Working With Uncertainty In Our Organisations

Developing artistic practices to respond to business challenges

I recently spent time talking with Ross Dickie and James McLuckie from Good Practice, about working with uncertainty. The conversation will be released on their podcast soon. Even though uncertainty is all around us all the time, the very nature of it means we tend to shy away from working with it, often preferring to seek to exercise control instead (which bizarrely, often seems to lead to even more of the stuff).

One of the questions James raised in our conversation was how can we help people move past that reluctance? It’s a good question, and I was reminded of some work done by Stephanie Barnes and Age of Artists, who developed a framework to help make it easier to engage with uncertainty. I’ve drawn a version* of it here:

Stephanie wrote a really useful piece on how to engage with and explore this framework, and has kindly agreed to me reproducing her work here.

“The framework works from the outside in towards the middle, using artistic practices and attitudes to offer alternative responses to business challenges. In the model, the organisational situation appears on the left-hand side, while the artistic practices and attitudes are on the right. Possible transformational activities connect the two sides and allow the artistic activities to act upon the situations on the left side.

Circumstances such as dealing with a market, that are complex, changing quickly, uncertain, or volatile are all considered. The traditional response in these situations might be to try to simplify things, in the case of complexity; slow them down, in the case of acceleration; control them, when they are uncertain; or approach them with resistance in the case of volatility. However, by using artistic practices and attitudes in a transformational approach, we can move our organisations to a place which can provide a more balanced, engaged result. We can have diversity instead of simplicity; a sense of purpose instead of deceleration; autonomy in the place of control; and elasticity rather than numerous rules and exceptions, in the case of volatility. 

In adapting a creative mindset, and applying artistic practices to an organisational situation, we start by identifying the business problem we are trying to solve, then decide which practice we want to start with: perceiving, reflecting, creating, or performing. We can start with any of the activities and move through the others as part of the process of arriving at the response/resolution of the problem.

In arriving at a resolution, it often helps if we adopt artistic attitudes, like curiosity (asking why five times, or challenging assumptions), being passionate about what we are working on, being confident there is a solution, and being resilient enough to bounce back when we experience failures or set-backs. The persistence which develops through these activities is often key to finding a solution.

Artists across all genres display a particular artistic attitude, that is increasingly and highly relevant in other disciplines as well. This attitude often consists of:

Curiosity. A general readiness to perceive, receive and to learn.
Position. Holding a personal belief that is articulated with integrity.
Passion. Pursuing what matters with initiative, determination, courage and persistence.
Resilience. Appreciating uncertainty, flexible towards change, robust in conflict and crisis.
Transcendence. Ability to surpass limitations of ego and self-interest in order to create something new.

Curiosity, position, passion, resilience, and transcendence often characterise artists – and these things are clearly not exclusive to them. Everyone can develop several or all of these features since they will emerge through the ongoing artistic practices in which a person engages over time.

Artistic Practice is a non-linear, iterative process that consists of recurring creative patterns that can be observed across most or all art genres and that are applicable to other disciplines. This process includes:

Perceiving. Observing, Listening, Communicating, Exploring, Collecting, Sensing.
Reflecting. Abstracting, Deconstructing, Reframing, Ideating, Challenging, Contemplating, Reasoning.
Playing. Experimenting, Composing, Improvising, Bricolage, Cooperating, Designing, Rehearsing, Doubting, Critique, Orchestrating.
Performing. Creating awareness, Stimulating emotions, Evoking meaning, Inspiring.

Going through this process will enable people to eventually build and extend generic skills in addition to their core expertise.

Acquiring perception skills.
Gaining mindfulness and understanding.
Learning problem solving, design and collaborative creation.
Understanding how to create awareness, stimulate emotion, and evoke meaning.

Artistic attitude and artistic process amplify each other. An artistic attitude enables experiencing the artistic process more profoundly and as a result leads to higher competence levels. Going through the artistic process can change your attitude.”

There are other artistic ways to embrace uncertainty too, including the excellent draw for the bin method, and for those who like a little more structure, at least at the start of the exploration, I think that what Stephanie and Age of Artists have come up with, is very useful.


*Since I drew the sketch, a new version of the framework has emerged, helping to demonstrate the changeable nature of work. In addition, Age of Artists have published a book, Creative Company (currently available in German – English translation expected later in 2019), which describes some of their research in greater detail.

The Kindness of Strangers

My trip to the exhibition in Minden last week was great fun. Even though unplanned changes to my travel arrangements there and back did their best to derail me, I resolved not to let any delays get me down – after all, what can I do about it anyway?

Outward Bound

After rerouting into London from home to avoid a fallen tree on a line, a 100 minute delay departing London, and a 30 minute hold up in Rotterdam meant I missed my connection to Minden from Amsterdam Central. Arriving at Amsterdam I visited the international ticket desk, where a very helpful person allocated me a new reservation on a later train. The same person wrote me a note to show the guard, explaining the reasons for delay were beyond my control, so would they please honour my now expired ticket. He stickered and stamped the note and with a smile, assured me everything would be OK. He was right – the guard on the train happily accepted my unofficial travel documentation and on we went. The kindness of strangers.

I disembarked at Minden, feeling a little tired and disoriented having passed through England, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands prior to my arrival in Germany. I was greeted on the platform by Ulrich – someone who I had met briefly last November when the idea of this adventure was first suggested. I’d no idea Ulrich was going to be there, and a huge smile and a warm welcome were just what I needed. An invitation to the house to meet Irene was gratefully accepted and soon we were enjoying a late dinner, a glass of wine, and an excellent conversation. Ulrich dropped me back at my hotel later that evening. The kindness of strangers.

On Location

I met many friendly people while orming* about town, all of whom were helpful and tolerant of my lousy German, but hey, at least I tried…ich spreche nur ein bischen Deutsch. The friendly atmosphere at the exhibition was outstanding. A genuine appreciation of the work by all of the artists, reciprocated to the organisers who had worked hard to set everything up. Lots of guests milling about, enjoying our time together. I was introduced to Josephine, who had found a piece of free art I made. The art had been sent on ahead, and news of it was in the local paper. Josephine gave me a lovely framed photograph and we spent time talking and laughing.

Homeward Bound

Before we parted company, Josephine asked about my plans to travel home. I described the route, 08:15 departure from Minden to Dormund, Dortmund to Dusseldorf, Dusselfdorf to London, London to home. ‘I don’t think you can get from Minden to Dortmund tomorrow…one of the stations on that line is closed this weekend’. Sure enough, Josephine was correct, one of the stations on the line was closed for engineering works. The train was still running but it was taking a two hour detour, just enough delay for me to miss my flight out of Dusseldorf. Fortunately – there was an earlier train leaving at 05:15, so I got up at 04:30 and six hours later, boarded the flight. If it hadn’t been for that conversation I might still be abroad somewhere. The kindness of strangers.

The flight was duly delayed a while after we boarded, and when I eventually got to London Victoria, I discovered my local train station was shut for engineering works – you couldn’t make it up! I travelled to Croydon instead, and Carole kindly came to pick me up from the station.

I (just about) succeeded in keeping a smile on my face through the delays, and more importantly – I benefitted from the kindness of people I did not know, which all helped turn a good trip in to an excellent one.

*”orming” – wandering without intent, meandering, walking with pleasurable aimlessness (English regional, esp. Lincolnshire; supposedly derived from the Norse word for “worm”). With thanks to Robert Macfarlane for the definition.

That Is What It Was : This Is What It Is

I’m in Minden, a fascinating historic town in the North Rhine Westphalia region of Germany. The main reason for my visit is to take part in an art exhibition as part of a cultural festival celebrating the relationships Minden has with its twin towns, one of which is Sutton. I’ve been made to feel very welcome here – and I’m enjoying being a tourist, wandering around town appreciating the history, which sits alongside more contemporary aspects of the place.

While I’ve been here, the political shambles in the UK has continued to unravel, and the people I speak with In Minden are completely bemused as to why we are trying to leave the EU. I don’t have any answers for them. Something I have noticed and am continuing to notice, is how often people who voted to leave, factor narrative around the first and second world wars into their rationale. It’s depressing.

I’m bringing this up now, because Minden was a prisoner of war camp in WWI, and suffered heavy bombing from US forces in WWII. These things are parts of our history, they’ve happened, they cannot be changed, and we learn from them. What we shouldn’t do is colour everything else we know and experience about something, based on awful events which happened many decades ago.

The exhibition preview is in a few short hours, so I’m off to get ready for that. Until I write again, I’ll leave you with a new piece of art titled ‘Arohanui’, a Maori word meaning, much love, with deep affection.

Arohanui. Pencil and acrylic on paper