Collage based on Caspar David Friedrich Wanderer Above the Sea Fog

Make space for playing: Interview with Tim Leberecht (Part 1)

Dirk Dobiéy Business, Insights, Interview, Organization Leave a Comment

A couple of years ago I came across an article by Tim Leberecht on what entrepreneurs can learn from artists which made it immediately into my list of top reads of that year. I was fascinated by the ease at which Tim connected multiple somewhat known but not necessarily related points into a coherent whole. Tim must have realized long ago that every innovation in some way is a derivative of what exists. This realization gave him permission to use, reuse and mash-up without hesitation, so that new, original work is created. The same is true for his most recent book The Business Romantic, a wonderful contribution to better business and towards developing room for ambiguity, uncertainty, emotions and even the unconscious so that we can make space for our diverse and complex identities. Tim’s book is another piece of evidence for a development we are witnessing: more and more people join in trying to re-establish a necessary balance in society, business and life similar to what humanity accomplished in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and that we refer today as German Idealism. At Age of Artists we as well think the time has come – again – to look differently at many things and in particular to revisit the idea of man, as alluded to by German painter Aris Kalaizis who stated that “we need to develop another idea of man if we want to lead change.” To us, it seems a yet unspecified avant-garde all over the world has already developed a certain readiness for change. They see clearly not only what needs to be changed in society, business or elsewhere for the better, but they also want to know how to possibly be the change themselves; both for themselves and for everyone on the planet. Tim calls it Romantic; we call it Age of Artists. We might want to agree to call this unspecified, diverse, larger than life movement Global Idealism!

We all know when reading a book thoughts and questions come up. When reading Tim’s book I noted them down and used them for this conversation. That’s why the questions may look unrelated and somehow arbitrary – simply because they represent things that came up when meandering the German version of The Business Romantic.

Dirk: Tim, in your book The Business Romantic you mention you learned most about collaboration when you played in a band. Please tell us about your key learnings.

Tim: I learned to listen, not only to the music but also to the presence of my fellow musicians. I learned how to read their play, and also the subtle cues of their body language, the tone of their voice. As for the music itself, I learned to appreciate the concept of “blue notes,” the notes that were “worried” and not pitch perfect.

Furthermore, performing our songs taught me when to lead and when to follow. When you make music in front of a live audience, in the recording studio, or in the rehearsal room, you learn to practice humility, in the sense of being aware of your role in the world and your contribution relative to that of others. Sometimes you’re too loud, sometimes too quiet. Sometimes you’re too fast, sometimes you’re too slow. I learned to appreciate how fragile any collaboration is, how much you depend on others, and how just one false tone can derail the entire endeavor. Every project is built on sand. What matters is how quickly you can move on it and how well you can adjust and stay up on your feet.

Another valuable lesson was: When you have an idea, don’t withhold it. Don’t be coy, don’t wait for the right time. The time to play is always now! Play, no matter what, always offer to play! Don’t be afraid of being vulnerable. On stage, I learned what it means to lose control, turn yourself inside out, and invite strangers to feel with you, to be with you, for a limited period of time.

The recording studio had some other lessons for me: For example, adding another track does not expand the sound, it reduces it. The richest and most intense recordings you can conjure are those with a single instrument and a voice. This is not an argument against collaboration, but sometimes inclusiveness and complex structures are the enemies of excellence. Austerity holds tremendous power. And the slimmest margins decide over success or failure.

All of these learnings helped me in business. When you’re in business together, you create together, you play together. You must earn your audience again and again. You are like a street musician, exposed to the direct, honest, and often brutal feedback from the marketplace. And you can’t hide, no matter how hard you try. People will always see you even if you decide to not to be seen. They will always receive even if you refuse to give.

Dirk: You just mentioned play. In your book you also suggest organizations to create “space for playing”. How do you suggest connecting or separating these spaces from or with the operational side of business?

Tim: Space to play must not be separated from business. A romantic organization is serious about play. It is comfortable with opposing truths and parallel worlds. It offers up escapes from business to become better at business. These escape paths can be small interventions, small “hacks” of the workday, such as launching a secret society at work, inviting colleagues to meetings with no apparent purpose, wandering without a map, and swapping desks or even roles. They can include the gamification of workplace and customer experiences, for example through Alternate Reality Games (ARG) or Live-Action Role Paying (LARP), and increasingly also Augmented or Virtual Reality applications. All of these interventions are inherently romantic: they play with alter egos and multiple identities, and express the fervent belief that another world is possible, that reality is just a construct of mind. As the romantic poet John Keats put it: “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections, and the truth of imagination.” There is no objective truth, just artifice. For the romantic, authenticity is what feels true, not necessarily what is true. The only way to enter this gray zone is play.

The romantic organization is broken, like the romantic is broken: lost, flawed, erratic, incoherent, and inconsistent, but always striving for intensity, for something new and challenging, something to be passionate about, and even if it’s just desire itself. It is the friction, the discomfort that grants us meaning.

Dirk: Such an organization needs to treat everyone as an individual. How do we need to design organizations in which we can express our intellectual, emotional, and even spiritual needs?

Tim: Although business is arguably the most important operating system of our lives, we have mostly divorced it from our emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs. With my book, The Business Romantic, I propose that we broaden our perspective and bring our full selves to work—not just as hyper-efficient productivity machines, but as the enigmatic and struggling individuals that we are.

We must reclaim the language of business—that has infiltrated so many, if not all, aspects of our lives—and expand the common vocabulary of efficiency and productivity with new definitions of what it means to do business together, to be in a good company. Emotional intelligence, a happy workforce, and meaning should be the end, not the means.

I’m currently planning a research project in collaboration with an organizational behavior scholar with the goal to model a truly humane human enterprise. The idea is to use insights from neuroscience, anthropology, evolutionary psychology, and other fields to make the human case for business rather than the business case for more humane business. A study by Johnson & Johnson claims that for every dollar invested in employee happiness and wellbeing a company gains four dollars in productivity. But what if we strayed from this ROI thinking and focused only on the experience and not the end result? What if markets were indeed “sympathetic communities for social exchange,” as the philosopher Robert Solomon once submitted? What would be the implications for a company’s organizational design?

I believe we need to take a radically humanist perspective to counter the pervasive dehumanization of work, propelled by the rise of datafication and quantification. I’m worried about the quantified-self movement going corporate, as data-driven decision-making (from programmatic media buying to algorithmic hiring), sensing, tracking devices, telematics, and sociometric applications are turning the workplace into what Douglas Rushkoff calls an “algorithmic battleground.” The quantification of everything is taking the business mantra of “you can only manage what you measure” as an invitation to measure every single aspect of our lives. “Only the measured life is a good life,” we now seem to believe, and we are eager to apply the principle of optimization to “softer” qualities such as happiness and wellbeing. We want to get better at happiness, get better at friendship, get better at love, get better at meaning, but we no longer know how to value what we cannot measure, we have forgotten to appreciate that the best things in life are those that can’t be optimized. That very romantic principle is in jeopardy if we force the inexplicable, the intangible into a mere number. This great quantification is indeed the new bureaucracy, the new Taylorism of our times. In her New York Times op-ed on the perils of optimization, Virginia Heffernan called the Apple Watch “a mini Gulag, optimized just for me,” insinuating that optimization is essentially a totalitarian reflex.

The Singularity University (whose mission is to “solve humanity’s grand challenges”) has been promoting a new concept called Exponential Organizations: organizations that grow exponentially because they are powered by “exponential technology.” At its core lies the belief in artificial or super-intelligence trumping human decision-making. In a recent article one of its evangelists contended that automation would mark the end of meaningless jobs for it would free us from mundane, mind-numbing, monotonous tasks. I find that naïve. We don’t need more “exponential organizations,” we need organizations that are exponentially more human. We need more room for our emotional, unpredictable, elusive un-quantified selves. We need more Dr. Watson and less Sherlock Holmes. We need more beautiful organizations (Rafael Ramirez has written extensively about the aesthetic dimensions of management)—more romantic organizations.

The first order of business for such romantic organization is to be radically self-aware, that is, to be aware of its emotional, intellectual, and spiritual landscape. This can only happen if one of its leaders, or THE leader, has the propensity to the vagaries and whimsies of the human enterprise. I know this may sound touch-feely, but I believe that it really all comes down to the following basic traits: Does he or she have a big heart? Is she or he someone who can suffer? Can your organization suffer? Can it truly feel with others? And does it pursue something greater than itself?

At the individual level, the best way to act like a business romantic is to feel like a business romantic. And the best way to feel like a business romantic is to carve out small spaces at work in which we allow ourselves and our colleagues to be idiosyncratic and vulnerable. Whether small, private dinners; “Thick Days” in which we spend the whole day only with one colleague and one task and one project, without any digital distractions and without being thinly stretched across various channels and media; or underground meetings with like-minded spirits: all these formats offer great opportunities to slowly introduce a romantic (sub-)culture and build some romantic muscle in our organizations.

That said, culture might not be the correct term. Workplace expert and author Shawn Murphy has introduced a new term in this context that is perhaps more congenial to the romantic: “climate.” While culture is the collection of values, beliefs, words, and behaviors, the climate of an organization is made of vibes, sentiments, and moods—the implicit, unsaid, and nonverbal.

The prerequisite for a romantic climate is that an organization has what the original romantic poets called “negative capacity”: the ability to tolerate doubt, uncertainty, and inner tension. It requires an organization willing to leave some space undefined and open-ended. It requires an organization with a, for lack of a better word, soul—a secret, a deep truth, or a foundational myth at its heart that may never be revealed.

Part 2 of this interview will be released next week.

Find out more about Tim.
Picture Source: Wikipedia Commons and Tim Leberecht


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