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Creative collaboration: What business can learn from artists

Artists have an interesting angle on navigating the human experience. What can we learn from them?

Solving complex problems in groups is something all humans do, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have lots to learn. One source of inspiration is artists, who have an interesting angle on navigating human experience.

Drawing on almost a decade of collaboration projects with award-winning artists from all over the world, here are a few artistic threads that business leaders can pull on as they look to get the best out of their people in collaboration.

Engage emotional range

Business is waking up to the importance of emotion at work, but we remain much more comfortable with ‘positive’ emotions. By contrast, artists swim around in the depths, finding value and beauty in difficult emotions. And it’s true: anger can unlock progress; sadness is part of integrating with loss. In collaboration, we will get hit by some difficult emotions (doubt, anxiety, frustration, disappointment), so will we avoid them or use them?

Open up to ambiguity

Business rewards clear vision and the ability to plan and manage delivery. But artists know that getting a little lost is an important part of every discovery. My latest project The Mixup had 41 artists in six global cities deliberately mixing up their creative process. In each city (Istanbul, Beirut, Cape Town, Medellín, London and LA) each artist started a piece of work, which was then taken and worked on by a second artist, and finished by a third. Opening up to the ideas and vision of others offers no guarantees, but you won’t know until you try.

Embrace symbols and textures

Business values clear compelling ideas. But all the PowerPoint leaves us missing the point and drained of power. Meanwhile, artists make meaning by prioritising textures and symbols as much as ideas. Artists ask: What does this evoke? What does this represent? What does this feel like? We saw this firsthand at Let’s Go when we turned our model for collaboration from a slide deck into a colourful deck of cards you can play. A card deck is a symbol – one that evokes the grounded, eye-to-eye, open conversations we hoped to foster – and it shifted people’s energy.

Make it memorable

Business prioritises being sensible but artists know the magic of being memorable. The absurd, the shocking, and the surprising all unlock new conversations and possibilities. In February we were with the top 70 of a global business, thinking practically about how collaboration could enable an ambitious strategic plan. As a finale, we turned conversations into sculptures, working with artist/designer Nick Williamson. Leaders selected aluminium discs whose bright colours represented different priorities, and we made our day of conversation into a fine-art infographic. Being wrist-deep in superglue was messy but it made the memory.

Richard Watkins is founder of collaboration specialists Let’s Go and initiator of several global arts collaborations including #globalmixup and The Airmail Project

Further reading

The five key collaboration challenges