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Your Company’s Future Depends on Artists and Activists I know what you are thinking: If this is true then

tough times are ahead, because it is hard to know which has less interest in the other, the business world or the artists and activists. An executive who I once worked for and revered said: “There is no such thing as luck; there is only professionalism.” Guided by this and similar beliefs, we, the legions of MBAs of the 80’s and 90’s, labored to learn the tools of professional management. Our vision: Orchestrating a discliplined and orderly path to clearly measurable increases in shareholder value year after year -- without breaking a sweat. How amazing, then, that Artistic sensibilities and Activist temperaments, often considered the antithesis of professionalism, should turn out to be professionalism’s ideal complements and salvation. Artists? There is a critical difference between a Professional and an Artist: A Professional has learned from their own or others’ experience how to skillfully apply the right technique in each situation. An Artist finds ways to create or exploit previously unknown situations. Matthew S. Olson, et al wrote in their HBR article “When Growth Stalls”: “Of particular concern today is the shrinking half-life of established business models”. There is so much change that even carefully crafted business models often last only 4 years. So the current business world is almost nothing but uncharted situations. The seasoned professional is no match for this pace and magnitude of change. How to harness this force.  Be Artists more often
Neither innate creativity nor genious is required to “be an Artist more often”. Jonah Lehrer’s new book How Creativity Works describes what is now known about of how innovative ideas are born and how anyone can trigger breakthrough ideas. We all just need to give ourselves encouragement to drive in new directions -- before we have to do so because our current route is blocked.

Bring out the Artist in our employees
Not everyone will naturally use the encouragement. “Bringing out the Artist in our employees” takes active leadership. In 2001 we, the executive team of

the Agilent Life Sciences and Chemical Analysis business, knew we were in a bind: We needed to enter the emerging Life Sciences markets and had no investment funds to do it; we were fully invested in the more mature, low growth chemical analysis business. To free up investment dollars we set a new, stringent financial model for the chemical analysis business. The risk, of course, was that instead of creating two healthy businesses, we might both kill off the existing business and fail to grow in the life sciences. Apprehensions abounded. Would morale fall further? What long period of ups and downs was ahead? The General Manager of that business expressed no doubts or regrets about the new constraints. He made it clear that both the business and everyone’s self-interest would be served only by getting on with creating a new reality. When their traditionally large canvas was replaced by a significantly smaller one, the Artists in that Chemical Analysis business emerged and devised new strategies and tactics to create astoundingly good results. In fact, the chemical analysis business actually met all its ambitious objectives from the very first year after those major cuts. The second year of operating under the constraints, that business grew at over twice the industry average.

Consciously recruit more Artists
While there is an artist of some stature within each of us, you may have noticed that most of them are not Rembrandt. Make sure that you specifically seek out and hire enough people who: o naturally perceive important patterns that are not obvious, or o take good ideas and make them great, or o have deep expertise in a field that promisingly intersects with your business, or simply o ask great questions. (“Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.” Pablo Picasso.)

Why Activists? Activists are vehemently dedicated to moving themselves and others in a particular direction. An army of Professionals and Artists may have all the right ideas and skills but will often fall back when faced with resistence, cynicism, or other adversity (e.g., the silent killer, bureaucracy). Activist bring passion and doggedness that obliterate, or at least temporarily stun, such barriers. The biggest foe that one needs Activists to battle is Time. Activists are blessedly impatient. Impatience is a precious asset now that there is simply no time in the brief existence of a business model to mess around. We all need to:

Be Activists more often
I turned on the radio once and heard someone talking about how the US needed more extremists. What a shock to find out that the person talking was Lee Iaccoca, former President and CEO of Chrysler Corp. The US auto industry is not where you expect these kinds of ideas. His point was that the major issues facing us are so large that incremental action will not solve them. In business now, the same is often true. Sometimes, to make a difference, we need to use to test or even deplete our store of political capital by being intransigent and/or evangelistics about a project or direction. Relevant mental model: A schnauzer with a bone—he won’t give it up and keeps showing it to you.

Bring out the Activist in our employees
I once was a manager in Hewlett Packard’s Corporate Development department. In addition to doing acquisitions we led strategic projects in the various divisions when those GMs requested our help. Frequently when I met with the assigned team for the first time they would describe the issue at hand and would then say “We know that the answer that management wants is ________.” It was a struggle to get them to actually present what they thought was the best solution, because they were afraid of contradicting a pre-determined “right answer”. We all know that that does happen at times. But the fact is that often they were wrong. There was no pre-emptive bias. For not good reason, employees were holding back the full benefit of their closer knowledge and specific skills. The solution is simple. State what you think “goes without saying”: That you put them on the project because they know and can know much more than you know, that they should be clarify rather than assume constraints, and that you want them to comeup with a recommendation that they fully endorse.

Consciously recruit more Activists.
Step one: Identify them. A favorite question for accomplishing this is “ Tell me how you changed your last job”. This yields much of the information you need about the person in general, but it also tells you specific initiatives to ask about further. Step two: Don’t talk yourself out of hiring an Activist. You may wonder: o Will s/he get frustrated and leave if we don’t take her/his advice? This is a good thing to address directly with the candidate. Note their eyes more than their words as they answer. In addition, there are two things to look for. 1. Look for someone who is activist by nature; that is, they can get behind more than just their own idea and they are not wed to one particular idea or goal. 2. Look for somoene who evidences the maturity to accept a realistic hit rate – i.e., a realistic ratio of ideas raised vs. ideas accepted. o Will s/he turn people (and me) off by being too much of an advocate?

There are limits. Someone once told me that executives hire people who remind them of how they wish they had been when younger. I inherited a wildchild employee who had been hired by someone else in that kind of decision. Keeping the culture in mind, bring in people who will populate or expand the more aggressive or innovative part of that cultural space. But don't do the person or the organization the injury of bringing in someone who will trigger massive cultural antibodies that will neutralize and eject the poor soul. There are risk reducers. ACT defines what activists do and also stands for the best complementary characteristics to look for when hiring: Analytical skills balance the passion with facts, Communication skills enable them to enlist understanding and support, Teamwork skills enable them to enlist support, but more importantly, leverage their general advocacy across more good idea generators, their colleagues.

New sources of energy; The world needs them and your company needs them. Artists and Activists are just that. And for the price of this “fuel” you’ll make enough for a whole new car.