Running a business is as much art as it is science and we can learn from the masters. When you look at a beautiful painting you’ll find repeating patterns - shapes, lines, and tones that develop an underlying melody for your eye, setting the overall mood and pace and helping you move through the piece. And then there will be little surprises that delight you by momentarily breaking the pattern. These little surprises give the painting both depth and soul. The same is true in any art form whether it is gardening (look for repeating leaf shapes, and textures, with the occasional splash of an unexpected color), sculpture, music, poetry or dance. Too much repetition becomes monotony. Too little and you have chaos. The art is in the balance.
A painting teacher once told me that accidents happen to all artists - the genius is in knowing when to leave them be. The true artist can strike a beautiful balance between control and energy, form and freedom, perfection and surprise, and it is this balance that keeps us interested, entertained, and often deeply moved. Whether you see your business as a canvass, a garden, or an orchestra, you as the master craftsman must constantly search out this same balance.
With the industrial revolution we lost sight of one side of this equation. We fell in love with machines and the Siren song of perfection through control and precision. We developed a fantasy of the ultimate business machine, with perfectly predictable, repeatable processes churning out perfectly predictable, repeatable profits just like the new machines were churning out perfectly predictable, repeatable parts and products. Surprises and accidents (even happy ones) became the enemy. We came up with ways to crush them in their infancy with proactive, preventive maintenance. We automated and mechanized to eliminate the messy human factor and when the actual human being could not be eliminated, we worked to make them as machine like as possible. With each punch-card, policy manual and procedure we tried to codify everything. We compartmentalized jobs and people in an effort to remove any opportunity for improvisation. And we didn’t pay attention to the price we were paying.
With the age of technology we’ve been able to take this idea to a new level and today we find ourselves with our messy humanness getting increasingly squeezed out of the market place. We have come to accept this as natural, normal, and even reasonable. It started in the factories with automating the assembly lines. You see it today in the auto-attendant responding to your phone call which makes you talk like a machine to a machine and press endless commands while your blood pressure soars. You find it at the doctor’s office when the receptionist doesn’t even look up when she says “name and birth date” in that same machine like tone you heard on auto-attendant.
The last time I went to AAA to renew my driver’s license I still remember being bowled over by the woman who processed my renewal. I was second in queue at her station, but she acknowledged me with a smile and said she’d be right with me. I watched as she helped the man in front of me, making friendly eye contact and saying something funny about his photo. I thought maybe she was flirting with him, but then it was my turn and she gave me the same genuine warmth and attention. It made me feel like we were two human beings connecting. It felt wonderful - like getting a massage. I asked for her card and wrote her boss to say how impressed I was. Clearly part of what struck me was how very rare that type of exchange is today. But why? It costs nothing, and here I am two years later remembering it fondly and telling everyone about the exceptional service I received at AAA in West Hartford, CT. You can’t buy that kind of advertising. Why wouldn’t every company make this happen?
The Siren call of perfection has lured us to founder on this almost perfectly souless island of our own creation. In making machines act like people and people act like machines we may have gained efficiencies but we’ve lost our humanity and any sense of artistry along the way. So maybe it’s time to reintroduce the quirky edgy, funny, lovable human being back into the mix and celebrate the result.
Begin to pay attention to where you may have tipped the scales a little too far toward the machine model and think about how you can reintroduce the human being into your business. Make sure if a client presses zero they will talk to a human being. Realize the way you treat your staff will be the way they treat your customers. Have an Artistan’s Award to celebrate the people in your company who think out of the box in their passion for what they do, why they do it, and who they do it for. Think of it as the ultimate Diversity initiative. Make room for the human being in your company!