Towards Artistry

Has ‘striving for excellence’ run its course? Should we shift focus to becoming artists?

There are certain buzzwords used in companies today that are meant to bring people together, galvanise them around a collective cause and even attempt to motivate and inspire them. One such example is to ‘strive for excellence!’

When doing some research on writing a vision and mission a while ago, I came across some criticisms of using generic, wide-open vision statements that sound good and use up words, but can be meaningless. Lately, I’ve come so see the noble intention of ‘striving for excellence’ in the same way. To me, it’s basically an undefined, open-ended goal. It really can’t be measured, and certainly cannot come to any logical conclusion.

Last year taught me something new – Artistry. Think Steve Jobs and what he achieved at Apple. Think Lady Gaga (alas… Michael Jackson is no more) Think Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel. Each of these individuals does what they do in such a way that it can be considered art. That makes it timeless. That makes it spectacular.

Take Apple’s products. They are beautiful to look at and they are simply functional. I saw a video on the other day that showed whom I think is Will-I-am from the Black-eyed-peas compliment the Apple iPad in the following way… “Here is a device that comes with no instructions, but anyone from a child to an elderly person can use it easily.” This proves the statement made by Leonardo da Vinci that ‘Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.’

Let’s look at Lady Gaga. Personally, I think that she is very strange, but she is so unpredictable and therefore very exciting to watch to bring out the next weird thing. Lady Gaga believe that she does what she does because she ‘respects her fans’ and wants to give them her best. So she goes all out – donning interesting, unique costumes, and making really likeable music. No wonder that she is the most downloaded and streamed musician of 2011. She is out ‘there’, building and evolving her brand and engaging her fans.  I am by no means saying that I like everything that she does. Quite frankly, I concede that her appearances and actions do not represent the values that I believe in, but there is truly something admirable about the genius that she brings to her work.

What does an artist do that we can learn from? Well, let’s look at it broadly. An artist:

  • Is unique, different, creative and expressive.
  • Believes in his work and his ability to do it.
  • Starts with the end in mind. He knows what he wants as a finished product – before he begins and is neither complete, nor happy until he has achieved his vision.
  • Is defined by his art (or output) and focuses on this rather than time or resources.
  • Brings awe and delight to his following.

So, any person today can be an artist in whatever they do. All it takes in a decision to execute within the framework of an artist. It can be done in the way a family is raised. A new driver can consider his novel skill as art. A typical employee can decide for himself how to define his work output in terms of his definition of art. He could then deliver his work in such a manner.

When an employee has the knowledge, the skills and the desire/motivation to do this, he has all the ingredients to make this style of work a habit and become highly effective in what he does. Also, because the change comes from inside – rather than as a downward push, it will surprise, delight and inspire the employee, as well as his customers.

Companies could undoubtedly benefit from adopting an artist’s approach to their entire value chain. I recently heard about two examples of spectacular failures within a computer hardware company that could have been avoided with the sense of pride and the attention to detail that an artist has when standing at the half completed canvas. In the first example, the company ordered a few thousand laptops in bulk. Seemingly, this made good business sense because they could negotiate a big discount and benefit from economies of scale.

Unfortunately, this computer company sells to corporate clients, and did not think about ensuring that the operating system and office productivity applications were in line with the specifications and requirements of corporate customers. The result was that the laptops started gathering dust inside their warehouse, and had to be disposed of in a below-the-cost fire sale.

In the second example, the company created a facility on their website that allowed customers to pre-order the new version of a certain product a few weeks before launch. Customers who fall in the categories of ‘Innovators’ and ‘Early adopters’ as defined by Everett Rogers in his Law of Diffusion of Innovation seemed to love this and many of them snapped at the opportunity to both be first and to guarantee their product. These are exactly the types of customers that you NEVER want to disappoint, but what transpired was simply a tragic comedy of errors.

The company did acknowledge the pre-order, but this short and final communication provided no means of follow up. As the day of launch approached, some of the customers became overcautious and phoned in to the company. They found that nobody knew what the correct specification of the new product was, or what the process or timelines for the purchase and delivery of the product was. Some customers were made unrealistic and untruthful promises by agents just so that they would get off the company’s back. In the end, some of the customers received their product a few days after launch, and after enduring a delayed, problematic and frustrating process that could have been avoided if the customer simply drove to one of the company’s outlets on the day of launch.

Reasons for these failures are many and varied. Common problems include a lack of customer focus, a lack of inter-divisional communication and a lack of fluid systems and processes to carry out the end-to-end delivery within the business.

Undoubtedly, companies strive to hire good talent. They try to ensure that they have the best minds in their business divisions. However, what may ultimately serve the company better is to have a greater sense of cooperation and teamwork between divisions that allow the company to deliver on its customer promise. Better still would be to create a company that consistently delights customers and builds loyalty in the same way Apple Computer and Lady Gaga are able to do.

Let’s look at how the respective business divisions within a company could bring artistic excellence into how things are done. Admittedly, this will require a grand shift in paradigm for many, as well as a major, coordinated change management program:

  • Executive leadership – become artists in leadership, goal setting, strategy and motivation. Make every ‘brush stroke’ count.
  • Human Resources – recruit, grow talent performance manage with the acute ability of an artist.
  • Finance – perform the accounting practices and the resulting business analysis with artistic pride.
  • Product Development – design and build products that are simple, elegant, functional, and timeless. In short, build works of art.
  • Operations – focus less on the historical science of supply chain. Build the competency executing operations around delivery of a great customer experience. In this case, both the desired customer experience and the way operations are run will need to be proactively designed. It’s hard, but it is worth it and can be refined until the company has this process down to a fine art.
  • Customer Service – see yourself less as the support area that takes the overflow of customer problems, but as the proud, expert and empowered representatives that take ownership and resolve everything for the customer. This is the ‘frame’ around the artwork because it finishes everything off.
  • Information systems – design systems that are open, flexible, responsive to customer needs, enabling of business needs, fast, robust, proactive and intelligent. (There’s no corny artistic comparison for this one!)
  • Marketing – marketing is about artwork. Period. Make it clear. Explain well. Tell the truth.


In the end, the customer sees the company as a single unit. Regardless of the number of people that it takes to make things happen, every interaction counts. Every time a customer interaction is positive, he will praise the company and tell a few friends. The opposite is also true – then the customer will tell the world. With this in mind, the entire company needs to be the artist – or at least operate as one.

Michelangelo is the esteemed artist – he painted the Sistine Chapel. Lady Gaga is the shocking artist. Apple Computer designs brilliant devices. We do not cognitively disaggregate their successes into the tiny puzzle pieces that it takes to pull it off – we have very little thought for Michelangelo’s assistants, Lady Gaga’s support team, or Apple’s corporate hierarchy. In spite of that, they have succeeded in artistic distinction. This will be very hard to do because it requires so many levels of execution of artistic brilliance – individual artistry, departmental artistic shine, artistic inter-divisional collaboration and timeous, fluid executive brushstrokes.

In conclusion, your beliefs and vision matter, but what works is action. This is the problem with ‘strive’ and ‘excellence.’ They are mythical and unachievable. Artistic output can be defined, built, measured, seen, refined and appreciated. It can also deliver personal pride and motivation as well as bottom line results. To achieve the immense success of the great artists, employ the mind-set and the methods of the great artists.