Relative Values: Considering Collective Good in the Workplace

David Hare, 1979. Loveridge/Evening Standard/Getty Images

David Hare, 1979. Loveridge/Evening Standard/Getty Images

‘You think attitudes are all to do with whim. You understand nothing. Attitudes are all to do with character.’
Nrovka, ‘The Bay at Nice.’

I recently saw a compelling revival of David Hare’s 1986 play ‘The Bay at Nice.’ (The Menier Chocolate Factory, London, until 4 May.)

We are in Leningrad in 1956, and Valentina Nrovka, a Russian artist, has been invited to the Hermitage to offer her opinion on the authenticity of a Matisse painting. 

Nrovka has had a fascinating life. She spent her youth living freely among the expatriate artists in Paris. She was taught painting by Matisse and had a daughter by a soldier who was just passing through. Then in 1921 she returned home to post-revolutionary Russia out of a sense of duty, of responsibility to the greater good. She now cuts a somewhat melancholy figure, disappointed by the flawed realities of the Soviet state.

‘Everyone here lives in the future. Or in the past. No one wants the present.’

Nrovka’s daughter Sophia meets her at the museum to seek help in arranging a divorce - a complex and expensive business within the Russian system. Nrovka, however, is sceptical of the durability of her daughter’s love for her new man, Linitsky.

‘We all have a dream of something else. For you it’s Linitsky. Linitsky’s your escape. How will it be when he becomes your reality? When he’s not your escape? When he’s your life?’

Nrovka is also more broadly critical of Sophia’s romantic talk of free will, rights and liberty. 

‘’I must be myself, I must do what I want…’ I have heard these words before. On boulevards. In cafes. I used to hear them in Paris. I associate them with zinc tables and the gushing of beer. Everyone talking about their entitlements. ‘I must be allowed to realize myself.’ For me it had a different name. I never called it principle. I called it selfishness.’

Whilst Nrovka is negatively predisposed to her daughter’s divorce proposals, she is happy to discuss the principles of painting that she learned from Matisse.

‘Each colour depends on what is placed next to it. One tone is just a colour. Two tones are a chord, which is life….No line exists on its own. Only with its relation to another do you create volume.’

We realise that Nrovka has applied Matisse’s artistic beliefs to her own life: she relinquished her individual freedom in pursuit of collective good; she chose belonging over independence; she found comfort in the context of shared homeland, culture and community.

Hare’s play resonated with me because Nrovka’s core arguments seem so unfashionable today. In the modern era we concentrate so much on self-help, self-improvement and self-actualisation; on individuality, autonomy and free will. We want to achieve our own particular goals, to realise our personal potential, to be the best that we can be. We all aspire to be a star performer, a hero or a headline act. We’d all like to play a leading role in our own movies. 

We talk less often nowadays about the rewards of shared success and collective accomplishment; about the benefits of belonging and participating; about team, comradeship, unity and kinship. 

And yet there are compensations to be found in mutuality and togetherness at work. There are consolations in subordinating the self to the collective. Indeed you could argue that in this age of interdependence it is only in the context of the group that we can ever attain individual contentment.

When investors seek to determine an asset’s worth, they don’t just look at its intrinsic value. They also take into account the value of similar assets, thereby establishing ‘relative value’. Maybe we should apply both intrinsic and relative perspectives to our own careers.

Reflecting further on Matisse’s creative practice, Nrovka observes that the great artist worked incredibly hard, finding inspiration in everything around him. When he was tired and needed to relax, he would put his palette down and go to the mountains.

‘You can’t paint a mountain. The scale is all wrong.’

'Here's my chance to dance my way
Out of my constrictions.
Givin' you more of what you're funkin’ for,
Feet don't fail me now.
Do you promise to funk, the whole funk,
Nothin' but the funk?
One nation under a groove,
Gettin' down just for the funk of it.
One nation and we're on the move,
Nothin' can stop us now.’

Funkadelic, 'One Nation Under a Groove' (G Clinton / G Shider / W Morrison / E Krause / F Harrison / T Kendrick / C Branch / O Johnson)

No. 225

Inferior Design: Do Our Offices Inspire Creativity or Express Uniformity?

Matisse in his Studio

Matisse in his Studio

‘Objects which have been of use to me nearly all of my life.’
Henri Matisse, Note on the back of a photograph of his possessions, 1946

I recently attended an exhibition presenting works by Henri Matisse alongside the treasured personal possessions that inspired them. (Matisse in the Studio, The Royal Academy, London, until 12 November.)

Photos of Matisse in his studio revealed a man surrounded by carvings, bottles and textiles, porcelain bowls and pewter jugs. There were Arabic screens and African figurines. There was a Cambodian statue, Kuba embroidery and a Spanish vase. These artefacts were not particularly valuable, but they were more than just decorative. Clearly Matisse found them meaningful, provocative, suggestive. And they were very much present in his art.

Matisse, 'Purple Robe and Anemones’ and the C18 pewter jug that inspired it.

Matisse, 'Purple Robe and Anemones’ and the C18 pewter jug that inspired it.

A silver chocolate pot Matisse received on his wedding day was depicted repeatedly, with differing degrees of abstraction; African masks prompted a serene style of portraiture; a Venetian rococo chair with a curious seashell design was interpreted from various perspectives; a marble Roman torso and a Chinese calligraphic panel induced vivacious colourful cut-outs.

‘The object is an actor. A good actor can have a part in ten different plays; an object can play a role in ten different pictures.’
Henri Matisse

Clearly context inspired the content of Matisse’s art. And he was not just representing these objects. They were catalysts, starting points, springboards for other thoughts and ideas.

‘For me the subject of a picture and its background have the same value…There is no principal feature, only the pattern is important.’
Henri Matisse

Legendary New York art director and designer George Lois took a different view of the work environment. For him decorative objects, furniture and pictures entailed distraction rather than inspiration. His office resembled a monastic cell - albeit a rather spacious and lofty one.

‘The only thing I ever permit on my desk is the job I’m working on. And, in my work place, there is nothing on the walls (except my nineteenth century Seth Thomas clock) to distract me from what I’m supposed to be thinking about on my desk.’
George Lois

George Lois’ office at Lois Holland Callaway, 1969

George Lois’ office at Lois Holland Callaway, 1969

Matisse and Lois had decidedly different perspectives, but they shared an understanding that their working context contributed to their creative content.

I’m sure every one of us can recall distinctive work environments that we’ve come across over the course of our careers.

When I joined BBH in the early ‘90s, its Great Pulteney Street offices boasted an austere industrial aesthetic. It was all black, steel, chrome and glass; racked televisions, exposed pipes and rubberised flooring. This look was completely consistent with the Agency’s positioning at the time as an ‘ideas factory.’ It had an attractive tone of confidence and professionalism.

In John Hegarty’s office at BBH you found a painting of an empty box, a large Q & A design and a stuffed black sheep - constant reflections on the power of ideas and the imperative of difference. Next door you could see Nick Gill’s wall of punk singles, which called to mind his personal passion and independent spirit. Nigel Bogle’s space was closer to the Lois model: simply furnished with a few framed award-winning ads, just to ensure we all knew the standard we were aiming at.

I’m afraid my own work environment was often overrun with piles of paper. I could trace files and documents chronologically by their distance from the top (like the layers in the archaeological site at Troy). Nigel rather generously once suggested ‘untidy desk, tidy mind’, but I fear the towers of A4 just betrayed my paranoia about lost knowledge. I changed office many times over the years. And wherever I laid my hat, I hung twelve photos by Daniel Meadows. In the rarefied world of Soho advertising, I found these ‘70s images of ordinary British folk gently nostalgic and reassuring – a land that time forgot.

Clearly an office speaks – about each of us as individuals, and all of us as a company. So we should give proper thought to what we’re saying.

‘Your working surroundings should not be a presentation to your Clients…And your home should not be a presentation to your friends. Surroundings should relate to who you are, what you love and to what you deem important in life.’
George Lois

I confess I’m no fan of the current conventions in creative office design - conventions now shared, with bigger budgets, by our Clients: the reclaimed wooden tables, the high chairs and industrial lighting; the brightly coloured walls and quirky shaped sofas; the suggestive neon words and slogans; the themed breakout areas and table football; the juice bar, coffee station and artisanal cookies; the beach-hut workstations, the meeting rooms named after Bowie songs; the climbing walls, playground slides and bouncy castles…

Sometimes we equate juvenility with creativity. Sometimes our work environments encourage recreation rather than inspiration, conformity rather than diversity. Sometimes they seem designed for longevity of attendance, not quality of output.

Of course, nowadays few of us are fortunate to have our own personal offices. Whilst we can create context on our desks and screens - and we can create seclusion through our headphones - for the most part our employers control our environments.

Nonetheless, we should still ask ourselves how we’re using the space that surrounds us. Where do we stand on the spectrum from Matisse’s gallery of mementoes, to Lois’ self-conscious minimalism? Does our office environment encourage inspiration or concentration? Does it provide stimulus or distraction?

Environmental design is strategically critical to the culture that a modern business is trying to encourage, and the sense of self it’s seeking to convey. Shouldn’t a creative business curate space, stimulate ideas, spark the imagination? Shouldn’t we be developing diverse, productive studio environments, not happily homogeneous corporate habitats? Shouldn’t our context inspire our content?

Daniel Meadows 'National Portrait' 1974

Daniel Meadows 'National Portrait' 1974

No. 146

The Interdependent Business: The Networked Age Needs Networking Skills

Henri Matisse 'La Danse'

Henri Matisse 'La Danse'

My father was always very comfortable in the pub. At home he could be pensive, silent and self-absorbed. For hours he’d be sunk into his capacious armchair, the Telegraph on his lap, darts on the telly, black Nescafe and Embassy cigarettes within arm’s reach. But down the Drill Dad was gregarious and outgoing. He would perch on a high stool at the bar, cradling a pint of bitter in a dimpled jug, his change spread before him on a beer towel. He’d hold court on politics and popular culture, the decline of the British Empire and West Ham United. He’d chat for hours to Julian the barman, to Barry Green the market trader, and to Fat Mick who worked in a back office in the City. He’d talk to anyone in fact who was prepared to listen.

Dad once explained to me that the pub wasn’t just a place to socialise; it was a place to do business. ‘Anything that needs doing, you can do it down the pub.’ It was there that he arranged baby-sitting duties for Martin and me; there that he bought the family fitted floral chair covers, a food mixer and a second-hand car.

Perhaps, if the term had existed back then, you’d have said my father was a natural networker.

Some years later, by a curious set of circumstances, I found myself in a small seminar surrounded by modern-day Titans of Industry. I’d never been so close to so many important business people at one time and I thought this might be an ideal opportunity to understand what they had in common.

They were all rather charming actually. They were good storytellers, self effacing, easygoing. (I remember one of them made a joke about his neighbours. It was the kind of anecdote anyone would tell. These neighbours just happened to live on the adjacent island.) I’d not say these Titans of Industry were intellectuals as such. They did not demonstrate some extraordinary insight into world affairs. But they did share a broadly positive outlook, an inner confidence and an admirable ability to reduce matters to simple terms.

There was one unifying characteristic that really impressed me. When in the course of the seminar there was a need to get something done, one of the Titans would chime in with ‘I know such-and-such. I’ll reach out to such-and-such. They’ll point us in the right direction. They’ll sort this out. I’ll get them on the phone now.’

It struck me that a critical determinant of these modern entrepreneurs’ success was their supreme networking skills. Their inclination was never to embark on a task on their own. It was always to enlist like-minded expertise and specialism; to speculate on who could accelerate the process, ease the path, open the right doors.

In the past the preeminent skills of the entrepreneur may perhaps have been empathy and anticipation; innovation and independence; drive and determination. In the past it may all have been about self-belief and self-sufficiency. But in the digital era, business is so complex that the self is not sufficient. If you can confidently connect, you can achieve more in less time at lower cost; you can act with agility. The contemporary businessperson needs to be expert in partnership and participation, in collaboration and coordination. In the networked age, we all need to be networkers.

I say this with some reluctance because I have never been a great networker myself. I’m socially awkward, uncomfortable with business conversations that lack a defined purpose. I can connect ideas, but not people. And I squirm when I see an agenda indicating ‘there’ll be ample time for networking.’

But then again, perhaps we have devalued the term ‘networking.’ It has come to mean clumsily swapping business cards, tentatively checking profiles on LinkedIn. It’s become forced enthusiasm, cheap white wine and a casual Costa coffee. The networking that the modern world really demands is about connecting and combining talents to achieve commercial goals; to get things done, better, faster and more affordably. It’s about delivering a better service, not a better CV.

I was fortunate to work for many years in a successful independent business. We were proud of the fact that we were masters of our own destiny. But in a sense no business can be truly independent in today’s world. Nowadays we all depend on our allies and associates, suppliers and service providers. The best modern businesses are interdependent businesses.

Inevitably over recent years the response of the large corporates to the fragmenting service sector has been to merge and acquire; to buy out and buy in; to try to own everything. They see the ultimate destination as a full service offer, a ‘one-stop shop.’ But the corporate instinct to own and control suggests a failure to comprehend the mercurial demands of today’s world. Which Agency can comfortably manage the requirement for many services sometimes and few at others? Which Client wants to work with a partner who’s good at everything, but great at nothing? Ownership may be too rigid an answer.

In his book The Empty Raincoat Charles Handy, the Irish business philosopher, explored the theme of ‘the Chinese Contract.’ He related how, many years ago, when working in the oil industry in Malaysia, he was negotiating with a Chinese agent. They ‘reached terms, shook hands and shared a glass of brandy.’ But then when Handy brought out the official company contract and invited the Chinese agent to sign, the agent was incensed. For him this formalisation of the agreement betrayed a lack of trust and prompted suspicion that he was being locked into an unequal deal.

We need to rethink our approach to business relationships. Partnership is about trust and confidence, not liability and contracts. It is about open and honest collaboration, not reluctant and forced obligation.

The sadness for me is that my father was perhaps a man out of time. In another era his networking skills could have made him a Titan of Industry. As it was, despite his natural charm and ability to connect, he was not actually very successful in business. He drifted, amiably but aimlessly, from travel agency to double-glazing to the gasket sector. One winter the car he bought from the bloke in the Drill completely broke down because he had failed to top up the anti-freeze. But it didn’t seem to matter too much to Dad. He just found another bloke to fix it down the pub.

"Love is a rose
But you better not pick it.
It only grows when it’s on the vine.
A handful of thorns and
You’ll know you missed it.
You lose your love when you say the word ‘mine.’’

 Neil Young, Love Is a Rose

This piece has just been published in the Spring 2017 edition of You Can Now magazine.

No. 125

NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND 14

Garden and Woodland Special

 

Learning from Lilies: Strip Away the Context

I recently attended Painting the Modern Garden, an excellent exhibition examining the garden in art between the 1860s and 1920s. (It runs at the Royal Academy in London until 20 April.)

In the late nineteenth century there was a horticultural revolution. Bourgeois Europeans and middle class Americans had affluence and leisure time, and a yearning to preserve something natural against the march of industrialisation. Gardening became an obsession. They studied, imported, cultivated and collected. One contemporary writer proclaimed, ‘I love compost like one loves a woman.’

Artists seem to have been in the front ranks of this revolution. Gardens provided a subject to express their thoughts about nature, beauty, colour and light. Gardens could suggest interior as well as exterior truths. Pissaro, Renoir and Bonnard; Sargent, Van Gogh and Matisse. The great painters of the day repeatedly set their easels up outside, in the garden.

Painting the Modern Garden is an exhibition of intoxicating colour: radiant, ravishing yellows, pinks and purples; intense sensory explosions. One feels the heat and languor of a long Summer’s afternoon. White linen, lace and crinolines. Let’s play croquet on the lawn, take tea on the terrace, reel around the fountain. Sunflowers, dahlias, peonies and poppies. Come consider the chrysanthemums, tend the rhododendrons with me.

And then, of course, there was Monet and his wondrous water-lilies.

At Giverney Monet painted water-lilies over and over again. He studied them, scrutinized them, isolated them in their stillness, floating in the reflective water and changing light. He removed them from their context. They became abstract contemplations of colour, tone, atmosphere and silence.

One critic observed: ‘No more earth, no more sky, no limits now.’

I was struck by this comment and found myself thinking about the role of context in brand marketing and communication.

Context is central to good marketing. If we can understand a brand’s place in the world, we can promote its relevance more effectively. And the broader the cultural context considered, the deeper the understanding. But whilst context is critical to comprehension, effective communication requires compression, distillation and focus. So ultimately we must strip context away.

Too often we fail in this respect. We try to cram our messaging with visual, verbal and conceptual cues. Show the user, signal the occasion, reference the tradition, give the reason-to-believe, bash out the benefit. Communication becomes loud, cluttered, busy and bewildering. Context can be constricting.

Imagine if you could express your brand as an abstract truth, not an observed reality; an intense distillation, not an actual depiction. Imagine if you could strip away the context, narrow the frame, focus on the essence itself.

What would you say? What would we see? How would we feel?


Why We Go on Awaydays: A Reminder from Shakespeare

‘Good servant, tell this youth what ‘tis to love…
It is to be all made of sighs and tears.
It is to be all made of faith and service.
It is to be all made of fantasy,
All made of passion and all made of wishes,
All adoration, duty and observance.
All humbleness, all patience and impatience.
All purity, all trial, all observance.’

As You Like It, V, ii

Last week I saw a marvellous production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It at the National Theatre in London (running until 29 February).

As the programme notes point out, As You Like It is a ‘green world’ comedy. Its characters escape the oppressive regime of the city for the Forest of Arden. They’re leaving behind convention, hierarchies and the pressure of the present. In the forest they can be more contemplative, philosophical, romantic. They can express themselves freely; they can imagine possibilities; they can explore new roles and identities. They undergo transformations, revelations.

In recent years we’ve perhaps become a little sceptical about Awaydays. The heart sinks at the awkwardness of seeing our senior staff in their weekend casuals. We shun the flip-charts and Post-Its, gummy bears and energiser drinks; the bumptious facilitator and the embarrassing ice-breakers. We balk at the expense in time and money. And so generally we end up just taking a couple of hours in a conference room over at the Media Agency. The future can wait…

But I’m inclined to say that genuine Awaydays justify the cost. Increasingly we have our heads down, dealing with today’s pressing challenges; we rarely look up to talk about tomorrow’s. Awaydays provide an opportunity to draw a line in the sand, to consider broader themes and more distant horizons, to dream new possibilities and imagine the unthought.

And Awaydays do indeed gain something from being away.

‘There’s no clock in the forest.’

Orlando, As You Like It


‘Let’s Play Crusaders’: The Price of Difference

Martin and I shared a bedroom overlooking the back gardens of Heath Park Road. In the summer you could see all the other kids in the street - the Richards, the Chergwins et al - playing Cowboys and Indians in their own little domains. 

‘Let’s play Crusaders,’ we determined. (The ‘70s were more innocent times, somewhat lacking a proper historical context…)

Mum made us white smocks from old sheets and we imprinted bold crimson crosses on their fronts. We completed the outfits with blue balaclava helmets and woollen tights borrowed from our younger sisters. 

And as we skipped around the garden, taking on Saladin and his scimitared hordes, it struck me that it’s not easy being different.

‘We are stardust.
We are golden.
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden’

Joni Mitchell/ Woodstock

No. 68

NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND 8

What Can Dancing Horses Teach Us About Management?

I was in Vienna last weekend and attended a performance by the Spanish Riding School.

In the stately setting of the eighteenth century Winter Riding School, teams of manicured but muscular Lipizzan stallions, guided by uniformed horsemen and women, execute a series of disciplined manoeuvers. To a musical accompaniment the horses walk, trot and canter in harmony. They leap, pirouette and stand proud on their hind legs. It’s an extraordinary sight and is justly described as ‘horse ballet.’

I subsequently watched a TV documentary (Lucy Worsley’s Reins of Power: The Art of Horse Dancing) that explained that horse ballet, or ‘manege’ as it was called, dates back to the sixteenth century. The elegant dance routines have a military origin. As warfare evolved from the heavy-armoured medieval battlefield, to the more fluid, firearms-dominated combat conditions of the seventeenth century, the cavalry had to become more agile. They had to move in and out of lines of infantry, to change direction at the drop of a hat.

Manege was a method for training horses in the physical and mental demands of this new form of fighting. In the first half of the seventeenth century manege became a hugely popular sport for aristocrats across Europe with the time and money to devote to it.

I was surprised to learn that the word ‘management’ has its origins in manege. I wonder, can we learn anything about modern management from the equine activity that inspired the term?

Well, first of all, manege combines agility with control; it has a sense of elegance and finesse, as well as power and determination; a lightness of touch as well as supreme discipline. These ingredients might make the recipe for a compelling management style.

Secondly, just as manege developed in response to the combat conditions of its day, so it passed out of fashion as military practice moved on. In the English Civil War the manege-trained Cavaliers were defeated by Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army. Clearly management styles must evolve as the context in which they operate changes.

Do we fully acknowledge that the management approaches of the industrial age will be increasingly inappropriate to the age of technology?

Are we nurturing management talent that reflects the commercial and cultural challenges of the future?

Do we need a new type of management that responds to this modern era of partnership, purpose and organisational change?

 

You May Not Want To Run at the Future, But Don’t Run Away from It

I confess I’m partial to the art of Alfred Munnings. In the first half of the twentieth century Munnings painted East Anglian life in bold, bright colours: race meetings, horse fairs and hunting; farm hands, gentry and gypsies. Mostly he just painted horses, for whom he seemed to have a greater affection than he had for people. Munnings tellingly titled one painting ‘My Wife, My Horse and Myself’ and the horse takes centre stage.

Munnings’ work is not particularly challenging or thought provoking. But it is honest, open and true. It is rooted in the English countryside and English painting tradition. It is in its own way rather beautiful.

Sadly Munnings’ reputation in the art world is tarnished. He had a passionate dislike of modernism. In his late sixties he served as President of the Royal Academy of Art and, in a speech broadcast live on the BBC in 1949, he drunkenly accused his fellow painters of ‘shilly shallying in this so called modern art’; he suggested that Cezanne, Matisse and Henry Moore had corrupted art; and he joked that he’d like to join Churchill in kicking Picasso in the arse.

Speaking from experience, as you get older you can feel marginalised. The world seems to be reinventing itself around the needs and tastes of new generations. It’s easy to resent change; and conservatism creeps over you like a comfortable blanket. We all occasionally suffer Luddite leanings.

But I’m not sure it’s always wise to ‘rage against the dying of the light.’ Or at least not in the reactionary way that Munnings did. The grumpy old man or woman is rarely attractive; and should probably avoid the sauce when speaking in public.

 

We’re Only Remembered for What We Have Done

The National Theatre’s production of War Horse has been in the West End for a couple of years now and it's just announced that the run will conclude in March 2016. It's a moving World War I story about the relationship between man and beast, and it has been brought to the stage with a magical deployment of puppetry.

War Horse also boasts an evocative folk sound track. One song, Only Remembered, is a contemporary arrangement of a nineteenth century Methodist hymn. In it the workers in the field consider whether future generations will remember them.

‘Shall we be missed though by others succeeded
Reaping the fields we in springtime have sown?
No. For the sowers may pass from the earth and its toiling.
We’re only remembered for what we have done.’

It’s a melancholy sentiment. In all likelihood the industry will forget each and every one of us as it moves on to address new challenges and opportunities. There’ll be no recollection of the artful salesmanship and articulate speeches; no memory of magnificent meetings, presentations and decks; no record of the hard luck stories and ‘also rans’, the brilliant idea that didn’t quite make it to production. All that endures is the work. The rest is noise. And ultimately our legacy is what we do, what we make, what we create.

‘Ye shall know them by their fruits’

No. 50