The art of inspiration

Employers are turning to the arts to cultivate creativity in their managers.

To survive, companies need their managers to be like children: creative, innovative and prepared to take risks. Creativity is inherent in all of us, according to training and development guru Sir Ken Robinson, author of Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative. But by the time most of us reach adulthood, it is put on the backburner or safely limited to leisure time.

“We all start life being highly creative then others pour scorn on creativity and we start to learn to shut it off. By the time we get into the workplace, most people’s creativity is hugely stifled,” says Liz Willis, co-founder director of personal development consultancy Springboard.

A growing number of employers are turning to the arts – music, drama, visual art, fashion – in a bid to unleash this inherent creativity in their managers. Ideas and creativity are the business in most of today«s key industries, points out Robinson, now a senior adviser at the J. Paul Getty Center in Los Angeles, US, and companies need managers who can innovate, roll with the changes they face, communicate and change direction as quickly as the landscape around them.

Robinson, former professor of education at Warwick University, blames the UK education system for bringing up adults who have lost touch with, or never discovered, their own creative abilities. Kanes Rajah, director for the University of Greenwich Business School«s Centre for Entrepreneurship agrees.

“Our education system encourages convergent thinking, with rights and wrongs, whereas companies need managers to think divergently, exploring many solutions before settling for one,” says Rajah.

Organisations ranging from American Express and Specsavers to Cardiff & Vale NHS Trust and Medway Council have turned to arts-based training to foster creative managers who can think on their feet and readily come up with new ideas.

The London Borough of Croydon called in actors from Steps Drama to help managers tackle performance appraisal more creatively. It has also used a percussion company as part of a teambuilding exercise.

“This was very well-received. Managers were put into different groups using a variety of drums then composed something together. It was successful in developing creativity and team skills,” says Adrian Lock, principal learning and development consultant at London Borough of Croydon.

Lock says he would like to do more externally-sourced arts-based training, believing it would be extremely useful in helping managers develop creative problem-solving techniques.

One of the benefits of arts-based training is that it takes managers away from their normal sphere of activity, giving them time to reflect and making it easier for them to take risks without fear of failure and helps them to “think outside the box”.

“The arts are a powerful training tool because they engage managers outside their normal framework in a non-threatening environment, so they can forgive themselves if some of the ideas that come up are unconventional or downright ridiculous,” says Rajah.

Advocates of arts-based training highlight its ability to significantly engage trainees, making the training more memorable.

“The performing arts engage people in a way that most other training does not, allowing people to explore personal issues in a group setting and work creatively on their own behaviour,” says Annabelle Beckwith, head of development at the Royal Scottish Academy for Music and Drama (RSAMD).

Richard Wilkes, co-founder of Steps Drama says that arts-based training works because “real-life depictions are memorable and fun”. He stresses that workshops should be based on solid business objectives. This is an important point, as sessions should not be viewed merely as ‘a jolly’.

Arts-based training allows for a blended learning approach and engages the right side of the brain, as opposed to conventional management training which has tended to be logical and mechanistic. The idea is that doing something creative occupies the left-side of our brain in practical aspects such as cutting out or painting, freeing up the right, creative side to concentrate on other things.

“Traditional training with its formal didactic approach all too often only reinforces the numerical, linear approach. Arts-based training allows a blended approach, catering for different learning styles, integrating aural and visual with the active,” says Beckwith of the RSAMD.

Forum theatre often uses the technique of ‘freeze framing’ a scenario, inviting delegates to make suggestions on how to improve behaviour. It is a highly active, popular and effective technique, particularly in helping people examine their own behaviour, according to a report on using forum theatre as a training tool by Manchester School of Management organisational psychology post-graduate David Woods.

Woods evaluated existing research into forum theatre and studied a forum theatre employment law course provided by Steps Drama for middle managers at private healthcare insurer AXA PPP. The majority of these managers felt they had been “challenged to consider more the impact of their actions on others and to have a more open mind”.

Woods concludes that forum theatre is an effective training delivery method because it is highly active, participants respond positively and because “there is a resulting positive change in behaviour after the training”.

Although drama is perhaps the most popular form of arts-based training, other forms such as music, fashion and the visual arts are growing in popularity.

Music is often used as an allegory for effective collaboration and the fact that the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

“Invariably, people take their cue in music from other people just as they do in the workplace. It is a straightforward metaphor and the penny will suddenly drop. Arts-based training can lead managers to a Damascus-like moment with people figuring it out for themselves rather than via a didactic approach,” says Beckwith of the RSAMD, which uses music as well as drama to work on teambuilding.

OSJ Soundynamics – a partnership between the Orchestra of St John«s and creative arts charity Create – also uses classical music to develop creativity in managers with clients such as the Metropolitan Police. OSJ cellist Jo Cole says the medium helps managers look at new ideas, step outside to observe, meet deadlines more easily, and to channel and discipline creativity.

“People learn when to lead and when to follow and how to work together towards a common goal,” says Cole.

Training provider Redzebra has worked with companies such as American Express and Pfizer using percussion. Dido Fisher, corporate director at Redzebra, says “Drumming is an ideal metaphor for excellent communication, problem solving and working together towards a common goal.”

Financial institution Legal & General is among those companies who have gone down the visual arts route.

As part of an 18-month management training programme for Legal & General, visual arts trainer Hotbrushes recently ran a three-hour workshop. Its aims were to be inspiring, uplifting, memorable and fun, and to allow managers to explore creativity in a safe environment while building their confidence.

Managers were split into groups and given 45 minutes to create a three-dimensional piece of work based on a painting. They were encouraged to try out new approaches to teamwork.

Hotbrushes uses drawing, painting, paper sculpture, collage and poetry. Other clients have included windscreen replacement company Autoglass, accountancy firm Baker Tilly and retailer Debenhams.

Other companies are turning to the world of fashion to offer their managers something different and fun. Delegates taking part in training courses run by 2Divine motivators find themselves designing, fashioning and modelling outfits for a mock fashion show.

“Companies have done paintballing and raft-building and want something different to kickstart the managers’ enthusiasm. It is amazing seeing people transform – someone who is normally a mouse becoming a leader, huge rugby players happily asking to borrow a machine to run up their kaftans,” says Vivien Horrocks, director of 2Divine.

One of the difficulties in assessing arts-based training is that the ‘penny-drop’ moment can come at any time, says Stephen Broad, research lecturer at the RSAMD, which is currently evaluating studies in arts-based training.

Broad urges companies to take a long-term approach to this.

“Companies should not expect instant gratification. Arts-based training is about trying to reach the potential other methods cannot and the ‘penny-drop’ moment can happen some time after a course.”

He points out that companies usually have lower numbers on arts-based training courses which adds to the difficulties in evaluation.

Rajah says: “We«re talking about people constructing new paradigms and living within those. After one three-day workshop, it is hard for this to happen on the first Monday morning back at work. It is a journey and might hit people nine months later.”

For most companies, arts-based training is just one of many tools used to develop creativity. Lock of London Borough of Croydon uses a host of in-house creativity development techniques, including getting managers to draw a picture of how they want the organisation to be or getting staff to pick up an object of interest from outside then make the leap to doing more creative problem-solving.

Impact Training Development training consultant David Cockburn says: “If we are getting managers to think about their current reality, we might get them to do a painting or collage to raise problems to a conscious level and paint a picture for colleagues. But we might use only one or two arty projects in a whole leadership programme as a small, focused part at the ideas generation stage,” he adds.

So is arts-based training just another in a long line of HR fads?

“This type of training will not engage everyone and I«m not convinced it has a lasting legacy,” says Cockburn. “It might be memorable and act as a spur, but it comes down to whether it can translate and be used back in the workplace.”

But Springboard«s Willis is adamant that arts-based training is here to stay.

“I see arts-based training as integral to fully developing management potential. In 10 years’ time, I expect creativity at work to be part of the mainstream, considered as important and routine as leadership training is today.”

Case study
Eurotunnel digs deep for ideas

Eurotunnel turned to forum theatre in response to a call from senior management for a customer services training course that would enhance staff creativity and be motivational and inspirational.

 “Our managers are highly skilled and highly trained and have been in the job for at least five years so we didn«t want to do the usual how-to-smile sort of stuff,” says Sarah Craig, training manager UK for Eurotunnel.

“The idea was to get away from content-based training and be more exploratory using managers’ input.”

The company used Arts & Business, an organisation funded by the Government to encourage arts-based training, to source actors to portray scenarios based on customer service experiences.

Course objectives included improving internal communications, exploring new ways of creating learning opportunities, engaging staff in creating a stimulating work environment, and using staff creativity to develop the business.

“It was really different and the staff really enjoyed it. They felt respected. Lots of ideas came out about how to improve customer service and the way staff skills are recognised,” says Craig.

She says the event worked well because it was not classroom-based and did not tell staff how to perform.

“Eurotunnel is very much run by the rulebook and this helped add another dimension and encourage staff to be more creative and better able to communicate.”

Eurotunnel used a selection of evaluation methods including three-dimensional debates, post-training interviews after three months, post-training focus groups and customer-satisfaction index comparisons, both pre- and post-training.

Post-training interviews after three months revealed higher levels of confidence, with staff saying they were more likely to pause before diving into a situation. The customer satisfaction index rose to 98 per cent in June 2003 from 85 per cent in January of the same year.

Case study
Culture club: artists and business share insights

Home and personal care firm Lever Faberg‚ and frozen food specialist Unilever Ice Cream and Frozen Food have set up a symbiotic relationship with artists, exchanging business acumen for artistic insight into how to make managers and their teams more creative.

The two Unilever subsidiaries view the ongoing Project Catalyst as the opposite of arts sponsorship, starting with business issues then finding artists to help the companies tackle them.

“The aim is to allow staff to be more creative and take risks to get better results,” says Katherine Mellor, assistant producer on the project, which was launched in 2000.

Recent initiatives have included looking at creativity, behaviours at work, leadership styles, inspiration, creative writing and giving and receiving feedback.  A host of artists have worked with the companies including theatre-based trainers Trade Secrets, the Hayward Gallery, photographic agency Magnum, filmmakers Kimball/Lucy Newman and Jane McGrath, international music producers Serious, furniture designer Jane Revitt and fashion designer Helen Storey.

“Artists look at the world in a very different way to managers which can make their insight memorable and stimulating. Most of the business issues are flagged up by us and touch on communication and improving relationships,” says Mellor.

Writers and poets such as Brighton-based Jackie Wills have come in to train staff how to use language economically and creatively, helping them write better briefs and reports and improving their capability to critique, understand and debate.

Lever Faberg‚ recently worked with theatre professionals The Map on giving and receiving feedback, bringing in actors to observe team meetings to help develop communication skills.

“This is something that actors do all the time and although as a company we«re very good at personal development, there is always room for improvement,” says Mellor.

At the end of the three-month period, some 80 per cent of the 450-strong workforce had been involved. The actors gave a performance reflecting their observations, such as differences in how employees communicate with more senior staff. The initiative involved detailed evaluation, with video diaries, oral interviews and informal follow-ups. Further follow-ups are planned for next year.

“We didn’t want actors just dipping in then leaving,” says Mellor.

Mellor says Project Catalyst has led to managers and their teams doing a host of creative things in new ways.

“Managers are more open to new things and more willing to take risks. It is a culture that is becoming embedded throughout the company, helping recruit and retain staff,” she says.

Comments are closed.