What’s Dance Got To Do With Business?

I am teaching a new class I fashioned for the Stuart School of Business at the Illinois Institute of Technology called “Got Creativity? Strategies & Tools for the Next Economy.”

This is part of a new effort at the school to instill a core set of competencies in their graduates. These skills have been identified by Dean Harvey Kahalas as Creativity, Sustainability, Entrepreneurship, Incisive Decision Making, Innovation and Leadership.

My goal is to impart not just the intellectual appreciation of the role that creativity plays in our economy but to expand and deepen the student’s own creative muscles.

So, on January 29 I asked dancer and choreographer Darrell Jones to visit the class. Darrell is on the faculty at Columbia College’s Dance Center and recently toured the U.S. with the Ralph Lemon Dance Company.

I asked one of the MBA students, Ketan Patel, if he would tell us what happened.

“What happens when a professional choreographer shows up at an MBA class? Well, to clarify “MBA class”, let me explain that this is not just your average, run-of-the-mill MBA class with Financial or Accounting number crunching.  No sir!  This is Prof. Tresser’s brand new course at Stuart School of Business at IIT which is supposed to prepare tomorrow’s business leaders (MBAs) to be creative thinkers.

The class is very diverse in terms of students’ educational background as well as their countries of origin.  The class is made up of students who are American, African American, Chinese, Indian, Indian American, and Saudi Arabian.  I had read up a little bit about our visitor, Darrell Jones before the class and was already impressed by his CV of performances.  But, I was totally blown away with the experience with him in the classroom.

After a brief introduction by Prof. Tresser, Darrell pretty much took over the class.  We were all seated in our chairs behind rows of desks.  The first thing he asked us to do was to change the space, the environment so we were all standing instead of seating. We were not only standing, but we were standing close to one another in a big circle.  Darrell explained that the re-arrangement of space was required for him to be creative and also get us involved in his creative experience, not just be spectators by seating behind our desks in our chairs while he did some sort of lecture on creativity.  He immediately asserted control by getting us to move the tables and chairs out of the way to create this “creative space”.

His demeanor was completely inviting.  He was always smiling and maintaining eye contacts with the entire group standing in one big circle.  He, then, slowly began to bring us all into his world.  He did this by a very natural and inviting way.  He acted as a master facilitator while getting the group to follow his instruction.  So, what were the instructions?  Well, to start off, he simply kneeled and clapped his hands and said  his name aloud.  He then asked us all to repeat it simultaneously.  He was a very good listener.  He would get us to follow his instruction to do a particular activity and then applauded us for our efforts and at the same time invited our feedback – how we felt about doing a particular activity.

He changed the activities slowly but at a pace that kept the discussion engaging and interesting.  We did more activities as sub groups and then with two groups at a time.  It was a blast and at the same time we learned a great deal about being creative, expressive and knowing our peripheral vision.  Darrell’s grace, friendliness and cool demeanor made the exercises very enjoyable.  For that hour, I forgot that I was in an MBA class!  It was truly a unique experience.

Professor Tresser could have just lectured us through some slides, but he chose to make this an experience that very few of us would get in typical MBA classroom. It was an exciting experience!!”

Ketan Patel is currently pursuing part-time MBA at Stuart School of Business at IIT while working full-time as Sr. Product Manager at Nokia, Inc. through acquisition of a start up that created solutions for Mobile Internet.  Ketan has over 20 years of professional experience in a variety of engineering and business leadership roles in different industries.

So what is the connection between performance and business?

Ketan touched on a few connections. It was wonderful to see my students loosen up, laugh and really push themselves into new territory as the workshop progressed. Students of all ages love to be challenged and then succeed. In the realm of creative behavior we often find that FEAR is the number one killer of creativity. So to be able to try new things and succeed – as adults – in an advanced learning environment – is a great experience.

He mentioned “peripheral vision.” This was a skill that came up as the students attempted to create small dance routines with three colleagues using the simple step they had created in the “say your name and make a move” exercise. Being able to do your move in series and in combination and coordinated with your colleagues is not as easy as it sounds. When you then combine two such groups and are asked to start and stop together, it is quite a challenge. So having refined peripheral vision allows us to keep aware of what is happening at the edge of our sphere of awareness. How might this skill be useful in a hyper-competitive world where threats and opportunities arise from unexpected places?

Another student commented that her peripheral vision will help her judge her own performance and manner as she works with and leads teams.

But there is much more going on here. In “Artful Making – What Managers Need to Know About How Artists Work”  Rob Austin and Lee Devin suggest that because the economy has shifted to a knowledge-driven system of creating value the world of work has changed radically over the past 50 years. Because of that the way we manage and make value has changed – or it should.

They identify four essential “artful” qualities that are regularly practiced by performers that managers should adopt for their businesses:

(1)   Release – “A method of control that accepts wide variation within known parameters. Release contrasts with restraint, the usual method industrial control.”

(2)   Collaboration – “The quality exhibited by conversation. In language and behavior, during which each party, released from vanity, inhibition and preconceptions, treats the contributions of other parties as material to make with, not as positions to argue with, so that new and unpredictable ideas emerge.”

(3)   Ensemble – “The quality exhibited by the work of a group dedicated to collaboration in which individual members relinquish sovereignty over their work and thus create something none could have made alone: a whole greater than the sum of its parts.”

(4)   Play – The quality exhibited by a production while it is playing for an audience; or the quality exhibited by interaction among members of a business group, and ultimately between the group and the customer.”

The lessons that business can draw from the artful world of performance have been explored by a number of works, including “Artistry Unleashed – A Guide to Pursuing Great Performance in Work and Life” by Hilary Austen of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management; and in “Management and Creativity – From Creative Industries to Creative Management” by Chris Bolton, director of Creative and Media Enterprise Program at the University of Warwick.

There are also works that draw lessons from the world of jazz and improvisation. One fascinating read is “Organizational Improvisation” edited by Ken Kamoche, Miguel Pina e Cunha and Joao Vieira de Cunha.

What are all these researchers trying to communicate to business leaders?

I think the key lesson is that the skills, experience, mindset and values of the artist are of intrinsic and extrinsic value to the world of commerce. The performers have much to offer the merchants. And it’s way beyond selling tickets. I hope to develop this theme in future posts.

Let’s dance.

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