Portrait of an Artist as Free-form Exec

The Financial Post
November 21, 2000

Portrait of an Artist as Free-form Exec
In this arts-based program, executives are encouraged to think beyond their routine and daily mental box

Besides the occasional glance at the painting hanging on the boardroom wall, few people rarely pause to contemplate what merits, besides esthetic, art might bring into their workplace.

Lola Rasminsky, director of Toronto’s Avenue Road Arts School created Beyond the Box to bring the value of artistic thinking to corporate culture. Now in its second year, the program has been seen by groups from Nortel Networks Corp., the Rotman School of Management and Alliance Atlantis Communications.

Recently, 12 members of Hellin Marketing Group took part in a four-hour Beyond the Box workshop at the Windsor Arms Hotel in Toronto. As the session begins the Hellin employees are seated in a circle and classical music plays in the background. Ms. Rasminsky tells the participants to think of this exercise as a “form of cross-training for creative problem solving.”

Along the same line as lateral thinking (a method of solving problems indirectly or by apparently illogical methods) pioneered in the late 1960s by theorist Edward de Bono, Beyond the Box uses the artist’s vision, as Apple Computer’s ad campaign promotes, to “Think Different.” Through drama and art exercises, it encourages you to find ways of thinking and responding that you might not have considered in the past.

Presented with colourful pipe cleaners, glue, construction paper and paint brushes, the staff of Hellin know this is not going to be a regular day at the office. It’s a huge departure from the formal dynamic of the boardroom meeting. “I tend to chair meetings,” says John Crow, former governor of the Bank of Canada. “I certainly wasn’t in a chair here.” On the board of directors of the school, Mr. Crow was one of Ms. Rasminsky’s guinea pigs in developing the program.

“So much of what you do is in the judgmental context, you’re not going to be judged by this. Just see where your fancy leads you,” he says.

In one exercise the members of Hellin are divided into three groups. Using a tray of arts and crafts materials and various non-descript parts you might find in a hardware store they are instructed to create and market a machine to sell. One invention, the Shopping Channel Channeler, channels spirits at home. In a convincing demonstration, the members of the group, posing as Shopping Channel regulars like Sally Struthers and Dionne Warwick, summon the spirit of Elvis Presley. The Channeler is available for three low payments of $19.95 and comes with attractive nose plugs, as stirring up old spirits is a smelly business, explains the participants.

It may appear to be a good excuse to digress into a childhood world of fun and make-believe. But such role-playing has positive results. When people are more relaxed, they share more ideas. Fifty of the top human resources people from Bell Canada went through the program. Georgina Wyman, senior vice-president and chief human resources officer for Bell Canada, says the program loosens up the organization and “loosens up people’s thinking.” Bell has introduced changes in the workplace to promote the free flow of ideas. The quarterly conference call with 700 participants is now done in a talk-show host format.

“They interview me and it makes people more comfortable about asking me questions,” she says. It won’t happen overnight, but the Beyond the Box program is a step toward innovative thinking.

The minimum cost of the program is $4,000 and it can exceed $10,000, depending on the company’s requests. No jacket is required, but Mr. Crow recommends you wear socks without holes.