Friday, June 5, 2009

Inspiration in unlikely places

This recession has teeth. While some sectors of the economy have begun to improve, other industries are still struggling. With layoffs and the need to engineer creative and sustainable new strategies, talent has never been more important. Here’s the path forward: finding the right people, employing their talents effectively, while refashioning your workplace so talent and creativity can flourish.

The University of Chicago is known for a culture that celebrates uncertainty - students here are encouraged to believe they don't know everything. That might seem like an odd thing, especially from a celebrated institution of learning. Shouldn't we encourage students to move toward greater and greater confidence in their understanding of the world. Aren't we sharing knowledge with them? Teaching them how things work? No. That's not how we do things.

Mostly, what we aim to teach is how to ask questions about the world. If you get the questions right - if you develop the right analytical tools - you can find your own answers. Chicago students are characterized by their eagerness to explore the world and the ideas they find out there, and their eagerness to engage others in debate. One of the consequences of this appetite for exploration and insight is the opportunity to find inspiration and direction in the most unlikely places.

As I have been thinking about the demands of beginning a new business in this awful economy, I have been reading everything on the topic I can find. One of the best resources I have come across isn't a product of business writing. It wasn't authored by an MBA. It comes from an artist.

Artists can sell their art in a generous market. When everyone is doing well, people buy art because it strikes their fancy. But when the economy collapses, as it recently has, artists find themselves stuck with inventory they can't sell, they search for ideas that can capture the attention of a market that suddenly demands a return on the investment. Buyers are no longer just trying to ornament their lives, they need evidence that their purchase will have transformative benefits. Alan Bamberger, in a very smart essay called Art in the New Economy, makes the argument that buyers will be looking for "Excellence, quality, productivity, dedication, commitment, reputation, pride in workmanship." Unpacking this, he says:

Your art will have to fight for survival. You'll have to conclusively demonstrate why it's worth owning by offering tangible, intangible, theoretical, philosophical and related forms of proof (not the least of which is visual) that it embodies concepts, ideals, inspirations, and aspirations potential buyers can identify with - because convincing people to let go of their money will soon become more daunting than it's been in decades, assuming it hasn't already. Why does your art deserve a place in someone's home or business? How will it enrich or enhance another person's life?

The same is true in business. Contractors and consultants need to prove that what they offer will be transformative and that what they want is the same thing the client wants.

This might seem like a preposterously unlikely moment to go off on your own and begin a consulting business or any other type of new business. But it might also be necessary. And smart. As firms streamline their staff, it might make sense to engineer your exit, rather than waiting to be shown the door. Further, as firms let people go, they will need someone to pick up the work of doing the things these employees once did.

As you go off on your own, or continue to provide services, we encourage you to be open-minded. Develop a hunger for fresh insights. Maybe visit your local museum.