I don’t often start essays about leadership with insights from French novelists, but in this case it seems appropriate. “The real act of discovery,” Marcel Proust wrote, “consists not in finding new lands but in seeing with new eyes.” Today the most successful companies don’t just outcompete their rivals. They redefine the terms of competition by embracing one-of-a-kind ideas in a world of copycat thinking. Which means, almost by definition, that the best leaders see things that other leaders don’t see.
That’s not as easy as it sounds, especially for leaders who have spent years at the same company, or in the same industry, or as part of the same discipline. Without ever intending it, experienced leaders often allow what they know to limit what they can imagine going forward; their knowledge can actually get in the way of innovation. Which is why, to summon the spirit of Proust, it’s so important for leaders to see their company and industry with fresh eyes — which means looking at their work in new ways.
Art, it turns out, can be an important tool to change how leaders see their work. One fun exercise to encourage experienced leaders to challenge established ways of seeing took place recently in Providence, at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, in an annual event called Cops and Docs. The program, which has been running for 10 years, gathers highly accomplished medical professionals and highly trained police officers, people who in their jobs have to quickly make sense of the world around them, size up problems, and devise effective solutions to complex (often life-threatening) problems. Over the course of the evening, mixed groups of cops and docs looked at paintings, sculptures, and other works of art, and shared their answers to a pretty basic question: What do you see?
Needless to say, what participants saw was a function of the jobs they did and the experiences they’d had — which explains why different people reached such different conclusions about the same pieces. Here’s how one article summarized what participants took away: “Make careful observation a habit. Learn to describe what you see. Allow a different interpretation of the observation. Understand that one scene can have several plausible explanations. Avoid tunnel vision. Exercise creative thinking skills.” Those are great lessons for doctors and detectives — not to mention executives, entrepreneurs, and leaders in any field.
As it turns out, Cops and Docs is not the only program that uses art as way to move accomplished leaders out of their comfort zones. Amy E. Herman, a consultant and educator trained as a lawyer and an art historian, has created an intriguing program, called The Art of Perception, that gets to the heart of the all-important difference between looking and seeing. In it, she takes police detectives, FBI agents, even high-ranking Secret Service and CIA executives to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Frick Collection, and other well-known museums and galleries. These grizzled observers of crime and terrorism, trained in certain ways to look for clues about murders and identify threats, instead set their sights on works by Picasso, Caravaggio, Edward Hopper, and other masters. The exercise is “not about looking at art,” Herman explains to the participants. “It’s about talking about what you see.”
Or, much of the time, what you don’t see. Time after time, skilled leaders miss critical elements of a painting that send an important message, overlook signposts in a scene that speak to what’s taking place, or can’t figure out how to describe what’s right in front of them. “Don’t be afraid to change your perspective,” she urges her participants, who report that the new ways of seeing that they develop through these museum visits have opened their eyes to new ways of evaluating evidence on the job. “In New York, the extraordinary is ordinary to us, so in training we’re always looking to become even more aware as observers,” a deputy chief explained in one of many approving accounts of the program.
Amy Herman’s program, like Cops and Docs, is an elegant departure from the tired routines of leadership, a fun and clever use of art to sharpen skills and clear heads. But there are simpler and more “businesslike” ways to achieve the same eye-opening ends. Years ago, in Fast Company, we profiled a highly creative leader at Royal Dutch/Shell named Steve Miller. One of his techniques was to assemble diverse teams of colleagues — longtime veterans, corporate newcomers, marketers, technologists — put them on buses, and tour various locations across Europe, where his business unit was based. They’d visit Shell operations, customer sites, and other settings. “Then we got back on the buses and talked about what we’d seen,” Miller explained. “ We all wrote down our impressions, and when we got back, we went over what we’d learned from the visits.”
Needless to say, what people saw was a function of who they were and what they specialized in. And what everybody learned together was far richer and deeper than what any individual would have learned on their own. That’s the real point, of course, whether the subject being observed is a timeless piece of art or a customer facility. For leaders who want to see with new eyes, remember that how you look at something shapes what you see — and you see more creatively when you look at the world with other leaders who have different backgrounds and experiences.
Bill Taylor is the cofounder of Fast Company and the author, most recently, of Simply Brilliant: How Great Organizations Do Ordinary Things in Extraordinary Ways. Learn more at williamctaylor.com.
Read this great article on Harvard Business Review