The importance of Art in Business, and the irrelevance of specialists

I was recently at a conference (which I shall not name) where some tech leaders – Founders,  CEOs, VCs, Angel investors  and other stakeholders, all specialists in their respective domains – were  sharing their vision and views on what the future of tech holds. The multi-billion dollar question, or potentially trillion dollar question (I do believe that in the next decade we will see the first trillion dollar startup)

I have vouched to stop going to such conferences and not just because of the bad coffee and boring chat. 

Listening to them talk, despite their obvious intellect, vast experience and success, it struck me that the more of these conferences one goes to, the less chance of predicting the future they have. Or creating blockbuster products and services which is what most of the chat in these conferences tends to obsess over. Or in the very least no better chances. Why? Mainly for 3 reasons I would argue.

  1. Everyone presenting at these events has an agenda of their own. They’re selling you something so their views are biased, by definition 
  2. The more they mingle with each other the more esoteric their views become. They develop tunnel vision. 
  3. If they could predict the future they certainly wouldn’t be sharing it with you. 

It’s no coincidence that some of the world’s top leaders failed to predict  the future or even see and react to fundamental shifts in their market. IBM failed to understand the importance of Software in a market they owned, paving the way for Microsoft and Bill Gates becoming the richest man on the planet. IBM’s CEO  Thomas J. Watson Jr. famously said back in 1943 “I think there is a world market for about five computers.”

Nokia, Motorola and Ericsson  which collectively owned the mobile market failed to see the rise of the smartphone, or react to it, as did Blackberry. 

The list goes on. Similarly, as innovative as todays tech companies are, tomorrows unicorns will likely not come out of the Googles or Facebooks of this world. They will most likely come out of, quite literally, nowhere. 

In fact you will struggle to find very many highly insightful or predictive quotes from top leaders anywhere which in hindsight have been proven right. And I would contest anyone supporting that they ever went to a conference that in retrospect was highly predictive of what was to come, in any field. 

Specialists, who tend to talk at such events, are specialists of today and often their views are irrelevant in tomorrows world. 

The artistic world in fact has been much more visionary, imaginative and predictive of the future than any of the ‘specialists’ opinions. Consider how relevant Star Trek is still to this day. Or ground-breaking films like the Terminator or Asimov’s novels from decades ago. 

Consider how David Bowies’ interview in 1999 to Jeremy Paxman was and still is perhaps the most visionary encapsulation of what was to come , a good two decades ago.  It was by an artist and musician, not by a tech leader. 

Art, music, film production, literature, fashion – all forms of Art – are in fact better places to look at to understand what’s to come. Why? Because Artists do one thing far better than most business people: they think fresh. They imagine. They don’t operate or act on data which is the mantra of the modern business world. By definition if you’re acting on data you’re already too late. 

This is not to say data is unimportant in business – very few businesses in today’s world can operate with any success without it. But trying to predict the future using data is like trying to paint with data. You will get something very dull at best. 

There’s  other reasons I think turning to the Art world is more useful than listening to specialists. I think Artists in general – of any form, be it fashion, music, fine art, film etc. –  are far better at understanding human’s inner desires than scientists and specialists. Why? Because for any form of art to be successful it must appeal to one’s taste. You listen to music you like, watch films you like, wear clothes you like, buy art you like without, in very many cases being able to articulate why. It’s not an act of logic or rationality, it drive by emotion and impulse. It just appeals to your taste.

The business world is rather tasteless in comparison. When was the last time you attended a board meeting when anyone addressed this – in my opinion vastly important- subject: taste. 

It only takes a quick glimpse at most business people to understand that in fact they are tasteless. When was the last time you saw a well dressed venture capitalist? 

Taste is hugely important. If only the business world was more consumed by it, so would we, literally as consumers. If you can understand peoples taste in the commercial world you are far more likely to create blockbuster products, and certainly much more than going to industry conferences hosted and attended by, mainly, people who have none. 

So, I would argue that industry leaders would do far better in spending their limited time going to art exhibitions, music festivals, the theatre, watching movies and reading science fiction rather than business books written by some Harvard MBA who shares a taste but with a blind donkey (and that’s on a good day).

Or maybe – even better- try to create some art.  Painting is and has always been my deepest passion and has contributed far more to anything I’ve ever achieved in business than anything else. For anyone who has never tried it, I highly recommend it: staring at a blank canvass before starting to paint is far more daunting as any exercise I have ever come across in my 15 years of running businesses. You need to create something from nothing. Logic, data or any analysis – tools you readily deploy in solving business problems – cannot come to your assistance. Empirical evidence is irrelevant as is ‘a priori’ knowledge or past experience. The things that most businesses entirely run on. 

In other words to create art you need to do something that unfortunately we do too little of in business: you need to IMAGINE. If only we did more of it.