To Cultivate Innovation – Work like an Artist

To Cultivate Innovation - Work like an ArtistInnovation calls for so much more than just hard work.  If all it took was hard work we’d already be successful because we work long and hard these days (who doesn’t?). Hard work is definitely part of the formula but there is another ingredient needed before the hard work will pay off. When seeking innovation we typically ask, “How do we get ideas?” But that’s the wrong question. I don’t think we get ideas; I think ideas get us. Artists routinely say their best ideas seem to come from outside of themselves and what they do is give form to those ideas through whatever medium they are working in, be it painting, sculpture, dance, music, film, or literature.

Learning from Artists

So the better question to ask is “How do we put ourselves in a frame of mind where we can receive inspiration when it comes to us?” Artists have been wrestling with this question for millennia. Here are some things I see artists do when they work:·        They immerse themselves in their subjects. Actors immerse themselves in the personalities and histories of their characters, painters do sketch after sketch of an image, and musicians experiment with many different sequences of notes and tempos.·        They collaborate. Many forms of art require effective collaboration between groups of people with complementary skills. For instance people in film, theater and dance work closely with lighting designers, costume designers, musicians, photographers etc. They combine different ideas from the people they work with to give form to their art.·        They play with different ideas. They don’t dismiss an idea just because it seems strange at first. They try out different combinations of movement, light, costumes, and music to see what happens. Innovation occurs when a certain combination of ideas suddenly reveals a simple underlying pattern that ties the work together and expresses what the artistic work is about. This is the proverbial “Aha!” moment. Artists say they know the inspiration is authentic if they have an intellectual, emotional, and physical response to it. Once that happens, there’s a flurry of activity as people flesh out their inspiration and give it shape. During this period, artists work long hours; they become single-minded about bringing their ideas into tangible form and presenting them to the world.

The Challenge of Making Something New

Extrapolating from the way artists work, I see four basic practices that the innovative business person needs to cultivate in order to excel:

1.      Immerse yourself in the business. It almost goes without saying that you should have a good grasp of the concepts, rules, and systems that guide the business operations of your company. This means a good working understanding of how each business activity fits into the overall business, how the work in each activity is performed, and what the cost and profit factors are.

2.      Collaborate frequently. Business people need to innovate in the face of high levels of complexity in both business processes and technology. Complexity can be handled more easily if groups of people from marketing, sales, operations, finance and information technology work together, bringing their complementary skills to bear on a problem. The innovative executive orchestrates this process.

3.      Tolerate uncertainty. It is an act of discipline and sometimes of courage to immerse oneself in the details of a problem and resist the temptation to rush to judgment about what should be done. Because of the complexity inherent in most business problems, it is unlikely that the first few ideas to come along will be truly innovative. Don’t dismiss ideas just because they defy preconceived notions, and don’t give in to pressure to start building something before you get the inspiration you need.

4.      Look for simple patterns – for this is where the “Aha!” moments lie. Look for designs where all the elements fit together in a simple, logical, and complementary fashion. Remember that complex designs for new systems or business operations usually signify that solutions have not been completely explored. When you find a simple combination of workflow processes and technology that satisfy a wide variety of business requirements, only then do you know you have an innovative design.

And here’s something else to consider. Once a big project is finished or a big show is over, artists leave town and take time off. Being innovative and creative is emotionally and physically taxing. Artists feel drained after they’ve done good work. They take time to recharge. We business people need to do the same. Otherwise all work and no play can make us awfully dull.

Join the global innovation community

Don’t miss a post (3,200+) – Subscribe to our RSS feed and join our Innovation Excellence group!

Michael Hugos is a principal at Center for Systems Innovation [c4si], finding elegant solutions to complex problems; mentoring teams in agile development. He can be reached via his website at





Three things you didn’t know about credit cards

By Hubert Day | October 18, 2023

Photo by Ales Nesetril on Unsplash Many of us use credit cards regularly. From using them for everyday purchases to…

Read More

Five CV skills of a business-minded individual

By Hubert Day | September 21, 2023

Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash The skills listed on a CV help employers quickly understand your suitability for a…

Read More

No Comments

  1. Colin Crabtree on September 12, 2011 at 4:58 am

    @Michael, Nice comparison between artistic thought process, creativity and innovation. I would go further to say that you not only have to immerse yourself in your business but you must immerse yourself in your customers, be the customer so to speak to the point you visualize the end result of your customer using your new product (assuming a product related business).

    Too many companies are inwardly focused and customer centricity is an important aspect of why we drive innovation in the work place.

    • Michael Hugos on September 12, 2011 at 3:01 pm

      You are right about also being knowledgeable about the company”s customers as well as the company””s internal operations. We are in that transition time when successful companies are shifting from an inside-out view of the world to an outside-in view. Business is now about plugging into business ecosystems of customers and suppliers and understanding how to position yourself in that ecosystem to maximize the value-add you deliver to both customers and suppliers.

  2. Rob on September 12, 2011 at 7:52 am

    Yes, as a professional actor I can say that I immerse myself in the character, however: let me say that what is most important is the context of the story. If I don’t understand the story, then I have little context into which my interpretation of the character fits, and I could display a character that would seem ill fit to the story.

    So I ask the question as to what level the worker bees like me are actually told what the story is. I’m a carpenter. I am rarely asked design questions or the like because apparently we are deemed incapable of assisting in such decisions. My boss has never been a carpenter. So it’s sure easy for them to make arbitrary choices with little thought given to how it impacts the labor side of it, and what visual impact is required by the labor end of it.

    In that regard, innovation needs to democratize the work place a bit, and I’m not so sure that many bosses like that idea. Those of us who think as well as do get the idea we’re underpaid. So innovation needs to also address how the company is run efficiently, which I know some of these articles I read have stated. But then maybe my ideas will work better somewhere else.

    And yes, after a couple months of rehearsal, which for our Shakespearean company includes in the rain, and for the last two weeks means every night after work, and then the month of shows, it’s all over. The set comes down. And rest is needed. Again, innovation needs to address how we do that in our current and perhaps outdated idea of “vacation” time.

    All in all I like what I read here. It’s quite refreshing. Thanks!

    • Michael Hugos on September 12, 2011 at 3:11 pm

      I hear you on your comments that many bosses don’t want to give up control and like to micromanage their people. That’s a bad habit left over from the last century of the industrial economy when things were simpler and slower. These days the companies that really get it are the ones where management says WhAT they want but the people who actually do the work have authority to figure out HOW to do it. A good example of this kind of operating model is Whole Foods Market, the grocery store chain. They have a model that says once management lays out the quarterly objectives (WHAT) then they get out of the way and let people at the scene of the action figure out HOW to get the job done. And people’s total compensation has a large percentage (10-30% or more) composed of performance bonuses paid on a quarterly basis.

      I also hear you on the need to democratize the workplace a bit more than at present. A company is not exactly a democracy and senior management always have final say, but to be successful and motivate employees to do their best there does need to be greater transparency in operations and finance so people know what is gong on and can participate effectively and so people trust that their performance bonuses are being calculated and paid fairly. I think the trust that is created is the glue that makes all the rest – the innovation and the motivation and the resultant successes – possible. Without honest transparency it all turns into slogans and blah-blah-blah that doesn’t fool anybody and that doesn’t motivate or give people a reason to care or strive to succeed.

  3. Christof Zürn on September 14, 2011 at 6:27 am

    Hi Michael,

    I like the comparison between the arts, if we don’t take it too literally we can learn so many things from it. I get the most inspiration from music. Especially from everything about music like how does bands get together, how can you promote a musical style, develop your team. Especially the last one is something I don’t see or hear often in organizations and it starts with ‘getting the right people in the band’.

    Would be an interesting approach to start a company or project like you would set up a band or orchestra. I call these inspiration Music Thinking.
    One example is a post I wrote last week about Miles Davis, maybe you like it:

    kind regards and thanks for your post

    • Michael Hugos on September 14, 2011 at 1:58 pm

      Hi Christof,

      I like your idea of “Music Thinking”. Many years ago IBM did a study and found that the best programmers and system designers had a background in music composition, not math or engineering. I think you understand why that is and are not surprised by what the IBM study revealed.

      I checked out your blog post. You are onto a good idea there. Please keep developing this theme.

      Best regards,

  4. Janice Maffei on September 15, 2011 at 5:01 pm

    Michael, thanks for this provocative story. I’d like to connect it to the One Big Idea of Paola Antonelli, a senior curator at MOMA, from this summer’s Aspen Ideas Festival: Bring Your Artist to Work Day. In describing it, she said, “Let’s start treating museums as the R&D departments of society…” It harmonizes with an idea I pitched in my graduate creative writing program last year – “Poet-At-Your-Meeting.” We’ve got to get one world nourishing the other. And soon! Here’s a link to Paola’s idea:

    • Michael Hugos on September 15, 2011 at 7:45 pm

      Hi Janice,

      That is a great idea – “Let’s start treating museums as the R&D departments of society…” Please make an introduction for me to Paola Antonelli – I tried the link you gave here but I get a “Page Not Found” error on the Atlantic website.

      We do need to get one world nourishing the other. My wife is in the arts, dance, and business has a lot to learn from the arts and arts needs the support of business. I know this.

      Please let me know how to move this idea forward.

      Best regards,

  5. Jeannette Browning on September 28, 2011 at 8:40 am

    It is when the “Aha!” moment is reached by others & how it can help them that inspires me to keep innovating!

Leave a Comment