The art of the possible

On Friday 24th January a bunch of us got together with Doug Shaw in Milton Keynes to get creative in an Art for Work’s Sake session.

We all came with different creative backgrounds – some hadn’t been artists for years, some were starting to reconnect with their artistic heritage, and others were active artists.  And we all came with different expectations of the session – to give it a try, to build on previous experience, to see what it could mean for work.

I’ve purposefully used the word artist in that last paragraph because one of the things we spent time exploring was the fact that we are all artists – we are all capable of creating something – even if it is a mass of brown, as my 4 year old daughter likes to do by mixing all the colours she can lay her hands on.  She’s delighted with what she creates and that delights me!

That’s how we all start out in life – enthusiastic artists, all believing in our ability to create art in whatever form that takes.  As we get older, that belief starts to disappear and only the ones who school / parents think are ‘good’ at art will continue to believe that for themselves.

We’re encouraged to focus our efforts in education on the things that we’re best at – not such a bonkers idea.  But why does it have to be all or nothing? What’s wrong with weaving disciplines together? As we know from the success of crowd sourcing solutions, bringing a variety of people together creates more than if all those individuals tried to get to a solution locked in a room on their own.  So why leave art locked in a room all alone?

The challenge is that art is often locked, all alone, in a room in our heads for a reason.  A room marked ‘don’t do this, you risk humiliation!’.  Similar to Carl Fitzsimon’s post ( about trying out karate (incidentally, another subject which weaves beautifully into the world of work and leadership) art is often an emotive subject, one which our limbic brain shouts at us not to do because of some horrendous experience of being ridiculed for our art as a child.  Well, you can’t blame your brain, it’s only doing its primitively inherited job to protect you from danger.

So what’s the danger? What’s the worst that can happen?

The answer to that depends on where you are?  Who you’re with.

If you’re in an environment of command and control, where you’re led by people who rule through fear, and who laugh at others to make themselves feel big and important then that’s probably not the best place to start giving art at work a go!  As found in the army (, an intense microcosm of real life, where this kind of leadership behaviour exists you find an extreme reduction in moral, productivity and innovation, and even suicide, because the neocortex has shut down from the stress and gone into protection mode.

So, first of all, do you feel safe? Do you trust those you’re with?  Do you feel like you can try something and you won’t be laughed at? Do you feel you can give something a go and it doesn’t have to be perfect because it doesn’t matter, you’ll still have learnt something along the way?

If all that’s true, and you’re in that safe, trusting place where it doesn’t matter, well, what’s the point?  What’s the point of art in our lives whether that’s at home or at work?

Two words – Divergent Thinking

George Land and Beth Jarman have a book called Breakpoint and Beyond (  Their research involved the study of 1600 kindergarten children and their ability to think divergently – this is the ability to generate creative ideas by exploring many possibilities.  What they found –

Age three to five – 98% of children displayed ‘creative genius’ levels of divergent thinking

Age eight to ten – 32% scored at this creative genius level

Age 15 – only 10% were at creative genius level

They then tested 200,000 adults over the age of 25 and found that only 2% were creative geniuses.

So I guess we’re pretty good at churning children through an education system that teaches them convergent thinking, and the ability to adopt fixed mental models.  And therefore creating a world where so much creative, problem solving, possibility thinking is lost!

But it’s not all doom and gloom!  Because art is one of those activities that can promote divergent thinking!  And so you can create a workplace, or home life, where possibilities are the norm, and where people query and problem-solve to get to better solutions all the time.

But, be ready, because it’s not necessarily the easy route.  We discovered in the session with Doug, and put so beautifully by Clare Haynes, “bring creative is hard work”.  Our brains are lazy and like the path of least resistance because it conserves energy.  This means following the path in your brain that is a well-worn groove of doing the same thing you’ve always done.  Trouble is, doing what you’ve always done gets you what you’ve always got, and we know that this isn’t going to be a solution to competitive advantage as we hurtle at high speed into the future.

So, if you ever get the chance, I highly recommend exploring your inner artist and thinking about how you could bring that experience to your workplace in a way that works for your organisation and your people – creating visions, coaching, building trust in teams………start drawing and you’ll no doubt discover many other possibilities!

[If you want to see a bit of what we got up to on the day, go to #artforworkssake]


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