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What Modern Art can Teach us about Business Innovation


June 25, 2012

Doug Hadden, VP Products

Marshall McLuhan suggested that only the artist lives in the present, the rest of us live comfortably in the past, through the “rear view mirror.” It is the artist who recognizes the new patterns according to McLuhan.

What does this tell us about technology innovation? My sense is that this “role of the artist” to recognize change is the aesthetic that led Steve Jobs to so many innovations at Apple. Some of these innovations were too far ahead of the mainstream. Others seemed late (at first) but relied on a deeper understanding of the new pattern and the need for design.

Breaking Art

Not everyone sees the value of Modern Art. I think that many see this art form as an elaborate scam. It reminds me of the famous (in Canada) controversy when the National Gallery of Canada purchased Bartlett Newman‘s “Voice of Fire” for $1.8M in 1989. Some thought that it was a lot to pay for three stripes regardless of how big the stripes. (As I recall, there were questions in Parliament about fiscal discipline with public money. And, many marched to the National Gallery in indignation to see this blight. After paying the entrance fee.)

Modern art has seen many innovations from Marcel Duchamp declaring found objects or René Magritte declaring that a painting of a pipe was not a pipe.

If nothing else, modern art demands that we look at the world differently.

That’s unsettling. Uncomfortable. And not for everyone.

Technology innovation is also unsettling. Technology companies tend to rest on the laurels of previous innovations, becoming “experts”, sticking to business models of the past.

As one book suggests: If it A’int Broke, Break it.

Or, as Frank Lloyd Wright said: “An expert is a man who has stopped thinking – he knows.”

Innovation Lessons from Modern Artists

It was with this theme of innovation that I watched BBC documentaries by art critic Alastair Sooke linked from the Open Culture web site. Salvador Dali, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and  Andy Warhol are compelling subjects for a documentary series about how the effects of modern art on everyday design.

The most interesting takeaway from all four documentaries is the extent to which artists borrow from peer innovation. There isn’t the tactic of declaring intellectual property rights when a competitor makes better use of your innovation in the art world.

The story of Matisse and Picasso: constant innovation. In fact, innovating well into old age.

Matisse was innovating on his death bed, much like Steve Jobs. Picasso seemed driven by competition and “coopetition” – initially with Georges Braque. Later, his complex relationship with Matisse. Not unlike the Steve Jobs to  Bill Gates relationship.

Meanwhile, Warhol and Dali are as well known for publicity as art. (Perhaps more for celebrity with Warhol’s idea of 15 minutes of fame and Dali’s mustache).

CEO as Performance Art

Some tech Chief Executive Officers are known to be “colourful.” Not as eccentric as Dali, perhaps.

Unlikely to talk about self in the third person.

Yet, with unique facial hair.

Once such CEO is Larry Ellison.

Some of Mr. Ellison’s presentations have been performance art. Many expert analysts pointed out that his most recent pronouncements about cloud computing and the competitive environment (particularly with his biggest competitor) were misleading.

That’s innovation in marketing, I suppose.

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Doug Hadden

Doug Hadden

Executive Vice President, Innovation at FreeBalance
Doug is responsible for identifying new global markets, new technologies and trends, and new and enhanced internal processes. Doug leads a cross-functional international team that is responsible for developing product prototypes and innovative go-to-market strategies.

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