Artful Making: What Managers Need to Know about How Artist Work

Artful Making: What Managers Need to Know about How Artist Work

by Robert Austin

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Artful Making offers the first proven, research-based framework for engineering ingenuity and innovation. This book is the result of a multi-year collaboration between Harvard Business School professor Robert Austin and leading theatre director and playwright Lee Devin. Together, they demonstrate striking structural similarities between theatre artistry and

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Artful Making offers the first proven, research-based framework for engineering ingenuity and innovation. This book is the result of a multi-year collaboration between Harvard Business School professor Robert Austin and leading theatre director and playwright Lee Devin. Together, they demonstrate striking structural similarities between theatre artistry and production and today's business projects--and show how collaborative artists have mastered the art of delivering innovation "on cue," on immovable deadlines and budgets. These methods are neither mysterious nor flaky: they are rigorous, precise, and--with this book's help--absolutely learnable and reproducible. They rely on cheap and rapid iteration rather than on intensive up-front planning, and with the help of today's enabling technologies, they can be applied in virtually any environment with knowledge-based outputs. Moreover, they provide an overarching framework for leveraging the full benefits of today's leading techniques for promoting flexibility and innovation, from agile development to real options.

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IntroductionManaging When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going

If you don’t know where you’re going, any mapwill do.1 Thisconventional wisdom sounds right to many managers. It highlights the safety ofhaving a clear objective for your management actions. It implies that allmanagement actions are likely to be confused and inefficient if you don’thave a clear objective. If you don’t have a good fix on yourdestination—be it a product or service, a strategic or competitiveoutcome, or anything else—you may as well not start the journey.

For a lot of your work, though, this so-called wisdom iswrong. Why? For one thing, you can’t always know your destination inadvance. Whether you’re designing a new product, running a business involatile conditions, operating a process that might encounter unforeseeninputs, or just trying to figure out what to do with your life, the journeyusually involves exploration, adjustment, and improvisation. Situations inwhich you don’t or can’t know the results in advance are common andconsequential. All businesses face them.

If you’re not too narrow in what you’re willingto call “management,” you can manage these situations. You canenhance effectiveness and efficiency, and you can improve the likelihood ofvaluable outcomes. However, the methods you’ll use will differ from, andsometimes conflict with, methods that work when you do know where you’regoing.

There is an increasingly important category ofwork—knowledge work—that you can best manage by not enforcing adetailed, in-advance set of objectives, even if youcould. Often in this kindof work, time spent planning what you want to do will be better spent actuallydoing (or letting others in your charge do), trying something you haven’tthought out in detail so you can quickly incorporate what you learn from theexperience in the next attempt. In appropriate conditions—only inappropriate conditions—you can gain more value from experience than fromup-front analysis. In certain kinds of work, even if you can figure out whereyou’re going and find a map to get you there, that may not be the bestthing to do.

Forging ahead without detailed specifications to guide youobviously requires innovation, new actions. We take this observation one stepfurther by suggesting that knowledge work, which adds value in large partbecause of its capacity for innovation, can and often should be structured asartists structure their work. Managers should look to collaborative artistsrather than to more traditional management models if they want to createeconomic value in this new century.

We call this approach artful making. “Artful,”because it derives from the theory and practice of collaborative art andrequires an artist-like attitude from managers and team members.“Making,” because it requires that you conceive of your work asaltering or combining materials into a form, for a purpose.2Materials thus treated become something new, something they would not becomewithout the intervention of a maker. This definition usually points to workthat changes physical materials, iron ore and charcoal into steel, forinstance. But the work and management we’re considering don’talways do that. Instead they mostly operate in imagination, in the realm ofknowledge and ideas. While artful making improves any thing that exhibitsinterdependency among its parts, we’re not primarily concerned withheating metal and beating it into shapes. We’re more concerned withstrategies, product designs, or software—new things that groups create bythinking, talking, and collaborating.Artful Making

Any activity that involves creating something entirely newrequires artful making. Whenever you have no blueprint to tell you in detailwhat to do, you must work artfully. A successful response to an unexpected moveby a competitor requires artful activity; so does handling a sudden problemcaused by a supplier. An artful manager operates without the safety net of adetailed specification, guiding a team or organization when no one knowsexactly where it’s going.

In the 21st Century, it’s a simple fact that you oftendon’t know where you’re going when you start a journey. A managerwho needs to be handed a clear set of objectives or a process specification isonly half a manager (and not the most important half). To know whereyou’re going by the time you start, that’s an amazing luxury andyou probably can’t afford it. Anyway, if you think you know whereyou’re going, you’re probably wrong. The need to innovate, to makemidcourse corrections, and to adapt to changing conditions are the mainfeatures of a growing part of daily work.

Many people in business admit that parts of their work are“more art than science.” What they often mean, alas, is that theydon’t understand those parts. “Art” used in a businesscontext usually refers to something done by “talented” or“creative” people who are not quite trustworthy, who do work thatresists reasonable description. There’s often a disparaging implicationthat art-like processes are immature, that they have not yet evolved toincorporate the obviously superior methods of science. The premise thatunderlies this point of view equates progress with the development of reliable,rules-based procedures to replace flaky, unreliable, art-based processes. Wereject this premise.

Our close examination of art-based processes shows thatthey’re understandable and reliable, capable of sophisticated innovationat levels many “scientific” business processes can’t achieve.A theatre company, for instance, consistently delivers a valuable, innovativeproduct under the pressure of a very firm deadline (opening night, eighto’clock curtain). The product, a play, executes again and again withgreat precision, incorporating significant innovations every time, butfinishing within 30 seconds of the same length every time. And althoughart-based processes realize the full capabilities of talented workers and canbenefit from great worker talent, by no means do they require exceptional orespecially creative individuals. Nor does great individual talent ensure avaluable outcome. A company of exceptionally talented big stars can (and oftenwill) create a less effective play than one made up of ordinarily talentedartists who have, through hard work, learned how to collaborate. Businesshistory too provides numerous examples of underdog upstarts out-collaboratingand out-executing companies with much better resources; and few (if any)companies have ever worshiped more devoutly at the altar of raw individualtalent than Enron, one of the most spectacular corporate failures in history.3

As we will show, underlying structural similarities in costsmake theatre rehearsal and other collaborative art processes better models forknowledge work than more rules-based, scientific processes. The key tounderstanding these similarities is something we call cheap and rapiditeration. How Cheap and Rapid Iteration Changes Everything

The cost of iteration—the cost of reconfiguring aprocess and then running it again—significantly impacts the way we work.Reconfiguring an auto assembly process can involve buying and installing newequipment, which can be pretty expensive. So, automakers usually do a lot ofplanning before they commit to a configuration. They don’t want to haveto reconfigure very often. They try to “Get it right the firsttime.”

On the other hand, some software development processes aredesigned nowadays so that they can be reconfigured cheaply and quickly.Developers generate new versions of a software system as often as needed.Technologies that allow new versions to be rebuilt easily keep the cost ofiteration low. When enabling technologies help keep the cost of iteration low,we don’t need to worry as much about getting it right the first time.Instead, we can try things, learn from them, then reconfigure and try again.Because it doesn’t cost much to iterate, the value of doing is greaterthan the value of thinking about how to do. Cheap and rapid iteration allows usto substitute experience for planning. Rather than “Get it right thefirst time,” our battle cry becomes “Make it great before thedeadline.”

Management researchers often talk about cheap and rapiditeration as cheap and rapid experimentation. The ability to run experimentscheaply and quickly is an important benefit when the cost of iteration is low.Simulation technologies, for example, allow automakers to run virtualcrash-testing experiments to determine the safety implications of many car bodystructures, more than they could afford to test with actual cars.4But experimentation, though important, is only part of what is achieved bycheap and rapid iteration. If you think and talk about iteration asexperimentation, low cost of iteration seems to make business more likescience. Its broader effect, though, is to make business more like art.

Here’s why: Before you can crash test virtual cars,you must create virtual cars. Cheap and rapid iteration lets you test cars morecheaply, but it also lets you create them more cheaply, and in many more forms.The creation of things to test—in scientific terms, the generation ofhypotheses—is a fundamentally creative act. In many business situations,the hypothesis, problem, or opportunity is not well-defined, nor does itpresent itself tidily formed; you must therefore create it. Even when a problemor opportunity appears well-defined, often you can benefit from conceiving itin a new form. The form you conceive for it—the idea of it youhave—will determine how (and how well) you solve it. Cheap and rapidexperimentation lets you try new forms; cheap and rapid artful iteration helpsyou create new forms to try.

Artful making (which includes agile software development,theatre rehearsal, some business strategy creation, and much of other knowledgework) is a process for creating form out of disorganized materials.Collaborating artists, using the human brain as their principal technology andideas as their principal material, work with a very low cost of iteration. Theytry something and then try it again a different way, constantly reconceivingambiguous circumstances and variable materials into coherent and valuableoutputs.

Artful making differs from what we call industrial making,which emphasizes the importance of detailed planning, as well as tightlyspecified objectives, processes, and products. Its principles are familiar:Pull apart planning and production to specialize each; create a blueprint orspecification, then conform to it; don’t do anything before you know youcan do everything; “Get it right the first time.” When industrialmakers conform to plans and specifications, they say their products andprocesses have “quality.” The principles of industrial making areso embedded in business thinking that they’re transparent and wedon’t notice them. We apply them reflexively; they are “The way wedo things.” But, as we shall see, industrial methods can distort realityand smother innovation. Artful and industrial making are distinct approachesand each must be applied in the appropriate conditions.

It’s important to recognize that artful and industrialmaking are not mutually exclusive. Artful making doesn’t replaceindustrial making. Artful making should not be applied everywhere, nor shouldindustrial making. They complement each other and often can be used incombination. Complementary doesn’t mean interchangeable, though. Asopportunities for artful making multiply with the expansion of the knowledgework sector of business, managers and other workers must be careful not toattempt to solve artistic problems with industrial methods, and vice versa. The History and Origins of this Book

The collaboration that led to this book began with atelephone call in 1998. Rob (a business professor) asked Lee (a theatreprofessor) to repeat a story he’d told when Rob was his student at Swarthmorein the early 1980s. The story was about different ways of controlling humanaction. When he called, Rob was trying to understand why control mechanismsthat work well for physical activities seem to work less well for knowledgework. Lee recognized some of the issues from conversations with his son, Sean(then an engineer/manager at Allied Signal); they had been casually wonderinghow to apply principles of theatre improvisation to the reluctance of engineersto look beyond the back of the book for solutions to new problems. A subsequentseries of increasingly energetic conversations between Rob and Lee turned tobroader issues of how highly skilled people engaged in creative activitiesmight be managed (or “directed,” as Lee put it).

We were surprised to discover common patterns and structuresin our separate domains. Rob talked about software development; Lee talkedabout play making. But the issues sounded oddly, and increasingly, similar.Some recent ideas and methods in software development, especially in theso-called “agile” community, seemed almost identical to theatremethods. As this became more obvious, an idea dawned on business professor Rob:These artists are much better at this than we are. Managers and managementstudents don’t understand how to create on cue, how to innovate reliablyon a deadline, something theatre companies do all the time.

We quickly noticed something else. As Rob tried tounderstand how theatre ensembles innovate in rehearsal, he kept missing thepoint; or so it seemed to Lee. Now, missing the point isn’t an entirelynew experience for Rob, but there was more to this problem than intellectualdensity. As Rob listened and tried to repeat back what he heard, Lee and theartists at the People’s Light and Theatre Company gradually took on anaspect of polite rather than interested attention. Eyes glazed and conversationgrew desultory. Rob’s management language didn’t accommodate thetheatre’s idea of work. An example will help illustrate what we mean.

Early in this research, thinking about cheap and rapiditeration as a way of working, we found ourselves talking about“failure.” Rob observed that an iterative work cycle must includemany failures on the way to success. Lee agreed, but resisted the term “failure.”Failure isn’t the right idea. In rehearsal, the iterations all interactwith each other. The current run-through provides the main material for thenext run-through. Each trial is a necessary step on the way to what’sgood and essential to the final success. To call an essential step towardsuccess a failure merely tortures language. What’s more, the word“failure” applied to routine work could poison the growth ofEnsemble, a quality of group work essential to rehearsal, and to artful making.“Fair enough,” thought Rob, “use some other word,”though it seemed at the time like a minor technical point.

Then we got to thinking about IDEO, a leading product designfirm that employs an iterative approach, and failure came up again.5We agreed that IDEO’s work process was an artful one, but they talk aboutfailure all the time, saying things like, “Fail often to succeedsooner.” When professors at the Harvard Business School (HBS) use IDEO asan example, it’s customary to note the difference between a“failure” and a “mistake.” In the HBS view, IDEOcherishes failure because it generates new information. But a failure thatdoesn’t generate useful new information is called a mistake. Touch a hotstove and burn your hand—that’s a failure; touch it again and burnyour hand again—that’s a mistake—same injury, no newinformation.

This resonates with many Master of Business Administration(MBA) students and even executives, but makes no sense to artists. Thedistinction between failure and mistake imposes an unreasonable limit onexploration. Though artful making is, as we have said, reliable and efficient,it has little use for the efficiency of rules like “Avoid touching a hotstove twice.” Touching the stove twice (or ten times) may be what’sneeded to break up a creative log jam. Just as an athlete may need to executethe same painful movements (lift the weight; run the interval) over and over onthe way to new levels of performance, so you may need to make the same mistakemany times on the way to an innovative leap. Burning your hand is a small priceto pay for a good idea.

We concluded from these discussions that we had to becareful about the fit between artful making ideas and management thinkingcategories. Describing theatre practice in Rob’s vocabulary, we risked missingthe point. How to Read This Book

For the above reasons, we resolved in our study to describeand understand theatre in some detail as a way to describe and understand a bigchange in the way we think about work. We’ll rely on the persuasive powerof an extended analogy to combine with your experience and spark new ways ofthinking. Very little of what we discuss in this book is substantively new.Iterative product development processes, for instance, are well-documented inmanagement literature. What’s new here isn’t the raw content, butthe suggestion to use theatre art as a lens that can offer a new and productiveview of familiar, but rapidly changing territory.

In the chapters that follow, we will provide evidence of ourclaim that some successful business processes are becoming more and more likeart. We will also describe in detail the artful making framework, an enablingmetaphor to replace more traditional industrial metaphors that control how wemanage and do work. Early chapters will focus on explaining what we mean byartful making, and how it manifests in many different environments. Laterchapters will illustrate how companies, both business and theatre, makeartfully. In doing all this, we will sometimes take you quite deeply into the innerworkings of artists in a theatre ensemble. As you read the “artsy”sections of this book, we encourage you to consider our extended analogybetween theatre and business with an open mind. The analogy is not a perfectmap in all respects, but it may contain useful insights, including someparticular to your unique situation, unknown to us, that you must thereforediscover for yourself. Endnotes

1.   ALICE:Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?

  CHESHIRECAT: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.

  ALICE:I don’t much care where—

  CHESHIRECAT: Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.

  ALICE:—aslong as I get somewhere.

  CHESHIRECAT: Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland;Through the Looking Glass (New York: Collier Books, 1962) p. 82.

2.   Thisformulation was conceived first by Aristotle about 2500 years ago. He appliedit to unique products composed of interdependent parts: handmade, uniquethings, in other words. This way of looking at making fell out of favor asmaking more and more referred to vast numbers of things mass-produced.

3.   See,for example, Malcolm Gladwell, “The Talent Myth,” The New Yorker(July 22, 2002) pp. 26–33.

4.   MichaelSchrage has written about how simulation helps companies behave in ways that wewould call artful. Serious Play: How the World’s Best Companies Simulateto Innovate (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2000).

5.   Formore information on IDEO, see Tom Kelley’s The Art of Innovation: Lessonsin Creativity from IDEO, America’s Leading Design Firm (New York: RandomHouse, 2001). Or, for a shorter summary, see Stefan Thomke and Ashok Nimgade,“IDEO Product Development” (Harvard Business School case no.600-143, 2000).

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