How An Art Class Taught Me About Coping With Crisis

In an intro to art class I took several years ago (more like a couple of decades ago!), the professor in the class announced that we would be using the same sheet of paper for several weeks. He explained that, for the first part of the semester, we would be doing the work by pencil, erasing it, and doing it all over again, on the same sheet of paper. The idea was for us to be less attached to the outcome, knowing that the drawing would be replaced within a week. The same piece of paper become a blank slate with an open opportunity to start all over again, but with all the marks that were lessons we have learned as we developed new iterations. 

In the midst of COVID-19 and the tremendous changes we have all had to face in the last months, and will continue to experience in the coming months, I have noticed that the blank slate analogy overlaid on the lessons learned is what is most needed right now. In leadership, in the midst of crisis, we are called to be agile and flexible, while also fostering the lessons that are quickly coming our way. If a leader tries to reuse the old model, just partially changing it, it would be like taking the same drawing and only erasing the parts we think are not good enough. When we attempt that, we create a fixed container, with defined edges, that by default is limited. There are too many constraints attached and the new iteration will be akin innovation and freshness. On the other hand, if a leader discards the old and start afresh, disregarding or ignoring the lessons learned, specially the lessons learned during the crisis, we miss the foundation that can be most important to real growth. In this case we may experience change, but we may not experience transformation. That’s what got me thinking about this art class I took decades ago. The old sheet of paper with the old marks, clear of constraints, is, to me, the way forward.

How does erasing a part of the drawing looks like in business? One example I have observed is the return to work strategies that many organizations are having to face. When it is safe to be back at work, leaders are asking, what will offices look like, and what will our employees want? At first, most companies were focused on the safety measures that would need to be in place – the increased distance between desks, the temperature checks at the doorways, the cleaning efforts that would be needed. Many organizations looked at this question within the frame of ‘normal’ being what we had before. The container was the return to workplace. Many organizations have had to face, after spending hundreds of hours on answering the ‘how to’ of the return to workplace, that the ‘how to’ was the wrong question. The when and the what are such fast moving targets that much of the original effort is now rendered outdated. The question of ‘how to’, is like keeping most of the original drawing while trying to fix the old. A ‘what’ question, on the other hand, would be a blank slate. What is the meaning of workplace? What would make a workplace most valuable to employers and employees alike? What are the cultural shifts we need to ensure to create a hybrid work environment that benefits all? Starting with a what question is a blank slate because ‘what’ questions are open ended – they create space without setting the boundaries that a ‘how’ question imposes. It it the Simon Sinek ‘Start With Why’ theory, but, here, the why, the what and then the how are less about organizational mission statements, services and products, and more about workspaces themselves. Why do we need a workspace, what value will this workspace provide, and then, and only then, how do we create that space.

In the domain of learning and development, which is the world I live in, how to questions are debilitating. If I simply asked myself ‘how to’ continue to run training virtually when many of the trainings were done in person, I may run the risk of taking the version of what I did before, and making a literal translation to an online platform. How to is important, but before I can determine how to run a training that was conducted in-person to now doing it virtually, I need to start with why: why am I running this training now – is this training still valuable? If the answer is yes, then, I need to ask, what is the value of being together on a zoom call for example, versus pre-recording? What scenarios would be most efficient, most impactful, and most effective? Once I understand the available options, I can move into the ‘how to.’ And, in this case, I need to be open to update and change just like the iterations of the drawing on the old sheet of paper. My trainings have to be approached in ways I do not feel the pressure to meet perfection but rather that I aim for the next best version, until I know better. This creates freedom but also demands a willingness to erase, and start again, that can be quite confronting if we like to plan too much ahead or spend too many hours perfecting a project. I remember that feeling when I had to erase a shoe I had drawn on that overused sheet of paper that felt could not be improved upon. I was wrong. The next one was much better – a lesson I will never forget.

And this takes me to the second part of the drawing analogy – while the why and the what questions offer an opening or a blank slate, the freedom to re-iterate over and over again is a metaphor to the old lines I can hardly see from the erased drawing, but visible enough to serve as reminders of what went well, and what needs to change. Organizations that are conducting continuous ‘pulse-check’ surveys are benefiting from this crisis more than others because they can quickly check what needs to be re-iterated further. Data is fundamentally important in helping companies measure success and it can be done on a continuum. In other words, leaders can do quick checks throughout this crisis rather than at the beginning and end of specific projects. Crisis are rich with insights. I recently run informal 45 min meetings with our 1-7 years of experience team members and quickly found that we had on the spot opportunities for change. A lot of what I heard from these team members’ current experiences were insightful to help me improve our coaching, mentoring, and talent development strategies. I had to be willing to accept that a lot of the efforts we pushed forward earlier in the year were no longer serving their original purpose and we had to make some changes. Obviously, a willingness to act on the data we collect is just as important as collecting the data itself. We have to erase the old lines completely, but be equally willing to roll up our sleeves to start, again, and again, and again.

By the way, this is all relevant at an individual level too. If you run your own business, or if you are now on the market looking for another opportunity, frame your questions around what, not how. You will see that a much larger poll of options begin to open up. You can also take personal pulse-checks, and identify personal strategies that are rendering results and those that are not. Be willing to erase, and start again. Aim for speed of learning, not for perfection.

Agility is not a fancy leadership style one needs to get an MBA to understand. In its simplest form, agile leadership is the result of the quality of the questions we ask (from how to why and what), and the speed at which we learn and re-iterate from real data, on any one aspect of our lives and businesses. The data, by the way, needs to come from those directly impacted by the services or systems we are aiming to improve.

This crisis offers all of us what may be the single greatest opportunity for re-imagining and driving deep transformation in this decade, or century. What questions are you asking? What data are you currently using to help you to re-iterate, over and over again?