Eric Schmidt, former CEO and now Executive Chairman at Google, once put it this way: “Let’s be clear about what we are claiming: As business becomes more dependent on knowledge to create value, work becomes more like art. In the future, managers who understand how artists work will have an advantage over those who don’t.[1] Philippe Rixhon, a leader at the junction of arts, business and technology, also comments that “many business sectors would benefit from adopting some of the theatre world’s basic creation practices related to innovation leadership. By recognizing the interdependence of leadership, management and coaching in the dynamic, situational and cultural innovation context, businesses should identify, attract and retain the leaders they cannot train and accept that a nurturing innovation culture depends on an ever evolving leadership.”[2] Benjamin Zander, the director of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, during a TED conference, vividly illustrates his love for classical music, which he believes to be so powerful as to change people’s perception of the world. But he also states that we are witnessing a shift in leadership from a model where the leader has to “be ahead” and “dominate,” to a model based on symphony. In this panorama, the “Us” prevails on the “I”, and the leader, as the conductor, has to rely “on his ability to make other people powerful.”[3]
Leadership in the information age is a task of creating safe collaboration experiences in which curiosity, creativity, collaboration and open communication can flourish and where failure is not sanctioned but encouraged as part of the overall path to success. “Managers who develop an atmosphere of safety put new glasses on everyone’s emotional eyes.”[4] Leadership in art-based processes requires faith in people, yet interest in what they do and letting go without being absent. Leaders become coaches and masters of ceremony for processes and people. Keeping a good balance is certainly not an easy task as ultimately a leader is also made accountable for a result, not just for creating a positive atmosphere. We call this leadership style studio leadership, relating to the working environments, for instance, found in design, architecture and engineering. The realm of design, architecture and engineering has tackled the problem of solving multivalent problems by the use of iteration and critique in collaborative groups. As two of the oldest “knowledge work” professions, practical techniques for innovation have been developed and passed down. Elders teach young people not only the skills of drafting, but also of problem solving, using systems devised to meet the thousands of often conflicting design requirements that go into a mid-sized building. They also feel a compassion for humans and humanity that is inherent in the act of making shelter beyond the joy of form-making and problem solving that most architects experience. There is a very strong ideological paradigm within the architectural community a desire to Make Things Better. We have noticed in our early interviews that this trait is commonly paired with an artistic mind, in contrast to the pure business mind of Making Money.

Over the centuries, architects have created a set of conventions around the “Design Studio” that promote and support the solving of large, complex and fluid problems where a large number of different approaches need to be considered on the way to developing a final solution. This requires testing multiple approaches, where most will “fail” or be discarded—so the tendency to become attached to a particular solution is quickly unlearned. These design environments are the most productive when the exploration of different possibilities is encouraged. Not only are there no negative consequences for the failure of an idea, but it is understood that going forward with the first idea almost always means that one hasn’t taken the time to find the best solution. These environments and the leadership that creates them tend be encouraging, supportive, kind, collaborative, and responsive. In fact, such environments are where innovation lives.

At the same time, what is produced is examined minutely through group or manager critiques. The group critique method employed in the design studio allows individuals to leverage the experience and opinions of their colleagues, and to expand and deepen one another’s proposals. To do this well, group members cannot be in overt competition for resources, but instead they must be highly engaged, motivated and believe that they can actualize what they propose.

Facets of cultures created by Studio Leadership:

Desired: Discouraged:
Innovation Fear
Invention Power Structures
Creativity Embarrassment
Exploration Hierarchy
Play Judgment
Iteration Stress
Critique Criticism
Collaboration Competition
Facilitation Restriction and Indifference
Respect Degradation

This mindset leads to high innovation and productivity, which generates revenue and visibility. Although not usually framed in this way, the overwhelming business need of the architectural design studio (and post technology revolution companies) is the output of creative and innovative design solutions, so most management styles are modeled to encourage those behaviors. It is not possible to be innovative while fearful, creative while stressed, playful while disrespected. It is difficult for a leader to create these attributes alone, as they have to be embraced and perpetuated by all members of the group, but leaders set the example.

Business leaders striving to create company cultures where creativity flourishes can adopt the precedent of studio leadership by creating safe and at the same time challenging places where people trust one another and can think, breathe, test, explore, create, erase, ideate, critique, and collaborate.

What have your experiences been with Studio Leadership?

[1] Rob Austin and Lee Devin (2003), Artful Making: What Managers Need to Know about How Artists Work. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, p 1.
[2] P. Rixhon (2008). “Innovation leadership: Best practices from theatre creators” in Führung, Innovation und Wandel (Becker L. et al., eds.), pp. 197-215, Symposion.
[3] Adopted from Valeria Cantoni, “Leadership through the eyes of classical music,” Art for business group on LinkedIn, quoting Benjamin Zander at TED.
[4] Richard Farson & Ralph Keyes, The Innovation Paradox, 2002, Excerpt on Ralph Keyes Website.

Picture Source: Kirsten Gay

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