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What Businesses Can Learn From Artists on the Innovation Front

One of the ongoing business challenges of our times is how to continually and effectively innovate in order to stay one step ahead of the competition in our fast-paced, global marketplace. For many organizations, and for those leading them, fostering innovation seems to be more of a hit or miss series of endeavours rather than a clear path to continued progress. Why is this, and how can you improve your odds on the innovation front?

As an MBA-holding, management consultant who recently completed her Bachelor of Fine Arts, I believe business could learn a lot from the artists on this topic.

Let’s start with what you are actually looking at when you visit The Louvre, Tate Modern or any other art gallery professing to represent the best of historical and contemporary art. One of the main reasons you’re viewing works by Edouard Manet, Pablo Picasso, Mark Rothko, Marcel Duchamp and a myriad of other acclaimed artists, whom you may or may not think have talent, is not because they painted the prettiest picture or the most technically complex image. Nor were their works one-off accidents that resulted from throwing paint at the wall and lucking out once in a while. They are recognized because they are innovators. As a result of years of study, practice, and striving for deeper learning within their artistic realms, they became the first artists to look at things in a new way, do things in a new way, or present things in a new way that hadn’t been done before. (To be more precise, they were the first western world males to do this, but let’s not quibble on details…that’s the basis of a different article.)

Marcel Duchamp is a great example of an artistic innovator. Have you seen his 1917, Fountain? What it is, is an incredible example of innovation that launched a new artistic movement and inspired the larger, realm of conceptual art – still prevalent today. 

Fountain is a factory-made urinal, signed “R. Mutt 1917”. Copies of the, now-lost, original urinal from 1917 were produced under the artist’s supervision and currently sell for millions. Why? Because of the exemplary innovation they represent. You see, Fountain, and Duchamp’s earlier upside-down bicycle-wheel mounted on a kitchen stool (Bicycle Wheel, 1913), expanded and forever changed the concept of what art is. The revolutionarily innovative statement Duchamp conveyed with his ‘ready-mades’ was that art needn’t be only defined by technical skill, or taste as defined by leading art critics of the day, and, in fact, didn’t even need to be necessarily physically created by the artist. Rather, his ready-mades were mass-manufactured objects presented from a new perspective, thus raising entirely new, and extremely important considerations of how we look at objects. This resulted in an important philosophical break-through that has advanced and influenced further artistic innovation right through to present day.

Okay, back to business…how the heck does this apply to us? Well, first off Duchamp’s did not just wake up one day and laze about, drinking a latte, while playing with a squishy ball, when the inspiration for Fountain struck him. Duchamp’s innovation followed years of artistic study, keen observation, and hard work.

Some businesses still think innovation comes from creating some sort of superficially creative skunkworks environment that the lucky “innovators” play around in, and occasionally get struck with innovative new ideas. Successful artistic innovators know otherwise and most professional artists work hard at their lifelong artistic practices. Just as any world-renown concert pianist started with daily drills and built up to long hours of daily practice on their path to artistic ‘genius’, innovation in any realm takes work, diligence, and discipline.    

If you were to enrol in art school today, you would probably be required to learn color theory and art history, practice accurate perspective drawing and accurate light representation, learn the functional use of each artistic medium and practice replication of old, realistic masters’ works as a starting point. Most schools require far more technical discipline than you’d ever imagine before you attempt to head “off script” into your own artistic realm of innovation. As well, and this is really important to innovation, art students are taught many techniques for looking at things from new perspectives.

First, social science and humanities are a required component of their training. Thus, the opportunity for lateral thinking is formed – philosophical, global, economic, and current events were all common discussion topics within my core painting classes at art school. Ideals from many realms of life were often considered to see if they had relevance to what we were trying to advance within our painting practices.   

Second, observing from new perspectives is a critical artistic skill that is taught and practiced repeatedly. For example, a common first-year exercise is to copy a photograph or a realistic image with both that image and the paper you are drawing on upside down. This forces the artist to look at light and dark patterns, not at the objects being represented. Another is to draw while only looking at the subject being depicted and never at your hand holding the pencil while it draws. 

Third, we were expected to practice daily. Disciplined, daily practice. No exceptions. Pick up a paint brush, pick up a pencil. Daily practice, daily observation, daily research.

What do artists research? Everything they can think of that might in some way give them new ideas related to their artistic practice. Other artists, ideas, current events, images, new artistic innovations. They also take breaks allowing for conscious and subconscious processing of all of the inputs they are constantly absorbing. For me, running and sleeping are two important processing times – in fact, I woke up with a lot of the ideas for this article in my head this morning. (But that also doesn’t mean I didn’t have to first spend several years studying business and art in order to make the connections.)   

What are the equivalents of the above three approaches in business innovation?

  1. Ensure your innovation leads are macro thinkers and dedicated to taking in information and ideas from a broad base of sources. Every functional department of your organization contains people who think about your product, your competition, and how you can do things better. Make sure there are communications and participatory channels for those individuals who want to contribute innovative ideas or general observations about any of these three topics to contribute. At the same time, make sure your innovation leads are really delving into both internal data of all sorts and external environmental developments continually. Any time I have managed a team I have always required all team members to spend a minimum amount of time learning about customer experiences. This could be listening in on call at the call centre, sitting in on focus group discussions, or even visiting innovative customer experience providers on our periodic “magical merchandising tours”[1] to see what they were doing differently to connect with and engage with their own customers. For instance, while I was leading a large marketing team at a telecom company, one of the magical merchandising tours my team went on included visiting a dentist’s office. Both the waiting room and dental service environments were designed with playful and distracting images and activities designed to make the dental experience as pleasant as possible. This environment provided a great lesson in innovative ways to strengthen our organization’s service delivery through tangential service experience elements.
  2. Observe from new perspectives. Dedication to this approach to innovation means you go far beyond the old-fashioned approach to gathering new product ideas via traditional market research. The traditional approach usually involved asking current customers what they like and don’t like about your current product and what they want to see improved. e. outsourcing the job of innovative thinking to your customers. This is a weak approach which generally produces weak enhancements based on taking customer comments at face value and tweaking products and service approaches. If you instead apply the type of exploratory rigour previously described, you will observe customers in real-life situations shopping for and using your products and your competition’s products. You’ll think about innovation happening in other product categories and think about how it might be applied to your own category. You’ll listen to anyone, anywhere tell you about their perceptions of your product and its use. And you’ll use as much information, from as many sources as possible, to think about what customers are really responding to when they use your product and what they might really respond to positively, if you gave it to them in the future.
  3. Disciplined, daily practice. It is highly unlikely that innovators, whether product managers, research and design experts, production engineers, or corporate strategists, will generate meaningful, durable innovation without first understanding the innovation of the past and the foundations of the products and services they’re working with. Moreover, disciplined information-gathering techniques, information analytics, research methodologies, usage and perceptions study, human psychology consideration, and extensive observation and listening for intent and nuance are, in my opinion, cornerstones to true innovative excellence. As, Saaraa Premji, the undergraduate student convocation speaker at my 2018 art school convocation ceremony said, “Inspiration does not strike like lightning, instead it must be mined like gold.”


Then, before you take those innovative ideas to market it’s also about appropriate testing and successful marketing – important topics for future articles. Until then, hopefully you won’t say “I could have done that” next time you see a modern abstract at the museum and hopefully you’ll also consider some new ideas for your own organization’s innovation journey thanks to artists and the innovation lessons they have to share.

[1] Magical merchandising tours were something I first encountered early in my career while working at Warner-Lambert Canada and are not my own invention.