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The Art of Big Picture Thinking

“You can’t see the big picture, when you’re in the frame.” – Les Brown

Executives and high-level managers in organizations are generally assumed to be responsible for strategic “big picture” thinking. They are tasked with establishing priorities and shaping the vision of the organization for all their stakeholders, including their employees.

But each of us, as leaders in our own work and life, can employ this type of thinking. A big picture approach can prove very illuminating when we are trapped in a work dilemma, overwhelmed by duties, or just feeling uncertain about what to do in any area of our lives. 

When creating their work, visual artists must focus on the tiniest details –- an individual brushstroke, the representation of shadow and light in a painting, or the shape of the fingernail that will become a tiny part of a figurative statue. But these artists also need to be able to envision the overall finished piece in order to achieve the result they hope to convey to their audience. 

The same holds true for theater and film directors, choreographers, orchestra conductors and the like.  Of course, they must expend a great deal of energy refining and overseeing each detail as necessary to complete the project, but as they determine the best camera angle for a shot, or coach an actor on a line-reading, or demonstrate a dance step, they must also be considering the wider message, theme, or vision of the completed work.  If they neglect to do so, the piece may lack continuity, be unengaging, or even unintelligible to the audience.  

We can apply this same metaphor to business-related scenarios. Big picture thinking when employed on an individual basis can be an effective tool to solve work problems and achieve more satisfying outcomes.  

Often when dealing with work assignments, we simply want to be able to check some project off the list, marking it as completed so that we can move onto the next task.  But, what happens if we are so overwhelmed with a heavy workload, a project we don’t quite understand how to complete, or an impossible deadline?  What are some strategies we can employ?  How can we approach these challenges like a leader? 

You guessed it! We can start by employing some big picture thinking! 

The first step in this process is simple, but it’s also a lifesaver:  Step away

Even if it is for only 15 minutes, make sure to set aside some time to “step back.” Use this time for a mental breather from the details of the issue at hand.  I would encourage you to take a walk or find a way to physically get away from your workspace or computer.  Take some deep breaths to steady yourself. If you meditate or pray, take a few moments to do that.  

By removing yourself from the nitty-gritty of a sticky problem to see the entire project and its desired outcome from a fresh point-of-view -– that of a leader not a participant –- a new perspective can evolve which can prove very illuminating.

Let’s say you have been given a task with what seem like impossible expectations and a fast-approaching deadline. The tendency is to feel the sense of “overwhelm” so strongly that you don’t even know how to start.  We’ve all been there.

Instead of panicking (which is a natural reaction –- so start by forgiving yourself!), take this opportunity to consider the goal and what the strategy to accomplish it might look like as if YOU were the one dictating the outcome as opposed to the one completing the task.  

This big picture thinking could include really delving into the purpose or mission of the work you are doing.  This approach can help us to align ourselves emotionally and thus feel more motivated to achieve results.  It may also involve mentally, or in written form, reviewing the challenges and thinking about how you would advise someone else to get it accomplished. Temporarily “erase” yourself from the picture to remove the sense of personal burden. No longer the individual producer, you are positioned to think more strategically about the tasks with the overall project, department, or organization in mind. 

The outcome of this deeper and broader “big picture” consideration may be to help you get better organized to attack the work, or it may reveal to you that the goal is not reachable as currently planned.  

You may discover that the work could be achieved with specific tools you don’t currently have, or with assistance from a coworker, or with an extended timeline that involves smaller milestones along the way. It could be that your manager has not been clear enough with you about their expectations and what success or failure would look like. 

You now have information you didn’t have before this process began!  But, now what?  You’ve looked at the big picture and it has revealed some things to you, but you still need to get the task accomplished. 

Ideally, once you have looked at things from this wider perspective you have a better understanding of what needs to be done and how to do it.  But, you may also come to the conclusion that you really do need additional support, tools, or training to get the objective accomplished.  Using your big picture analysis, you can better understand why this is so.  You can then more confidently approach your manager or supervisor with appropriate questions, or clearly articulate what you feel is needed to get you to the necessary outcome. 

Though I can’t promise that every manager will be open to your suggestions, in my experience most managers will see this type of deliberate and strategic engagement as employing initiative in a positive way.  Ultimately, you and your supervisor have the same goal: to see the assignment successfully completed!  And now, with your “big picture” knowledge, you can be a powerful participant in achieving individual and departmental or organizational goals. 

By taking a “big picture” approach, you have distinctly changed your orientation to the work. You are now thinking like a leader!  And it is never too early (or too late) to refine and employ your leadership skills which can prove useful and rewarding in all aspects of your life. 

To share your experiences, discuss this topic further, or get some support navigating work-related issues you are facing, please feel free to contact me at elizabeth@artofwork.blog.  I welcome the opportunity to exchange ideas with you! 

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Art of Work: Creativity and Vulnerability

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.”

Dr. Brené Brown

Artists are inherently creative souls.  Creativity is their business.  So, how can those of us who are entrenched in the traditional business world unleash this trait in a way that allows us to become artists in our workplace?  Let’s begin with the creative process itself and jointly explore a necessary aspect of this process that many may shy away from.  

Artists not only feel a sense of personal accomplishment in the completion of their artwork (painting, play, film, poem, book, dance or music performance, etc.), they typically thrive on the conceptual and construction process, finding that creating itself has its own inherent rewards. Although it can be a difficult, often grueling, process to write a book or song, to create a painting or sculpture, the artist wouldn’t remove this activity from their experience even if they could.  The process of creating can be a soul-feeding, even spiritual, exercise that often involves catharsis, personal growth, and revelation.  

Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, a beloved workbook that has been utilized for twenty-five years by artists and non-artists alike to unblock and open up their creativity, describes what she has witnessed when students begin to find their creative way. She writes, “the sheer physical transformation can be startling, making me realize that the term enlightenment is a literal one. Student’s faces often take on a glow as they contact their creative energies.”  

How cool is that?  Wouldn’t it be great to find that kind of “enlightenment” in any type of work context?  

Well, you may not like this next part. It is my belief that you can only truly achieve this state to its fullest by allowing yourself to feel a little uncomfortable.  Artists get more confident as they get more adept at their craft, but every blank page for a writer, every empty canvas or block of clay for a painter or sculptor, every first day of rehearsal for the director, actor, designer on a theatrical or film production comes with some element of fear, or at a minimum, some nerves.  To my thinking, this discomfort, this state of vulnerability, is critical to the process.  If we are too comfortable, our work can become routine and uninspired.  As stated in the quote at the beginning of this article, being vulnerable opens the door to inspired and innovative creativity.  

But who wants to feel vulnerable — especially at work?  Well, let’s go a little deeper to provide a better understanding of that important term as it relates to creativity and to the artist’s process. Author and researcher, Brené Brown, Ph.D, LMSW, in her book, Daring Greatly:  How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.”  Sounds scary, but she also explains that “[v]ulnerability is the core, the heart, the center, of meaningful human experiences.” (In addition to reading her book and listening to her insightful podcasts, I suggest watching the Ted Talk which put Dr. Brown on the map: “The Power of Vulnerability.”  It’s a very eye-opening introduction to this concept from both a personal and scientific perspective). 

I don’t profess to be an expert on the topic like Brené Brown, but I think most artists would agree that vulnerability and creativity go hand in hand.  The actor who allows herself to inhabit a character whose experiences draw on emotional aspects of herself that may not be the prettiest or that cause her personal discomfort to explore, is the actor who provides the most truthful and affecting performance.  If the visual artist fails to challenge himself by considering a subject he has not approached before, or exploring a new technique, or allowing his own story to be exposed in the images he creates, his work can become static, or worse, stale. People might still appreciate his artwork, but it won’t have the emotional resonance it could have.  It also won’t have the same impact on the artist himself.  To reference a previous blog of mine, his “yellowness” starts to fade.  See The Art of Work – The Secret Ingredient

As a songwriter and a music lover, the songs I most enjoy listening to — and those that I feel the most satisfied when writing — are those that expose the artist and audience to emotions that the musicians themselves are experiencing or exploring. Those that the listener can relate to and share in. The freedom to allow these personal connections to be expressed to the fullest only comes by opening oneself up to a vulnerable state.  And, yes, I did say freedom! More on that in a moment. 

I’ll give you an example from my own experience.  I hesitate to do so, as it makes me feel quite vulnerable to tell this story!  But here goes. Last year after the brutal death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, I composed a song to help me personally deal with the pent-up emotions I was feeling about this event.  As a white woman, the writing of the song made me uncomfortable and I broke down often during its creation. But where the vulnerability really put in an appearance was in my decision to video and share the song (with poor lighting and my very basic guitar accompaniment front and center!) on social media.  I had not posted solo performances of any of my songs before, and in this case, I was really exposing myself: my creation, my reaction to the event, my emotions, my musicianship, and my voice — both my voice as a writer and my singing voice. Scary.  But also cathartic — and ultimately freeing. I still struggle with my emotions about this event and others like it, but letting my guard down and exploring my own feelings publicly really helped me gain some footing around what was going on and spurred me on to consider ways that I could be a better advocate for social change.

So we’ve established that creativity is stimulated by vulnerability and that this vulnerability can be freeing for the artist.  But, how does this work in an office setting?  Well, frankly, it begins with leaders who allow for this type of vulnerability to exist without judgment. These leaders can achieve this by modeling and encouraging behaviors that open the door for others to feel comfortable having open conversations and interactions with their coworkers. 

Please understand that this doesn’t mean that managers and executives need to be overtly emotional at work (although, I do think that can be okay, if it is honest and real!).  It means that they are prepared to be open with their peers and direct reports. They are ready to share their own personal journey, willing to acknowledge their own weaknesses or failures, to use them as  learning moments for themselves, for their team, and for the organization.  

Let me be clear: vulnerability is not weakness!  Vulnerability and strength are not mutually exclusive. Yes, leaders need to show strength so that their workforce can feel confident in following them. The vulnerability I’m talking about is the type that equates more closely to courage. And, courage is certainly not a weak quality. 

After writing this section, I discovered a quote that perfectly sums up what I’ve been personally exploring and attempting to articulate. It is from Howard Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks who took the brand from a small regional business to the mammoth international chain that it is today. He states, “The hardest thing about being a leader is demonstrating or showing vulnerability… When the leader demonstrates vulnerability and sensibility and brings people together, the team wins.”  

We can deduce from Schultz’s comments that a leader who models this type of vulnerability will not only earn the respect and trust of their staff, but will also validate the freedom of their team to welcome vulnerability into their own work — the type of vulnerability that can lead to open exploration, collaboration, creative thinking, and innovative action!  

As you might imagine, this is really just the tip of the iceberg on this topic. We haven’t really established any guidelines around what this type of creative vulnerability could look like in the reality of the office setting.  But, we will! I am continuing to explore these ideas and look forward to examining them with you in future blogs.  Hope you will join me on this journey!  And, please share your thoughts. We’re in this together!

The Art of Work: An Introduction

“Here’s to freedom, cheers to art. Here’s to having an excellent adventure and may the stopping never start.”

― Jason Mraz

Welcome to my blog, “The Art of Work!”

This blog will explore how work of any kind can utilize principles from the arts to maximize and enhance business experiences, relationships, and outcomes.  Each blog will explore different concepts related to the arts and put them into the context of the business world.  

For the purposes of this blog, the arts will include visual, performing, and literary arts. We may also expand to include the humanities and the liberal arts and explore how those educational areas lend themselves directly to work in business environments.  These blogs will employ metaphor as well as real life examples; blend emotional, spiritual, and intellectual exercises and activities; stimulate exploration of creative ideas; and encourage dreaming.

Ready?

During our exploration, we will strive to bring artistic practices into your experience in order to energize areas of your business.  My aim is for you to begin to see yourself as an artist.  An artist of your own making in the discipline of your choosing.  

Why become an artist?

Let’s start with the definition of art  to help us clarify how expansive this term can be.  

Here’s a definition from Wikipedia: 

Art is a diverse range of human activities involving the creation of visual, auditory or performing artifacts (artworks), which express the creator’s imagination, conceptual ideas, or technical skill, intended to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

Okay, so that feels like what we think of as art in the sense of the traditional creative arts, but let’s dig into that a bit.  

  • Art requires “imagination, ideas, and/or technical skill.”  

I imagine you have used one or all of those three qualities in whatever work you do.  Imagining a new way of doing something that creates a better outcome; considering new ideas and finding ways to implement them for better effect; becoming better and better at your occupation so that you are more technically adept at whatever you do.  

  • Works of art art are “appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”  

Well, what you do may not feel beautiful, so let’s look at how that could work.  Let’s start with the first part of the definition of “Beauty” from Dictionary.com

Beauty [is] the quality present in a thing or person that gives intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind.

Hmmm.  So, can qualities of work provide pleasure and deep satisfaction of the mind? Yes!  Not all work is pleasurable, but think about how you feel when you’ve completed a project satisfactorily, made a sale, worked with the team to develop and implement a new idea.  You fill in the blanks. 

What about the last part of that definition that suggests that art includes an appreciation of “emotional power?”  Can work of any type have emotional power?  This is one of my favorite topics and I look forward to taking it apart in upcoming blogs, but how about we dip our toe in the water by considering how art affects us emotionally? 

We can be moved by a piece of music that evokes a memory or perhaps simply because of the way the instruments or vocals drive or soar or whisper.  A painting or a play or a poem that makes us hear or read or see something that causes us to react — either positively or negatively — due to its social, political, historical, religious or spiritual depiction has a momentary, or sometimes a lasting, impact on us.  Consider the poem written and read at the inauguration of President Biden after a year of racial and political strife in the midst of a global pandemic.  That moving poem, “The Hill We Climb,” by Amanda Gorman, hit Americans in their hearts.  That is the emotional power of art! If given a larger audience, art can have a far-reaching impact.  

But, can emotional impact and power be present in a professional, non-arts environment?  And, if it is present, how does it relate to business outcomes? 

Let’s look at a story from my personal experience as an executive in a non-profit staffing organization whose mission is to provide priority job opportunities to individuals with disabilities.  

A few years ago an individual (let’s call her “Sarah”) registered with the staffing agency I worked for.  Sarah had a physical disability which made it difficult for her to walk, slurred her speech, and caused partial sight loss in one of her eyes.  Highly intelligent and a recent doctoral graduate, she struggled to find opportunities for employment outside of the university system.  It was never directly discussed, but I can only imagine that biases based on her disability, made her appear as a less than desirable candidate.  

Despite these challenges, Sarah showed an incredible positive demeanor and during our interview I found her charming, funny, and absolutely delightful!  I felt certain I could help her and set about to do so.  I submitted her resume for several promising opportunities, but months later, after several interviews she had not secured a position and was becoming more and more discouraged.  We kept at it and ultimately she interviewed for a position during which the hiring manager recognized her incredible talent, intelligence, and energy and offered her the role!  She took the position, and though it was a temporary role, she became a star player for her team and was nominated and awarded as a “Employee of the Month” by my organization with the most incredible nomination write-up I’ve ever read.  

Was this outcome simply a success story? Sure.  Was there emotional impact?  On me, without question! On Sarah? Well, after seeing the expression on her face during the surprise awards presentation when she discovered she was not being fired, but was being celebrated — absolutely!  Her smile and her tears were emotional, in the best way possible.  

This story is an illustration of what can happen in a business context that has emotional power but that also allows for all parties to win!  My staffing agency made a great placement which led to a happy client who talked us up and sent more work our way.  This client had a wonderful worker who helped them through a critical project. And Sarah had employment which assured her a weekly paycheck and also provided her an opportunity to feel valued in the workplace and led her to pursue rewarding opportunities in other professional environments.  As a side note, Sarah, despite her disabilities and inability to even drive herself to the job site, had perfect attendance during that assignment.  She was never late and never missed even an hour of work. 

The beauty of this story (remembering that storytelling is an art!) is that its value continues to benefit the organization I worked for. This and other stories like it have been told again and again and and have helped the staff stay excited, motivated, and engaged about the work that they do.  That’s emotional power in a business setting.  

So, we’ve begun our exploration. Thank you for reading my first blog! I’m excited to go deeper on this journey with you. How will you become an artist in your work? What will your masterpiece look like, sound like, feel like? That remains to be seen, but it sure is fun to think about! See you next time.

I hope you will subscribe and share your thoughts, and I look forward to exploring more on this topic in the coming weeks.   

Thank you for reading my first blog introducing you to the “art of work.”  I hope you will subscribe and share your thoughts, and I look forward to exploring m