— Cultural Sources of Newness

Arts and management: class and concert

The man standing in line in front of me at the Jeu de Paume theater in Aix en Provence tonight bought the last ticket to the concert “Leçon de jazz d’Antoine Hervé: Keith Jarrett.” I was about to turn away in disappointment, but the young woman at the ticket counter disappeared for a moment, then came back with a few slips in her hand: I was in luck, she said, the prefect would not be using his official box tonight so I could buy one of the best tickets in the house. So I was soon ensconced just to the left of the stage, overlooking the piano that awaited Antoine Hervé. The house was indeed completely sold out—to hear a famous French jazz pianist play and explain the art of Keith Jarrett.  As a great lover of Keith Jarrett ever since a friend gave us a recording of the Köln concert (and since hearing about the story behind that 1975 concert), I was ready to experience a magical evening.

Theatre du Jeu de Paume, Aix (photo ABA)

Theatre du Jeu de Paume, Aix (photo ABA)

Antoine Hervé embarked on a program designed to educate his audience in an entertaining way. I was primed for learning about jazz this evening because we had talked about jazz and leadership today in the class I am co-teaching with Sybren Tijmstra at the IAE business school in Aix on “arts and management”.  To my surprise, Antoine Hervé taught us that there is nothing really new about this kind of music, it draws from all the notes on the piano and all the styles that preceded it, reaching back to medieval music in Europe and across into African and Asian music styles. And I learned that Jarrett was told that what he plays is not even jazz anyway–which did not bother him, he kept playing what he wanted to play. So I stopped seeking to learn and tried to simply enjoy the music. But with the intermittent lecturing at the piano my mind wandered back over the past two days of my class.

 

Black and white keys on piano and screen (photo ABA)

Black and white keys on piano and screen (photo ABA)

The black and white keys on the piano reminded me of the business idea for the experience economy that a group of students had come up with when we challenged them to come up with new products for a zipper manufacturer: what about voice-activated zips, they suggested? Older or infirm people might find that really useful. Kids could have a great time with that kind of product too. The groups working on experience economy ideas for electricity providers, taxi companies, elevator constructors, and cleaning companies were equally creative. For example, imagine a cleaner offering you the opportunity to participate in cleaning your home in combination with a workout lesson! Starting the course off with the photographer Dewitt Jones’ film “Everyday creativity” in which he explains how he takes different perspectives in order to find the extraordinary in the ordinary and never settles for the first best answer seemed to have stimulated their group work.

One of the units we covered in the course today was artistic interventions in organizations. After explaining the approach based on my research, we asked them to work in mixed teams of managers, employees and an artist to define an issue to address and agree on a project idea.

  • One group chose to be an advertising agency in which creativity needed to be unleashed, so they decided to bring in a poet to work with the employees in a series of workshops on-site and out in the city.
  • The group that imagined it was a bottle-maker that lacked innovation avoided simply outsourcing the problem to an artist by bringing in a musician instead of pursuing their original idea of selecting a designer. The conversation the manager and the employee had with the musician suggested to them that the problem lay in the communication gaps between design and marketing departments, so they thought of processes in which the employees could engage with music to improve their cross-functional listening.
  • Another group imagined a merger between two fashion retailers that required an intervention to stimulate cooperation between the employees from the previously competing companies. They planned to launch a fashion photography competition with a leading designer, in which employees from the two parts of the company would compete together in pairs.
  • A third group was concerned about the outdated image of a local soap manufacturer, so planned to invite a filmmaker to work with the employees: they would write a script with him about the company’s history and how they envisaged its future, then make the film together.
  • The last group not only planned the intervention but started imagining what would happen in the collaboration with the artist. They decided to be a small restaurant suffering from a drop in business and profits. The manager blamed the problem on low employee motivation whereas the employees attributed the problem to the new competitor nearby who had a more interesting offer. The students decided that their imaginary restaurant company would bring in a pianist who would listened to the employees and manager, reframe their comments, and offer to observe on site for a few days. Then there would be a workshop at which the pianist would collect ideas from the employees. Outcomes could include: the employees would offer to bring their music to work, with a different playlist every day. The manager would realize that changes did indeed have to be made and he would become intrigued by the ideas from a Korean employee who described a cool restaurant in her country that could offer impulses for his place. Listening to the pianist talk about composition could inspire the employees to come up with the idea of composing menus. In other words, the group envisaged how the artist could unleash creativity and enable different ways of defining the problem to be taken seriously by reframing what the manager and the employees had said. Most importantly, they thought the manager and employees would decide to have weekly meetings to continue developing new ideas together.

The examples the students invented in class were really interesting and touched on many of the kinds of issues that my colleague, Anke Strauss, and I have found companies addressing with artistic interventions in our research in the Creative Clash project. During the debrief I was asked whether I had come across cases of companies bringing in artists to increase employee motivation. The question hit a particularly important and problematic aspect of the use of artistic interventions in organizations. The research we have been conducting at the WZB indicates that although there are reports of employees feeling more motivated at work during and after an artistic intervention, artists cannot be expected to motivate employees who are being demotivated by their managers. I recalled a particularly disturbing case of a French company in which management brought in artists from the world of the theatre, namely clowns, to improve the morale and remotivate employees after a rash of suicides had put the company in the news.  Our research has found that while artistic interventions can have many positive kinds of impacts in organizations, the positive energy can turn into cynicism if management does not follow up on the ideas that emerge and the spirit that participants experience in the “interspaces” of possibility that artistic interventions open in the organization. The results of the Creative Clash project will be presented at the closing conference in Brussels later this month (March 19th), co-hosted with the Goethe Institute.

Before I could start thinking about how the course will go tomorrow, the applause at the end of the concert brought Antoine Hervé back for an encore. He offered Satie’s “Vexations” (but played the theme and variations only once rather than 840 times as foreseen by the composer!). He was then called back again with even more intense applause: the audience clearly did not want to let him go without playing an improvisation of his own.  Suddenly there was a different energy in the space and all thoughts of my class at the business school disappeared. The pianist was no longer a teacher but purely a musician, and the theatre mood shifted from a “lecture hall” to a magical nightclub. It was hard to leave….but walking back to my hotel along the Cours Mirabeau at night is also magical.

Cours Mirabeau at night (photo ABA)

Cours Mirabeau at night (photo ABA)