Water Lilies and Innovation – a Guest Update
This week’s guest update is written by Fred Mandell, Ph.D, one of the founders of a consulting firm called Hothouse Innovation. Their website is http://www.hhinnovate.com/. Enjoy …
What does Claude Monet, the idiosyncratic French Impressionist painter, have in common with McDonald’s, the fast-food restaurant? At a mature age, both went through a radiMonetcal re-interpretation of their “operations” in order to re-emerge with a new, successful approach.
Detail from Monet’s Water lilies
In 1910, when French painter Claude Monet was 80 years old and much revered by the art world, he was commissioned by the French Prime Minister Clemenceau to paint a series of his “Water Lilies” for the French nation.
By this point in his career, Monet was a master of his technique. Yet, as he undertook the commission, he found himself disappointed with what he was painting on his huge canvases. He was simply repeating what he had already mastered, and his integrity would not allow him to do what he had always done. Now, nearly infirm and with failing eyesight, Monet realized he had to begin anew, to set out in the direction of what he did not know, rather than simply trying to repeat himself–and thereby becoming obsolete in his own eyes.
Monet undertook a radical reinterpretation of his own beloved water lilies. He increased his color range. He shifted his perspective. He brought the viewer closer to the subject he was painting so that the viewer now felt as though he was actually wading through the lily pond itself.
Monet, even at an advanced age, insisted upon reinventing his art and himself. He understood that just as the world would not stand still, neither should he. The result of his self-reinvention? Innovative paintings that continue to excite and inspire all who see them.
These kinds of shifts and reinventions don’t just happen in the art world. In 2003, McDonalds reported the first ever quarterly loss in its 52 year history. A change in CEOs brought in James Skinner who shifted the corporate strategy from one based on external growth through acquisition and increased numbers of stores to internal growth based on increasing same store revenues. The result of its self-reinvention? A reinvigorated McDonalds, with revenues shooting up 40% between 2002 and 2004.
In essence, McDonald CEO Skinner pulled a Monet. He shifted perspective. He demonstrated that a mature business, like a mature artist, can reinvent itself. Both the artist and the CEO used the creative approach of changing perspective.
Monet’s story is one example of a consistent pattern — great artists use their creative skills to consistently reinvent their art. Over the last 6 years, my colleague Kathleen Jordan, Ph.D., and I have been studying the approaches taken by more than 20 great artists, from da Vinci to de Kooning and Diebenkorn, regarding how they became great, and how they remained great over a long span of time.
From this study, we’ve been able to delineate seven core creative competencies. We believe that these kinds of creative skills are systematic and vital in any innovative activity. The seven core creative competencies are:
1. Preparation: Deliberately engaging in activities which predispose us to creative insight;
2. Seeing: The ability to observe without preconceived ideas;
3. Leveraging Context: Taking advantage of one’s understanding of the strategic and social environments in which one works and lives;
4. Embracing Ambiguity: Acting on opportunities presented by change and uncertainty;
5. Risk Taking: Taking action without certainty of outcome;
6. Discipline: Acting consistently whether or not one feels motivated;
7. Collaboration: Working with others towards a common end.
These core creative competencies differ from traditional “creativity techniques” often employed during the idea generation phase of an innovation effort. The seven creative competencies support innovation throughout the entire process from idea to execution.
Since these are competencies, that is, behavioral skills, they can be developed and measured. For artists like Picasso, these competencies lifted early talent to brilliance. But for others, such as Matisse and Van Gogh, whose talent was not evident in their early years, working to develop the creative competencies catapulted their efforts to a level of originality and freshness that defined a whole new direction in art.
I don’t have space here to discuss each of these competencies – let me just highlight one of these, collaboration, because what we found in our studies of the great artists may be surprising for those who see these men as solitary geniuses.
“My paintings were never done until Braque said they were done and his were never done unless I told him they were done.”
Collaboration means working with others toward a common end. We are collaborating when we:
· Believe that the outcome of collaboration will be better than what we could accomplish on our own
· Actively seek people with whom to collaborate
· Share ideas and techniques
· Experiment with ideas that come from another
· Build on others’ ideas whether or not we initially agree with them
The popular image of artists such as Picasso and Monet is that they were lone ranger, almost egomaniacal in their individuality, engaged in an isolated, Olympian search for artistic expression. When we actually look at their lives, however, we find that they understood and appreciated the collaborative exchange of ideas with other artists.
Picasso, for instance, worked very closely with George Braque. They claimed they were like mountain climbers, “tethered together” as they ascended the mountain of creative expression. In fact, they are jointly credited with the seminal breakthrough of 20th Century art—cubism—which set the stage for modern art.
Which is Braque, which Picasso?
They visited each other’s studios every day. They even made physical changes to each other’s paintings which were gratefully accepted. They worked so closely that it is often difficult to distinguish one artist’s painting from the other’s during this period. Monet also collaborated with his contemporaries, especially Manet and Pissarro. This cross-fertilization led to major breakthroughs for each of these artists. (The left-hand painting is Braque’s Le Portugais, from 1911/12. The right-hand painting is Picasso’s The Accordionist, from 1911).
As in art, so in business. When we peel the onion of how innovation occurs we rarely see it is the result of a lone innovator. Even great innovators like Thomas Edison understood the need for collaborative relationships.
Today, companies are breaking out of the mindset that innovation needs to originate from exclusively inside sources. Organizations as diverse as Procter & Gamble and Netflix are increasingly calling for innovative ideas from outside sources. These collaborative alliances build on the tradition of creative collaboration as modeled by many of the great artists.
- The information about McDonald’s comes from an ICE update of 12 Feb 07. That’s available here.
- For more on Picasso and Braque, see John Richardson’s book, A Life of Picasso, Volume II, 1907-1917 (Random House, 1996.) That’s available from Amazon here.
- For more on the seven core creative competencies, go to Hothouse Innovation, here.