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Bringing Soul to the Workplace


I have found myself recently thinking about the power of art in the workplace. What is art? The Oxford Dictionary defines it as, "The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power." For the sake of this piece and in general, I dare to challenge that literary and performance categories fall into this as well. What I'd like to use art for today is to think about it through employee productivity and commitment.

Companies today are seeking ways to make their workforce more creative, more driven to take risks, more productive and determined. There are all kinds of things one can do for these. The productivity piece being the easiest to nail down: buying certain pieces of software or technology to automate or improve the tasks we do is one as is studying processes to identify redundancies or inefficiencies.

The creativity and risk taking parts are more emergent. Innovation has moved well beyond buzz-word status, now being invoked and practiced well in some places and haphazardly or superficially in others. The word practice is key in that it is a muscle that need to be exercised and requires training and guidance to do them well. It also requires permission from a company's leadership. In my own case, I am a part of my company's innovation team. It has been an interesting ride. Originally convened to "fail fast", and experiment broadly, over time the committee and our leadership have worked to define and refine how we might do this in the context of our company's goals. We defined areas we would explore and a unique method for evaluating how the leadership should examine and reflect on an idea we bring forward, which may feel strange or risky. The latter part we implemented after several initial ideas we submitted were quickly dismissed because they were considered through a daily operations lens rather than one of searching for what may come next. One thing is for sure, we are conducting innovative practices better today than we were a year ago.

Innovative and productivity practices aside, I step further back and ask how committed are employees of companies to doing their work? How inspired and supported are they to push further? In his book Drive, author Dan Pink says this comes down to three things: autonomy, mastery and purpose.

The third one is where I want to drill in coming back to art. Pink says purpose is when the work becomes bigger than the company itself. What is being done transcends profit motive and becomes intrinsically valuable to the employee and therefore emotional. As emotional, irrational creatures, this is the thing that can unhinge us in incredible ways. The reason we need art at work is best summarized for me by one of my favorite interviews with the poet David Whyte who spoke of how and why he was hired into the corporate world by a CEO who said, "The language we have in that world is not large enough for the territory that we’ve already entered". What the executive meant was, for all we aspire to do, we are not guided by soaring language and art to help us step into this new world and new challenges.

What does this look like in the real world? Think about President Kennedy saying,

"We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."

Think about a song, movie, a painting or performance that moved you at your core. This is what we owe the employees (and customers) of our companies. We should feel moved by what we do. For when we stand for something greater than ourselves, we are capable do doing great things. And art, is often what makes us see that future and believe in ourselves. Following on Kennedy's quote above, I think of when I read the book Abundance a couple years ago by Peter Diamandis. At one point he was drawing on reflection from someone at NASA who said, "Those engineers involved didn't know they were trying to do the impossible".

What vision will you paint for your company? One of quarterly profits or one of soaring purpose?

"There is no weapon on earth more powerful than the human soul on fire", Ferdinand Foch

Go Forth Boldly


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