Originally published in a similar format as an article online by Human Resources Media with the title 'The art of innovation in the workplace', how taking an artist's perspective can change the way you innovate.
Artists have the uncanny ability to see things in more than one dimension at once, which has been found to be linked to generate more original ideas. This article reveals how to take this artist’s perspective to innovate better.
One of the most expensive Chinese paintings ever offered at a Christie’s auction was valued at more than $15.5 million. This simple black-and-white ink-and-brush composition from the 17 century depicts mountains, rivers and streams. Painted by a member of the Ming royal family who left to become a Buddhist monk, the artist Shitao travelled widely and experienced life from multiple perspectives.
Rather than imitating the old masters, as was the fashion at the time in China, Shitao used these traditions and his own experiences as a springboard for exploring new ideas. He developed as a uniquely creative artist and became one of the most influential scholar-painters of his time.
The ability for Chinese artists who followed to depict the subject from many angles at the same time became known as ‘shifting perspectives’. Unlike most western painters at the time, who tended to stick to a single, static focal point, Chinese artists were traditionally masters of synthesising different perspectives. This technique allowed the artist to zoom out to give the viewer a broad aerial overview before zooming back in to highlight the finest details.
Seeing in multiple perspectives was a new innovation in art that eventually impacted Western art (such as the cubists). In turn, the art of seeing different perspectives is a technique that can dramatically improve the ways we innovate today.
Preparing for the creative challenge
Creative geniuses have been found to be what has become known as ‘multiperceptive’: that is, they are usually able to see several different perspectives at once.
Albert Einstein's theory of relativity synthesised different perspectives, and Leonardo da Vinci believed that no one was truly knowledgeable unless they were able to hold at least three different perspectives.
Ken Wilber, a prolific writer on transpersonal psychology, has exemplified this integration of different perspectives in his life’s work. Ken was an exceedingly bright student who went on to study maths and science, but in his early twenties he discovered Buddhism and became strongly influenced by Buddhist principles ‘Any single perspective is likely to be partial, limited, perhaps even distorted, and only by taking multiple perspectives and multiple contexts can the knowledge quest be fully advanced,’ Wilber has said. Wilber used the term ‘aperspectival’, meaning that no one perspective has priority or superiority.
Innovation starts with creativity, and creativity is activated by broad exposure to different experiences and ideas. Shitao’s Buddhist philosophy of emptiness as a starting position, then his extensive travels and his openness to learning — all enabled him to draw from diverse sources of inspiration. Being able to see from multiple perspectives also helps to trigger empathy, which has been found to be essential for identifying the end user’s needs and ensuring innovations best meet these needs.
Yet what happens when we are unable to see more than one perspective at a time? How does that impact our ability to think creatively?
Most artists see the world quite differently from non-artists. When groups of artists and non-artists are filmed while viewing a series of pictures to see what their eyes focus on, artists have been found to scan the whole picture, including the ‘empty’ spaces (such as an apparently empty vista of sea). Non-artists, on the other hand, typically focus on objects and people.
This study and others that have been done in the area indicate that artists are able to break down what they see into the abstract elements, while non-artists tend to see what they expect to see as complete, archetypal images.
Being able to see all the elements of a situation from an artist's ‘multi-perceptual’ perspective is therefore critical for being able to see it differently and find unique solutions.
Composing the complete picture
Here's how it's possible to utilise the artist’s ‘aperspectival’ approach for better more human-centric innovation:
- Identify different perspectives: When facing a challenge, practice listing all the different stakeholders and either interview them to find out their perspectives, or at least try to identify how different stakeholders might think or feel through developing diverse ‘personas’ to consider.
- Map different perspectives: An ‘empathy map’ can also help to identify the thoughts, feelings, behaviours and perceptions of different stakeholders, and to determine how they can best be understood and valued.
- Zoom in and out: Practice looking at the big picture from multiple perspectives first, and then zoom in on specific details to identify specific potential solutions, before zooming back out to check possible solutions in context and check impact.
It can be surprising to discover the creative solutions that can emerge when you break away from habitual ways of seeing things!
This article is an adapted excerpt from The Innovation Race: How to change a culture to change the game
Gaia Grant and Andrew Grant are the authors of The Innovation Race: How to change a culture to change the game (Wiley August 2016) along with a number of other international bestselling books and resources. As the Directors of Tirian International Consultancy they help to create innovation cultures for a range of international organisations (from Fortune 500 companies through to NFPs). The Grants are top-ranking keynote speakers, and Gaia is an HD researcher and lecturer at Sydney University Business School. For more information see www.the-innovation-race.com.