t in it, but it is so much more rewarding when it is. All the more reason to not only offer Google-style “Search Inside Yourself” classes or other mindfulness exercises, but to radically alter the conversation and create reward systems in business that allow us to be romantic “wanderers in the fog” instead of “masters of the universe.”

Dirk: What represents courage and discipline for you when you speak about the extending ones perspective beyond quarterly reports and annual accounts?

Tim: Courage in business means two things to me. First, to defy the data and act on intuition, allowing for sentimentality and emotional attachment. I believe that’s the ultimate rebellion in a world of “whoever has the numbers wins.” To say “I know the data, I understand what they’re telling me, but here’s what I feel we should do.” The sweet spot for the romantic is when what’s the right thing to do intersects with what feels good to do. Still, acting on those two motives requires courage and discipline.

Courage also means commitment. The act of walking away, cutting ties with an organization and pursuing a new chapter in your career or starting your own business, is often considered a bold move. And it is. But perhaps staying put, committing to an organization, to a worthy cause, to a path once chosen, really sinking your teeth into something for years, achieving a sense of mastery like Jiru does, the legendary sushi chef portrayed in the beautiful movie Jiru Dreams of Sushi, is the much braver act, and in fact, a deeply romantic gesture. For giving over one’s identity to office politics and corporate dogma, commitment to a job requires quiet strength. In my book, I cite Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor of organizational behavior at business school INSEAD, who said: “It takes tremendous bravery to accept the loss of some control while also maintaining a sense of individuality. You have to work on that every day.”

In The Business Romantic, I also portray a former colleague, Kay Compton, an architect who at some point in her career decided to take a yearlong sabbatical and cross the Pacific Ocean on a sail boat with her husband. When I asked Compton if the journey had changed her sense of self at work, she told me: “Absolutely. When my husband and I were on the boat, there could only be one captain. We switched back and forth, but only one of us could lead at a time.” “At work,” she said, “you have to collaborate in teams, and you have to understand your role and the roles of others. There is a clarity that needs to be in place with these roles. They can shift, but when someone is the captain, you don’t argue. You don’t start an argument in the middle of the ocean.”

Commitment in the “middle”—after the magic of the beginning has faded and before we’re rewarded the joys of mastery—is perhaps the greatest professional challenge. With our desire abstract and our flame no longer alight, what is needed then is character and heart. A real union, not a fling. Commitment remains the ultimate romantic adventure.


Tim Leberecht is Chief marketing officer of NBBJ and author of The Business Romantic. Find out more about Tim.
Picture Source: Tim Leberecht

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