Artful Making, by Rob Austin and Lee Devin

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Subtitled “What Managers Need to Know About How Artists Work”, this book addresses the question of managing knowledge workers who are more independent than ever before. The authors study how a dramatic troupe puts together a performance for ideas on how to assemble talented and creative free agents into a coherent effort.

In the industrial age, people were given assigned roles and were told to behave like automatons, repeatedly reproducing the same movements, which led to the rise of Taylorism. But in the world of the Creative Class, such notions are no longer applicable. If a worker is a free agent that can choose where to be employed, treating them like a robot is sure to drive them away. Also, in a world where the pace of change is increasing, doing the same thing repeatedly is a recipe for failure.

To find a suitable analog for a free agent world, Austin and Devin turned to the world of the theater, where the entire team is thrown together on a per-production basis. Each team member has their special talents that they bring to the production. And no production is the same. Even when the same production with the same cast and crew is repeated on consecutive nights, the performances vary – the crowd is different, one actor may be in a different mood, the understudy may be needed, etc. Theater has had to incorporate change.

Austin and Devin see the process of art as being one of iterations, of trying different things to find out what works. Rather than try to replicate exactly what happened last time, artful making seeks to reconceive during each iteration, incorporating what was learned in previous iterations but trying something new each time. Whether it’s the weeks of rehearsal time needed for a play, or the dozens of sketches an artist does before the painting, or the different drafts a writer throws away before the final novel, iterations are key to finding the artful way through. To achieve “Artful Making” therefore requires reducing the cost of iterations in business, a point also made in the book Experimentation Matters.

Another key component of “Artful Making” is taking advantage of the specific resources available. As the authors point out, the goal of putting on a play is not to follow the script exactly because “the script is a wholly inadequate specification, lacking sufficient detail to control the rehearsal process the way plans and specifications control industrial processes.” The script is just a starting point, and it’s up to the company to adapt it to the actors, to the theater space, to the lighting and sound available, etc. This requires iterations and experimentation, trying to find out what works and what doesn’t. A scene may have been played one way in previous productions, but it doesn’t work with the actors in this production, so a new way of conceiving the scene must be found.

Directing a production is different than managing an industrial-era process, according to the authors. In Frederick Taylor’s world, the authors describe management as “Tell them what to do; fire them if they don’t do it.” But in a rapidly changing world, the workers may know more than the managers about what they should be doing – “Forcing workers to comply with preconceptions often hinders the overall making process.” So the manager/director needs to find a way to focus and harness the talents of their crew without restricting them from discovering innovative solutions.

One analogy I particularly liked illustrated different conceptions of control.

Lee borrowed a pen from a student, gripped it tightly in his hand, and waved that hand in the air. “See this pen?” he said. “I’m controlling it.” He swooped it around like a fighter plane. “It’s doing exactly what I want it to do.” Then he held the pen out in front of him. “Now look; I’m going to control it some more.” And he dropped the pen. It fell to the floor and bounced. He picked it up and repeated the gesture. The pen bounced again, quite differently. “See that? It did what I wanted it to, each time.” (attributed to acting teacher Milton Katselas)

I love this because I think it strikes to the essence of how to manage a diverse group of talents. Micro-managing somebody who’s an expert in their field is stupid because then you’ll only get out what you put in, so you might as well not even have the expert. But if you give them an environment that drives their actions, you can benefit from their expertise while still moving towards your goals.

To get that benefit requires creating a secure environment for experimentation. This means reducing the cost of iterations so that your team can try different things without fear of failure. Failure’s a misnomer in this case, because iterations that don’t work inform the reconception of the next iteration. The only failure is when an iteration doesn’t teach the team anything new.

Furthermore, the team needs to know that they can push the edge and not get punished. True innovation requires trying new ideas, stretching oneself past the point of comfortable ruts, and that requires management that supports such experimentation.

One last benefit of iterations is that it prepares the team for unexpected changes. Industrial replication processes are brittle because if anything changes from the expected inputs, then the worker doesn’t know how to react – they have not been prepared. In “artful making”, the team has been experimenting continuously through different iterations. They may already have tried something that will work in the new changed environment, and even if they haven’t, they can adapt and improvise because change has been part of their process. The iterations have laid the foundation for them to react at a higher level, where they aren’t thinking about how to just do the task, but how to achieve the greater goal of the ensemble.

Iterate more. Create the environment and the focus, but give up control to your team. It seems like it would mean chaos and no hope of making deadlines, but theater companies regularly get their productions on stage on time with a success rate far higher than most technology teams. Ideo’s process has similar elements, and they’re regularly recognized as one of the most innovative companies. I think it’s only a matter of time before such management techniques become ubiquitous. We’ll have to see.

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