Book Review: Artistry Unleashed

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The good people at University of Toronto Press tracked me down and asked me if I’d like to read a copy of Hilary Austen’s Artistry Unleashed, written under the Rotman imprint.

Being one of those rare birds who likes to mix the arts with commerce (as far as I’m concerned, Great Expectations and Glengarry Glen Ross were two of the best business books ever written) I always like to read about how the creative process can inform business thinking. And so I dove in.

As I was reading Roger Martin’s forward, indicating that this book is a necessary counterbalance to the current focus on quantitative thinking, I remembered an ad in Baseline magazine showing a photo of a “data computing appliance” with the headline “The Answer Machine.” The ad promises: “Data in. Decisions out.” In a world where business decisions are expected to be made with the simple application of an algorithm, Austen’s book seems quite relevant.

In the book, Austen makes a clear case for the importance of an artistic mindset in the business world. The design thinking movement shows that an open and creative culture can be a huge source of competitive advantage in an environment of ambiguity and change. Rather than simply advising business leaders to hire naturally creative types, she takes on the formidable task of showing us how we can all bring more artistry into our lives.

Trying to nail down how the artistic process works is not an easy task. As Austen points out in chapter 5, it’s like trying to tell someone who cannot wiggle their ears how to wiggle their ears. At times I grew lost in the theory and, like Churchill describing Russia, I dismissed artistry as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” I craved some practical exercises like you might find in Anne Lamott’s book about the writing process, Bird by Bird. But just as I was starting to get overwhelmed, Austen grounded her subject matter with some concrete examples.

The strongest part of the book is when she shadows photographer Steve Dzerigian and is able to map his creative process using her Knowledge System model. It’s an elegant way of capturing a rather unwieldy process and I got the sense that artistry can, in fact, be taught. While we can not all become Picasso, we can all become more Picasso-like.

For those interested in exploring a fresh perspective, Austen offers some material not typically expected in a “business” book (I defy you to find another business text featuring a recipe for Osso Buco.) If she can encourage business leaders to bring more creativity to the table, she’ll have made a wonderful contribution to the field.