11 April 2017 • Newslab, by Anneke Dam
‘The takeover’: a job exchange between the worlds of art and management
What can managers learn from how artists deal with disclarity? And can organisations benefit from what the art world already knows about creating greater flexibility? To obtain answers to these questions, Jacco van Uden, head of the Change Management Research Group at THUAS, and Mercedes Azpilicueta, an artist and performer, exchanged jobs. For a whole month, they immersed themselves in a world that was new to them. ‘Change doesn’t happen if everything is decided in advance and we know where we’re going.’
As head of the Change Management Research Group, Jacco van Uden enjoys throwing a new light on familiar management concepts. And one way to do this is to learn from people in other disciplines such as art. This was the idea behind the experiment that he undertook a month ago with Mercedes Azpilicueta. ‘This exchange ties in well with what we’re doing in our research group. In this case, we’re looking into the commonalities shared by the worlds of art and organisational management as well as the differences between them. How can art help us arrive at other forms of organisation by approaching management issues from a different angle?’ asks Van Uden. ‘Exchanging my job for that of Mercedes was a unique and radical experiment. I immersed myself completely in her work as an artist and was surrounded by other artists.’ Azpilicueta, too, embraced this challenge. ‘It gave me a chance to leave my life as an artist behind for a while and meet other people in a new environment,’ she says. ‘I saw it as an experiment in which I would be forcing myself to do things differently. When you have to adjust to a new environment, it stimulates your creativity.’
In at the deep end
For a month, Azpilicueta took over the leadership of Van Uden’s research group while he moved to a guest studio in the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam.
Van Uden: ‘We really dived into each other’s work. For a month, I was engaged in things Mercedes does as an artist. One thing I did was prepare a workshop that she and a curator will be giving about the work of an extraordinary artist, René Daniëls, that will be exhibited soon in the Van Abbemuseum Eindhoven. She wants to display his archives in a memorable and meaningful way. This artist suffered a stroke at the peak of his artistic career and then had to deal with motor skill disorders and aphasia. Mercedes wanted to include this aspect of his life in the presentation of his work; for me, this was an exciting challenge.’
Disclarity as a raw material for creativity
As a performance artist, Azpilicueta’s voice and body are her most important media. ‘Mercedes’s work is conceptual; she doesn’t use tangible materials. She asked me to make her work tangible by using materials. Since Mercedes often works with language, I started using text as an object. I wanted to experiment with the idea of embodied text so I made use of the art academy’s workshops to create various types of text characters,’ says Van Uden. ‘This involved a truly unique process. In art, you start out with an idea that you can then pursue without knowing where it will end. The creative process leads you along new pathways and opens up unexpected possibilities. Many organisations, ours included, often offer little scope for this way of working. Procedures and policy plans are intended to exclude disclarity,’ he says. ‘For artists, on the other hand, disclarity is a necessary ingredient for their work. It makes their work unpredictable and exciting.’
Azpilicueta confirms this. ‘I’m used to working alone in my studio. Then I suddenly found myself in a big hierarchical organisation where it took a lot of time to get anything off the ground. I had to consult with other people and plan everything in detail. In a creative environment, you’re not limited by rules and a single method of doing things. That’s just not how the art world works. Instead, you have a lot of flexibility, disclarity and room to make mistakes. Artists aren’t afraid of displaying their vulnerability, and this is exactly what brings about change. Many organisations, on the other hand, find it hard to accommodate doubt and disclarity.’
The power of imagination
What can the management of traditional organisations learn from the world of art? ‘The Rijksakademie is a very unusual place. When you come up with an idea, no matter how weird it might be, the underlying attitude of its staff is one of acceptance. This means that the sky’s the limit for developing your idea,’ says Van Uden. ‘It’s an organisation that says “yes” instead of “yes, but”.’ It really takes some getting used to. Disclarity is a set part of the creative process. If you deviate from a plan when working in a traditional organisation, you set off all the alarm bells and have to come up with a plan B. Azpilicueta: ‘Traditional management depends on its authority and control. Organisations should have a flatter structure so that knowledge can be shared. This makes it simpler to realise changes.’
Many organisations, however, are now actually becoming more open to a new way of managing. This is also happening at The Hague University of Applied Sciences. ‘The fact that an artist provided our research group with leadership for a month is truly unique. Mercedes could take a fresh look at things,’ says Van Uden. ‘Our President of the Executive Board, Leonard Geluk, thinks we should take more chances, experiment, and not be afraid of making mistakes. After all, to realise change, you have to be open to disclarity. But that’s harder than it sounds. That’s why it’s so important for us to find inspiration outside of our campus.’
More information about the process developments and insights that Jacco and Mercedes have produced is available at: https://alisamazure.wixsite.com/take-over-project or www.lectoraatchangemanagement.nl.