What Artists Can Teach Us [No. 2]: Flexibility

I was a bit surprised when I saw the seating arrangement for the  Intercultural Communication Conference Luncheon. The intent of the conference was to get people from different Asian cultures talking with  visitors from Europe.  But you’d never know if from the way the tables were set:

Forks, knives and spoons on 1/2 the tables and chopsticks on the others.

It didn’t seem to make sense, and when I asked  the conference organizer about it, he told me that was  the easiest way for the people serving the meal to set up the tables.

Yep, it sure made sense–for the servers, for the conference organizers and maybe for the dishwashers too, but it didn’t make any sense at all given the purpose of the conference.  This arrangement just kept people separate.

Try as I might, I could not persuade the conference organizer to change it.  Once he got locked into “this is the way it’s gonna be”, there was no way to change his mind.

What was it, I wonder that made him so inflexible?   And why is that so many  people are inflexible?

For some, they choose the easiest way–and stick to it:  “Decide once and do it that way.”  For others, it’s a way to show their power:  “I’m the boss. It’s my way or the highway”.  [Almost as if you, you underling don’t have the right to make a suggestion.  If there was another way to do it, I would have thought of it. ]

I suppose it’s a way of keeping order, but the impact of this inflexibility in a work situation is so negative.  People feel powerless. They’re  less likely to make a contribution.  Certainly morale sinks to the pits and people complain–to each other.  Passive resistance, hostility, sabotage and rage might soon follow.

In my work as a consultant, when I notice that people are quitting a certain department in an organization, I don’t have to look much further than the inflexibility of the department head.

As the above sign says, “there is more than one way.”

Customers also flee when a company has inflexible rules.  Why is it that so many clients are fed up and angry with the banks in the US?  The banks have their rules about foreclosures  and missed payments and don’t make exceptions. They proceed with foreclosures and liens even if the  documents are robo signed . They don’t listen or change when conflicting documents are presented.

And what about a company’s return policies?  Nordstrom’s liberal  and flexible return policies is one of the reasons  people keep coming back and buying.

Too many people at work embrace a whole slew of rules and inflexibility while mouthing, “this changing world we live in”, “the fast pace of change”, “the need for new skills” etc.

Centralization or Decentralization?

Many of the executives I work with complain about the growing centralization in global companies. Budgets are controlled at headquarters. Local staff have less flexibility in making decisions and allocating resources. There used to be debate about whether localization trumps centralization, but that debate is over. Centralization has won.

All of this makes me glad that I have a chance to work with artists. Artists know that so much of what they do requires first hand experience.  They also know that a lotof what happens in their work  is beyond their control.  They are willing to try many different ways to do something.

They know that if mixing this color together with another doesn’t yield what they want, they can try another way.  There is always another way in the artist’s world.

They know that if they don’t get a gallery show in New York, they can pursue options in another city.

As recently reported in the Huffington Post, David Hockney may be 74 years old, but that doesn’t mean he can’t learn some new tricks. He’s best known for his paintings and  prints but he doesn’t stop at traditional techniques,  He always invents  new methods.  Now he creates art work on the iPad.

If the technique that Masako Kamiya, one of the artists we work with, does not yield a satisfactory result, she changes the paper, the angle of the brush, the thickness and composition of the paint.  She doesn’t give up either. She tries something else until she figures out the best approach.

Artists try many different ways in order to come up with a solution to a challenge they face in their work.  They might get discouraged but it doesn’t keep them from trying something else. They don’t hide behind rules, or stay on just one track.

Of course there are artists who only work in one medium or only paint “red trees and red flowers”. These artists have found something that works for them, but most artists are continuously pushing themselves and trying something new–a new subject, a new medium, a new style.

And this means experimenting, making some mistakes, having some success and remaining flexible.

Artists understand that there is always more than one way.

They  engage in an internal dialogue and they talk with other artists.  When the artists in our gallery meet together, they help each other learn new approaches and techniques. They are open to change, open to listening.   And this makes their work better. And instead of driving people away, this flexibility brings people together.


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