Management advice from life drawing class

Management advice from life drawing class

I’m not a great believer in “common sense”. It’s always struck me as a veil for assumptions, and a barrier to divergent thinking. When someone uses this term (most commonly accompanied by its mates “just…” and “obviously…”) I’m tempted to respond: And for whom might this way of seeing be uncommon?  

But as Kahneman and Tversky taught us, not only are assumptions, symbols and rule-of-thumb narratives part of life, they’re hard wired into how we prefer thinking. Most of the time, we don’t even notice. We see what we expect and spot the things that fit the patterns we’re used to or the story we’re already telling ourselves. And these patterns are really hard to break. Our brains love them. 

So, what can we do, to see things anew, or notice what is hidden in plain sight? It turns out, one of the best things we can do is learn to draw. 
I was lucky enough to be bought some life-drawing lessons for my birthday this summer. I prepared by buying Betty Edwards’ rightly-famous Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. And while I read it, I was struck by how many of her lessons made excellent management advice.

Let me explain.

Edwards says that, from adolescence onwards, when we try to draw (copying a face from a photograph, for instance), we don’t really draw what’s in front of us. Instead we call on the fully-formed store of symbols we have as short-cuts. In effect your (left) brain advises you: “Don’t bother looking: that’s a face. And I know how to draw one of those. This is how to draw a nose, an eye, hair…”. And that’s why our drawings look so childish. We’re not really looking at all.

What Betty Edwards has us do is turn the photo upside down. This fools the left brain and sets it off-guard. Instead of recognisable symbols, upside down, the shapes tend to be more abstract and harder to discern. They are what they are, not what we expect them to be. Draw them as they truly are and you’re more likely to capture what’s in front of you.  

In any organisation we can do the same thing — consciously look at our surroundings, our strategy, our people “upside down”. If standing on your head or bungee jumping off the roof of your office building is a bit extreme, how about choosing to adopt a different perspective, to look at things in a way you haven’t before? Do so and I’d wager you’re way more likely to see what’s really there, that your “symbol system” might have missed.

In an early exercise, Edwards got me studying and drawing the contours of my left hand, while I drew them with my right. Her requirement was just to study deeply and let your drawing-hand record, unobserved, as you look and see deeper and deeper. The resulting drawings don’t look like a hand, rather an intricate filigree of tiny scratched marks. What’s surprising was that this had a unique beauty of its own. And the more I practised looking closely, the more I noticed and saw, and the more beautiful and unique the resulting drawing. I got to love the detail for its own sake.  
What do you know like the “back of your hand”, that if you decided to investigate, might reveal hidden beauty, or use, that could provide an advantage? A neglected department? Or team member, or an old, reliable supplier? You never know until you (really) look.  

If I were to draw London from the hilltop vantage point of Alexandra Palace, close to where I live, my left brain would fool me into drawing too large the parts that interest or intrigue me: The Shard, St Paul’s Cathedral or the Mittal Tower. So how can we better see things in their true, relative proportions? 

What Edwards recommends is surprising. She recommends placing a piece of glass between you and your subject, closing one eye and tracing (with a felt tip) onto the glass, what you can see beyond it. Like the shock of an unimpressive holiday snap of a sunset which, at the time, was so glorious, this honest perspective is often salutary. 

That’s the lesson: what data is coming to you that you’re misreading? There are many reasons to skew what’s in front of you (fear? ambition? purpose? political persuasion? vanity?), but take a look at the data again, squinting, or adding a “filter” (a colleague who doesn’t share your view perhaps? Someone you trust from another sector?) and see the true proportions revealed.  

I’m not talking about “bad” vs “good” here. Instead I’m thinking of the words Conan Doyle put into Sherlock Holmes’ mouth: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” When drawing a complex shape, a chair for instance, Edward’s advice again is counterintuitive. She advises to focus on and draw the gaps between the objects or its components, the negative spaces. Draw these accurately and the accurate image of a chair will in turn appear. 

In the workplace, we can apply this by focusing on those inconsequential tasks, or ways we behave, that might not be obviously useful. In our COVID age, are we really more efficient by only having quick to-the-point meetings? Where does that leave the value that lies in the gaps? Just as managers have only recently started to appreciate the value of the water-cooler chat, there are countless ways that we behave at work, between the work, that are central to the functioning of our organisations.

So that’s a few of her tips to be getting on with. I’d recommend the book highly – there’s literally no downside. Read and absorb it, and learn to draw, and even if the business goes belly up, you’ll always have a new skill to relax you. And how uncommon is that in this day and age? 

This piece first appeared in Management Today on 23rd October 2020