How The Arts Help Great Companies 'Unlearn'

Strategy

Why get the arts? Because the arts are the foundation of the creative society. Einstein once said, “The greatest scientists are artists as well” and, about himself, “I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination.”

The arts are a powerful means by which individual and collective imaginations are stirred. This is now recognised in Australia’s innovation agenda with the Federal Minister for the Arts, Senator Fifield, acknowledging the current focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education requires the addition of Arts to enable a STEAM approach. 

“YgetArts” is, as the imaginative reader may realise, “strategy” spelt backwards.

In today’s world of rapid change, our ideas of what defines strategy must be turned around. We must be creative in our thinking to see the world, our organisations and ourselves in completely different ways. It may be that the last one, ourselves, is the most difficult to change.

In her classic text, Passages, Gail Sheehy writes of her extensive research on predictable crises in adult life. But she doesn’t call them crises; rather, passages. Passages through which we must pass about every 10 years if we are to be successful in the next phase of life. 

Each passage, from one decade to another, requires us to slough off what has made us effective in the past. Logic would dictate that this does not make sense and this is where the challenges are – in overcoming our own resistance to change ourselves.

Unlearning the past

It is said, “It’s not that people don’t like change, they just don’t like changing themselves.”

This change is about unlearning our past, letting go of how we see the world. This is not to say we must forget everything we have learned. It is about freeing ourselves to choose new mental models by which we see the world. Where learning is about adding new skills, unlearning is about removing ourselves from the mental models we have previously used to select and apply new ones.

Leaders of organisations need to help people unlearn what has made them successful in the past. As with most challenges, the point of departure must be the recognition that our, and our organisation’s, current mental models are no longer effective. 

New paradigms for a new world

The next challenge is to identify new paradigms that are relevant to the new world. Many strategy models, for example, do not take account of the rapid scale-up that defines success in a heavily disrupted sector. It’s not that traditional models do not work. They just need to be supplemented with new perspectives that better enable us to understand what is happening1.


The work of change then turns to repeatedly using the new frames of reference to embed them within ourselves and our organisations.

To turn your ideas on strategy around, try answering these two questions:

1. What three things must you unlearn to be successful in your next phase of life, starting tomorrow?

2. What two things must your organisation unlearn for it to be successful, rapidly?

A visit to a local gallery or a live performance might just be the catalyst you need to think creatively about these questions. 

In doing so, you might also get an understanding of just how powerful the arts can be in helping us to see the world differently.

  • John Barrington is a leading strategy and governance expert, and founder of Barrington Consulting Group. For more information, email john.barrington@barrington.com.au
     

 

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