The arts offer creativity, helpful business tips

ON EXCELLENCE

February 21, 1994|By TOM PETERS

The arts can learn from business. But business can learn from the arts, too, especially with creativity taking on increasing commercial importance.

Consider five lessons from the arts section of the Jan. 25, 1994 New York Times:

* 1. Success breeds failure. The lead story discussed the travails of the Sundance Film Festival, started by Robert Redford to tout exciting, low-budget films that get short shrift from Hollywood's high-powered distributors. Trouble is, the festival's success has turned it into a showcase for the establishment; huge studios have started using Sundance to market high-budget releases.

"Success is a tricky mistress," Redford told reporter Caryn James. "It's nice to have but it's a tricky thing to embrace." Redford and his colleagues are struggling to refresh the festival, before it becomes entirely mainstream.

* 2. Bold botches are to be cherished. John Updike has a new book out which Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani calls an "ugly, repellent novel." While I haven't read "Brazil," Kakutani's criticism boosted my admiration for Updike. At age 62, after 15 novels and global literary renown, he's still reinventing himself. Kakutani admits as much, acknowledging that Updike has taken a "leap of imagination" and managed to "stretch the bounds of his fictional territory."

Maybe Updike stumbled this time, but courage like his is exceptional among the supersuccessful. Updike ought to advise Redford on renewing his troubled film festival.

* 3. If you play it safe, the world will pass you by. Reviewer James Oestreich cheered conductor Robert Shaw's production of the Benjamin Britten chorale "War Requiem," at Carnegie Hall. After several days of drilling the chorus and only two days before the performance, Shaw revealed that baritone star Benjamin Luxon had gone almost totally deaf in recent years, making coordination with the chorus exceptionally difficult.

"[Shaw] put all his painstaking preparation at risk," Oestreich wrote, "because, he said, Mr. Luxon 'brings a human quality to this piece that I have never heard anywhere else.' "

The first message is "no risk, no reward." The second recalls our long-running discussion of the dimensions of quality. Shaw jeopardized quality by the numbers (the odds of a flawless performance) in an effort to produce something special (the unique "human quality" Luxon could -- and did -- bring to the performance).

* 4. Effective organizations don't take eons to build. Another lesson from conductor Robert Shaw: He brought his singers together for the first time on a Tuesday and produced a world-class product (performance) the following Sunday. "This is an extraordinary chorus," he told Oestreich on Thursday. "I don't know its equal anywhere in the world, and it's 2 1/2 days old now."

A stunning statement. True, many of the singers had worked with Shaw before. Nonetheless, the configuration was unique; furthermore, the nascent group quickly adapted to the mostly deaf Luxon.

There's lots of talk these days about creating virtual corporations: gathering bits and pieces of many organizations, along with a passel of independent contractors, to exploit a fleeting market opportunity. This new way of doing business is old hat in the arts.

* 5. There's more to life than an aggressive, snazzy strategy. "Not all brilliancy prizes go to dazzling attacks," read the headline on Robert Byrne's chess column; "sometimes sly, unpretentious subtlety wins."

His analysis reminded me of my original research on 3M. In 1979, management literature was fixated on clever strategies. Yet 3M, with its down-home feel and ingenious entrepreneurial culture, defied the odds, churning out winner after winner in niche after niche. ("Make a little, sell a little, make a little more" is its espoused approach.)

I remember how open 3M executives were. One explained why: "They [my readers] will never figure it out; in fact, what you write will only confuse them." I didn't take it personally, and he was on the money. Though we rarely used the term "corporate culture" in those days, he was describing to me the fabulously complex set of cultural attributes, stretching back decades, that gave 3M its insatiable appetite for innovation.

There's an important place for bold, daring strategies in business. So, too, in chess. But there's also room for the extraordinarily subtle culture that nurtures sustained success in ways that completely befuddle one's opponents.

My thorough perusal of the Times arts section got me thinking I might till that field more regularly, even if it means a little less time (or no time at all) for the business section. Robert Shaw, John Updike and Robert Redford have lots to offer us pliers of unabashedly commercial trades.

(Tom Peters' column is distributed by the Tribune Media Services Inc., 720 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, Fla. 32801; [407] 420-6200.)

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