An Impulse in Everyone to Say Something that is Different – Interview with Edgar Schein

Dirk Dobiéy Business, Insights, News 0 Comments

Edgar Schein is author and former professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He has made substantial contributions to the fields of organizational development and organizational culture. For people interested in understanding how companies really work, Schein’s model of organizational culture developed in the 1980’s represents a major piece of the puzzle, and influenced generations of professionals dealing with organizational transformation and change – including ourselves. Less known but not less exciting, Ed Schein has also thought about the relevance of art to other elements of society like business or government, and why managers should learn about it. Our conversation with Edgar Schein started from the question of how the artist is trained and works can produce important insights into what is needed to perform and what it means to lead and manage.

Something to say

“Il faut que l’oeuvre d’art vous emballe, qu’elle vous entraîne avec elle. C’est par ce moyen que l’artiste transmet sa passion.”* Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Not many people outside the art world know that art education is to a very large extent about helping artists to find their own position. As in many disciplines, the craft itself is something that students learn by practicing and learning from teachers, masters and fellow students. But in order to make one’s art truly unique, truly individual, a position is required. Many young artists report that finding their personal, unique position is the most painful part of becoming an artist. What sounds complicated at first becomes easy when Ed Schein describes it. It simply means having something to say. “I guess what I am realizing is that the difference between the artist and a non-artist is not so much in having unique skills, but in having something to say. I remember an artist, friend of ours, in Cambridge who was a teacher at a local college. He was really frustrated that he would teach all the skills but he would then tell my wife and me: ‘you know my problem is that my students don’t have anything to say’. There was something missing in them. They could learn to do all the right things but their work was pedestrian.” This insight had practical implications for Ed Schein as an author: “I just finished the revision of my organizational culture book. It is the fifth edition. What makes it challenging is that I have to ask myself ‘what do I have to say that is different?’” A revision could just be adding a few references; that would not be any fun but I decided that the culture world is changed. It is much more international. National cultures have become more important. Maybe that is the key I am looking for. How can any of us become more artistic? Somehow there must be an impulse in everyone from time to time to say something that is different. That is the key of being an artist.”

Impulse and Uncertainty

“I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.” David Bowie

Consequently, Ed Schein does not pick up on the notion of artistic practice. “I would be more comfortable with the idea of the artistic impulse.” An impulse that is strong enough so that ‘I know the idea, I know what I want to say, but it is difficult to know how to say it, how to render it’. That seemed to me a very important principle of what happens in normal life but that is similar to the artistic problem. You encounter something that you know what it is you want to do, but you don’t quite know how to do it. […] Somehow, out of that came the idea that it is not about accepting mistakes, it is about allowing yourself to have period of search and uncertainty. During that time, maybe you try stuff. You try drawing that tree and that did not work. So I presume composers, painters and writers, all have this experience. They throw stuff away, because it did not work. It did not look right. It did not sound right. There is a different between throwing it away during the search part versus committing to something final and then deciding the whole painting is to be thrown away.”

Searching and Reflecting: The Creative Organization

“In the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you.” Leo Tolstoy

“Should the company culture stimulate experimentation and innovation but not allow that to become absolute judgments about the final quality of what was done?” The struggle for organizations to become more creative is not new to Ed Schein and he is skeptical about some of the practices that make it into headlines. “In the Silicon Valley there are all kind of proposals under the term of agile software development where supposedly the more errors you make the quicker you learn. They turned the ‘making mistakes’ into a positive thing. If you are not making mistakes, you are not trying hard enough. They turned it completely upside down.”

What may seem upside down to us is not new at all. Inventor and Engineer Charles Kettering once famously said “One fails forward toward success.” He was head of research at General Motors between 1920 and 1947. And while his definition of failures was “practice shots” — events that just happen when dealing with uncertainty — he made sure to “believe and act as if it were impossible to fail.” Believing is one thing, acting for artists according to Ed Schein is much less about creation than it is about searching and reflecting.

But that’s not an easy thing for organizations to accomplish. “It’s complicated because these companies in Palo Alto who are practicing agile software development don’t realize it is a set of routines for the wrong questions. Here is where I am coming out—how to combine the practice notion with what is inside you. I love Otto Scharmer’s image of what happens when the artist stands in front of the empty canvas. What happens in that moment psychologically? What is the process by which something inside you comes out? For me, that is a vivid image. The practice that I think is missing in companies, which will help us with that issue is reflection time.”

“If you look at business today, it is all about doing. Travel should not be viewed as an expense. It is an opportunity to reflect. You sit in the airplane and think of what is going on because there is nothing else to do. If I am not able to focus as a writer, if I take a walk, things begin to come back to me. When people say ‘can I walk with you’. I say ‘no, I want to walk alone. I don’t want to be distracted by another human being’ [laughs].”

“I think that is the practice that we have to bring into the company. It is to figure out how to legitimize analyzing process and reflecting on it. That is the big missing component so people never learn to see because they never take the time to practice seeing. […] I had the experience that you don’t see something until you have taken the time to look at it for a long time. That to me is a skill that artists take for granted that is just as applicable to any kind of other creative activity, but even more important to the activity of being a businessman, developing strategies, designing organizations, or whatever. Seeing is something you have to learn to do. That is not automatic. An artist takes for granted that you have to learn to see.” […] “I think that what happened is that a concept like reflection or mindfulness has become corrupted just as the word culture became corrupted and becomes routine in methodologies. The original reflection in the NTLT training groups, my original training, was guided by what we called then the ‘spirit of inquiry’. It was always connected to what has been going on in the group. You did not go off and reflect or tried to do some mantra to be mindful. We said ‘wait a minute, what just happened here? How did this come about?’ And then you maybe thought about it later and said ‘this is amazing’. When I take my walks, it is totally because I have gotten stuck in the work. I can’t proceed in the work, so I take a walk not to get away from the work but to change my attitude towards the work, to allow other thoughts to enter and it is interesting to me how that always works. I say ‘I have got to take a walk now’ and nothing happens for maybe 20 minutes but after 30 or 40 minutes, suddenly I have a thought. And that thought is helpful and it brings me back to the work. I carry notepads with me because sometimes I need to write down that thought immediately so that I don’t forget about it later. My notion of mindfulness and reflection is tightly linked to the work, but linked in the sense that I have gotten too focused and I need to get away from this immediate focus to allow other ideas to enter what it is I am trying to do.”

Building a Culture of Creativity – A Piece of Art

“The first man to compare the cheeks of a young woman to a rose was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot.” Salvador Dali

For Ed Schein there is no doubt customization beats any standardization when it comes to enabling a culture of creativity in an organization. There is no one size fits all. “You have to customize how to get more creativity in the given organization. Anything general I would say to you immediately becomes so abstract as to become corrupted. That’s exactly what will happen. If I would say companies should find more time to reflect, they might turn reflection into some programmed activity and I would say ‘no that is not what I meant’. I think, you should approach this as an artist would approach a new creative act. To work with a company, to get them to be more creative is itself a creative act on your part. Let’s say a company invites you to think with them on how they can institute more creativity in their organization. The best thing you could do is to become curious. ‘What are you doing now? Why is this a problem? What are you trying to do?’ and get very creative about this interaction.” While pondering about Ed Schein’s ideas one may sooner or later realize such an approach is not just about some ice breakers, brainstorming rules, workshop methods and post-it notes. It is a social connection between people. “There are other places where we need creativity. I think that we are entering the age of relationships and we are very, very unequipped to be creative about relationships. I think, I, you and everybody need to think about how we manage relationships and whether we could be much more creative in how we talk to each other, what our purpose in talking to each other is. I think that you and I immediately have an opportunity to be personal and say, ‘hey, cool, what are we trying to do here?’ Or you can say ‘very interesting, let me tell you about our program, what do you think of it?” One way is formal and traditional, the other is agile and cuts through to the personal “here and now.”. And immediately the relationship becomes different, right? [laughs]. We are very stagy and uncreative on how we talk to each other! Being more personal is being more artistic.”

Please access the full interview with Ed Schein here.


*“The work of art must seize upon you, wrap you up in itself, carry you away. It is the means by which the artist conveys his passion.”

Interview conducted / Article written by Raoul Pilcicki and Dirk Dobiéy

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