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Amy Whitaker: ‘Innovation’ is the word equivalent of Microsoft Word ’97 clip art. It means well, but …

May 1, 2019 Category: FeaturedLongPeopleQ&A
Amy Whitaker, the author of the award-winning book Art Thinking and an assistant professor at NYU, holds both an MBA and an MFA and teaches and writes in both directions.

Whitaker has spoken widely on creativity — including at TEDx, the Aspen Ideas Festival, and the Fast Company Innovation Festival — as well as on blockchain and financial structures for artists. She will be in Philadelphia to be the featured speaker at the Arts + Business Council’s Defining Innovation event taking place Thursday, May 2 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Whitaker will be interviewed by David Yager, president of University of the Arts, during the event, to discuss concepts from her book, and will  join a group of local leaders to discuss how creativity can increase innovation across management, technology, and talent efforts. After her interview, she will go to Moore College of Art & Design to help develop curriculum.

Generocity caught up with her for a quick Q&A in advance of her visit to Philadelphia.

How do you think nonprofits and mission-driven organizations can benefit from creative strategies [like the ones explored in your book]?

Anyone can benefit from creative strategies. Creativity is about resourcefulness. For a non-profit organization, creativity means ingenuity using resources well and inventiveness in delivering on mission.

Is there a set process, or set of steps, you use to change the way people approach the challenges at work? And how do you measure the impact of these changes?

One of the things about creativity is being willing to step out of templates, and to trust that if you lead from the question that is most important to you, you will chart a path. That said, Art Thinking offers tools for how to think through open-ended problems.

  1. Focus on the question that really matters to you.
  2. Figure out how much time you can afford to work on it, within the requirements of your whole life (or enterprise).
  3. Commit to this amount of time as “studio time.”
  4. Give yourself a “grace period.” Even for many pressing problems, you don’t need a solution now, just soon. Identify that stretch in between as a “grace period.” Knowing you have a little runway gives you more creative space.
  5. Own upside in what you make. Think in terms of equity and shared value. Use structures of markets to support long-term creativity. Owning upside is generative.
  6. In terms of management, focus less on “guru” notions of creative leadership and more on holding the environment. Don’t focus on being a genius in the Steve Jobs sense but be “good enough” to make people, yourself included, feel creatively safe.
  7. Accept that things like climate change or economic stability are actually art projects of our time. Ditch the myth of artistic genius and assemble the teams required to tackle complex and systemic problems — to build the world itself as an art project. Don’t be afraid to ask “wouldn’t it be cool if?” or “this is broken — how can we make it better?”

What do business-oriented people learn from art, and vice versa?

From our Partners

I am continually struck by how creative business people already are, and how good at business many artists are.

There’s a wooden idea of both fields, and a need to build more language for the gray area between the two. All of us have practical and creative selves. Artists have structural challenges with income and with the capacity of markets to recognize early-stage value. But all of us can design economic structures that support us on our own terms, and embrace our inner artists without, on the business side, assuming that means playing Enya and doing team building exercises with Play-Doh (with much respect to both!).

U.S. society tends to think of art as a frivolous pursuit, pitting it against the more evident social good effected by service organizations, or the economic impact of businesses — how do you shift people from that thinking into Art Thinking?

My editor and agent encouraged me to put a personal story at the front of Art Thinking, which is this: My father was a neurologist and my mother is a medievalist. Someone asked him once how they got along being in such different fields. He said that he was in the business of saving lives and she was in the business of making lives worth saving. The thing is, they actually flipped roles all the time. He helped people with multiple sclerosis, so with difficulty and unpredictability walking and enjoying life to full capacity. My mother helped people with life survival skills, like being able to write for jobs.

The connection of art to frivolity I get. I have heard it a lot. I worry over it. I internalized it when I was younger. I think the question is, how can art reach out to include people, not just as admiring audience members but as creative fellow travelers and collaborators? And how can we recognize that business, in its ideal form, is about value creation not just value extraction, and reorient business to include the essentially artistic risk of vulnerability and failure required to build long-term value?

How is innovation tied to “art thinking”?

“Innovation” is the word equivalent of Microsoft Word ’97 clip art. It means well but it’s hard to connect the popped-champagne icon back to its joyful real world counterpart. I think innovation is what we call applied creativity, but with the benefit of hindsight, in which we can see the rewards of all the efforts. I try to talk about what creativity asks of us in the before picture, and in the present moment, because the rewards of hindsight are only created by talking risks before value is known.

What takeaway do you want the audience members who attend your talk to leave with?

I want people to feel self-trusting and inspired, and to build language and space for bringing their whole capacity into the world.


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