Working with the Undercurrents
What tomorrow’s leaders can learn from artists.
In 1993, when president of the National University of Bogotá Antanas Mockus was confronted with a protesting crowd of students who wouldn’t let him speak, he dropped his trousers and mooned them, later explaining: “Innovative behavior can be useful when you run out of words.”
The problem is that we usually don’t run out of words. The practice of consultancy and organization in general is characterized by a lot of words, written in reports or PowerPoint presentations, spoken in meetings and training sessions. Furthermore, these words often emphasize the SMART, the objective and rational, the tangible, the efficient. So much of what we (leaders, managers, consultants) do is bound by a limited view of what our work is about; we discard the fringes, the small stories, the symbolic, the emotional—what I call the undercurrent in the practice of organization. This is a story about what leaders can learn from art and artists to expand this view and thus their toolkit while confronting wicked social problems.
Finding the Missing Link
For the past ten years I have been a musician and a consultant, but it took me some time to realize I was a boundary spanner. A few years ago I introduced myself to Dutch innovation expert Matthieu Weggeman, downplaying the fact that (only a few days before) I sang my songs in front of 5,000 people at the Lowlands Festival, a longtime dream. Instead, I tried to come across as a real consultant, tie and frown and everything. When Matthieu found out about my double life, he used the term “boundary spanner” to explain that I had something special to bring to the world of organization. This summer, when I had the privilege to talk to the Amani Institute class of 2013 about what leaders can learn from artists, I could draw from the experience of working together with artists and social designers on more than thirty different projects.
Our company, Geen Kunst, is part of the larger Twynstra Gudde consulting firm. One of our projects took place in the northern province of Groningen—one of the few places besides the port of Rotterdam and the Delta works where our small country really looks big. The area contains some large (coal) factories towering over green fields and the ports that connect them to the Eems-Dollard estuary, where the fresh water of the Eems river meets the salt water of the Waddenzee. Here, environmental NGOs had been meeting in court—a lot—with stakeholders looking to exploit the economic opportunities of space and closeness to the sea and river. Now they were about to sign a petition to ensure that their collaboration would continue in the coming years. It was a milestone moment, but the program leader of the province of Groningen sensed that something was missing. Are we really in it together? Are these stakeholders thinking about mutual gains and a common future, or does the petition run the risk of being a ”dead document,” with stakeholders running back to the courtroom before the ink is dry?
My colleagues at Twynstra Gudde did a fine job getting all the interests on the table. And it really did seem that there were enough reasons for the parties to work together. So what was missing? Geen Kunst got involved, and we had two social designers research the problem, focusing more and more not on the main issues, such as how much expansion of the ports in the area is sustainable considering the significant ecological value of the Waddenzee and the Eems-Dollard estuary in the area (my colleagues had thoroughly explored those), but on the framing of the project as a whole and the physical context in which it took place. One of our earliest observations was that the name of the project, “Economy and Ecology in Balance,” used a metaphor that is essentially zero-sum: A balance can shift, but if one side goes up, the other goes down. It seems hard to envision a common future and to explore mutual gains if the collaboration is framed as a balance.
Our little team created a new design for the collaboration, inspired by the brackish estuary. CLUB M (short for Manifestuarium) would become the (informal) new name for the collaboration. It had its own flag and a clubhouse. The signing of the petition that marked the start of CLUB M took place on a lift, towering 12 meters above the fields, overlooking the area. CLUB M is not about ecology or economy. It’s not fresh or salt. It’s brackish and rich, like the future of the area. Months later, officials from The Hague would ask the project leader, “What is this ‘CLUB M’ everybody is talking about?” (You can watch a short Dutch film about CLUB M here.)
My point here is that some problems need something else besides our usual efficient approach. And we can find that something within the contexts of our work, our projects, our communities—if we learn to look for it.
Art Is Not Magic
Antanas Mockus, in the aftermath of the mooning incident described earlier in this piece, had to resign as the university president. But he went on to become the mayor of Bogotá. Trying to solve the huge traffic safety problem of the city, he realized that there is one thing that Colombians hate more than being fined. It’s being ridiculed. So he hired 420 mimes to roam the streets of Bogotá, mirroring rude behavior, and passing out thumbs-up and thumbs-down cards to unsafe drivers. It probably irritated the hell out of Bogotá’s drivers—but traffic fatalities dropped by over 50 percent!
Art is not magic; most artists are not all that different from other people. However, many of them developed a skill or asset that most of us haven’t: a fascination for the undercurrent in our society, in our social encounters, in our practices, in our organizations. Working together with artists, I have learned to live with the existential question of “Am I an artist?” and love my place in between, spanning the boundary between these worlds without trying to erase it.
Here are some of the things I’ve learned about how to become more sensitive to the undercurrent in your work:
- Look for and listen to the small stories, not just the big ones.
- Expect the irrational and emotional; as humans, it is always there.
- Focus on what you see and sense, not just what you hear.
- Look at the fringe, the edges—many interesting things happen there, almost out of sight.
- When you don’t want to go somewhere because of fear or shame or other reasons, that’s often just the reason to go there.
These are all things that I have learned from artists and social designers, while they were trying to make sense of our world, researching why we do what we do. I am still sometimes startled by what some of our artists see that I missed, but I have learned that the undercurrent in our working environments can become a resource instead of a trap.
That’s what leaders of tomorrow can learn—and maybe need to learn—from artists.