The Role of Art in Innovation Skills Development

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In a previous post, we wrote about the need to bring back the Renaissance thinking: combining art with science, engineering, math, and other disciplines. Since TheArtian’s mission is to inspire and train companies to think differently on innovation we explore how artistic processes, experiences and training can work with the business world. Artistic experiences and processes can be utilized in two main ways: learning new skills and exploring new products and services. In the following article, we highlight a small number of skills (and there are many others) that we believe can be learned from the arts.

A broad range of skills contributes to innovation, and “soft skills” may be increasingly important. Some of the most integral skills in the innovation process include observation, association, questioning, visualization, and contextualization. Apparently, one’s ability to generate innovative ideas is not merely a function of a natural-born type of mind, but also a function of behavior. That means that each and every one of us can change his or her behavior to improve our creative impact; how? Instead of focusing only on delivery skills: analyzing, planning, details-oriented implementing, and disciplined executing we should balance with discovery skills: observing, questioning, experimenting, networking and associating.

Innovation Begins With an Eye

In his book “The Art of Innovation,” Tom Kelley, general manager of the Silicon Valley-based design firm IDEO, wrote about the importance of observation skills. Seeing and hearing with your own eyes and ears is, as Kelly wrote, a critical first step in improving or creating a breakthrough product. He calls this process “human inspiration”; IDEO human factors expert Leon Segal perhaps says it even better, “Innovation begins with an eye.”

Now think about art, and especially the classical period – these are paintings rich with details that you, as a viewer, need to understand and be able to put in context. The more you see art, the better your eyes become at recognizing and noticing small details that are relevant to that specific painting. Soon you will be able to understand the role of specific detail or recognize how it functions in the context. This sort of observation-fueled insight makes innovation possible. Engaging with art is proven to develop one’s observation skills, such as when research conducted by Yale University showed that students who engaged with art presented significantly more objective findings and fluidity in their differential diagnosis. Students who attended the art meetings also made significantly more written observations. How significant? 30% more!

This ability to observe can eventually develop into the ability to understand and put things in context as well as make connections between things – in art, these connections could mark periods, techniques, locations and subjects.

But what other skills can art bring? In today’s business world, we hear a lot about design thinking methods. Some of the ideas and tools in design thinking are rapid prototyping and empathize with customers to discover their needs. It is a common saying that “A picture is worth a thousand words” and for that matter, one real prototype can save you hours of explanations to managers and customers. So in order to be able to convey messages and create experiences, it is important to have developed Visualization and mapping skills.

Les Menines, Diego Velazquez 1656 , Museo del Prado, Madrid
Les Menines, Diego Velazquez 1656 , Museo del Prado, Madrid

When you engage with art, you move between space and time. You learn how artists represent ideas, philosophies, and messages through painting, sculptures, or videos. By watching these artworks, you can learn how to deliver a message and present ideas. The ability to understand different periods and schools in art, and more importantly to learn how to form connections and show the flow between one period and another, allows you to develop your mapping and contextualization skills, which are highly relevant in the innovation space. In an article that was published in the Economist, Baiju Shah, Managing director for strategy and innovation in Accenture, wrote about the modern Liquid Expectations of customers. The main message was that “As customer experiences with any product category affect how customers experience products in other categories previously thought to be unrelated, all businesses need to add new dimensions to how they understand and define their competitive strategy. This attention to connections (or what we can call associating) is critical for companies and this where being able to put things in context and map around the space you operate enters the equation.

As you can see, many relevant skills that improve innovation can be taught by art. The influence of art-based training on innovation was tested for adolescents, and a strong relationship between arts-based training and improved creativity skills and innovation outcomes was proven. How strong? The innovation outputs of teams who had arts-based training showed 111% greater insight into the challenge, a 74% greater ability to clearly identify a relevant problem, a 43% improvement in problem solving, and 68% more impact.

Many more skills can be learnt from the arts, in various relevant forms: creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, and communication are just some examples. For business managers who are looking to lead their companies ahead, we recommend exploring new ways to train and educate first and foremost themselves and later their teams because the bottom line is: can your company be competitive in ten years from now without innovation?

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