This article, which has been edited for length, is reprinted courtesy of Rotman Magazine, a publication of the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto.
When quantitative, scientific thinking and measures don't provide answers, try a qualitative, artistic approach.
How did we figure out that the earth revolves around the sun, when it appeared for so long to be the other way around? To solve this puzzle, investigators formulated a scientific method of inquiry that helped them overcome the misperception. When depending solely on subjective, qualitative experience to learn, they found out, we often come to myopic, superstitious and egocentric conclusions. The scientific method–founded on standardized procedures, objective experiments and quantitative measurement–has helped us overcome these errors.
Yet, at the same time, an over-reliance on the powers of scientific thinking leaves something missing. The late Stanford professor Elliot Eisner echoed Albert Einstein when he said: "Not everything that can be measured matters; and not everything that matters can be measured." In this caution lies a more pointed warning: when dedicated to the quantity-driven approach of scientific inquiry, we chronically overlook valuable qualitative aspects of the world. For instance, when we study only the nutritional value of food, we miss the importance of qualitative aspects like flavour and pleasure; when we choose employees based on college test scores, we can't assess qualitative character traits such as empathy, integrity or determination; and when we invest in the products that match current market data, we commonly overlook the ones with an immeasurable potential for disruption.
This leaves us with a modern-day puzzle: we have learned how to use scientific investigation to help us overcome the shortcomings of qualitative experience; but we don't yet know how to use qualities to supplement what science predictably misses.
Google's recent experience with hiring illustrates this point. GPAs have turned out to be a "worthless" measure of the human traits the company seeks to recruit, according to Lazlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at Google. He recently told a New York Times interviewer that GPAs don't predict anything that the company finds desirable in people. That's because what Google values are human qualities that are difficult to quantify: people who can be humble, who can collaborate, share leadership, and adapt. Above all, Google wants employees who can learn from failure, and especially, who are open enough to learn and re-learn as they go. For Google–and every other organization–identifying such traits is still a matter of qualitative judgment rather than scientific testing.
Intel is another company that has been engaged for some time with looking for the magic that comes with qualitative insight. Sixteen years ago, this techiest of tech companies hired anthropologist Genevieve Bell, then made her director of User Experience Research. Bell's qualitative, experiential approach defies traditional scientific, empirical research; in short, she pursues the immeasurable.
A recent New York Times profile quoted Bell's colleagues as saying she approaches her work with a different mindset, asks open-ended questions and identifies emerging signals. Her mandate, she has said, is "to bring the stories of everyone outside the building inside the building–and to make them count." She collects these stories by taking exploratory research trips that lead her directly into customers' kitchens and living rooms, and she uses these stories to generate a grounded, nuanced view that often contradicts and challenges the company's current market data. The technology industry celebrates her different–some would say artistic–approach by portraying her as an oracle with magical predictive powers.
Intel is very lucky to have Dr. Bell. People with the artistic capabilities needed to make effective use of qualitative experience are scarce. Her success–and Google's interest in hiring people with similar characteristics–suggests that organizations need more of this ilk, and as a result, it is high time to establish and apply an artistic method with the power to augment science.
The Artistic Method
Thinking artistically may help us in the liberal and fine arts, but how the artistic method works outside of an artist's realm is still unclear. What exactly does it entail?
Be open, we're told. Be aware. Be empathetic. Engage with the moment. Embrace uncertainty.
Sure. But how? Few proponents can concretely say.
Professor Eisner was an exception. While serious knowledge-builders tend to go the scientific route, Eisner travelled in the opposite direction, believing that artistic inquiry is indispensible to the development of the mind. …
In 1981, Eisner wrote On the Differences Between Scientific and Artistic Approaches to Qualitative Research to clarify how empirical art-based and scientific inquiry differ in what each investigates, how each investigates, and in the presentation of findings . Eisner distills scientific and artistic inquiry into their purest forms and identifies 10 contrasting dimensions. The concrete differences boil down to this.
· Scientific inquiry starts with a question–then encodes qualities with symbolic or numeric values. Its findings are objective facts, derived from analyzing data and stated in standardized language including reports, theories, recipes, algorithms, statistics and charts.
· Artistic inquiry starts with a person experiencing qualities–then relates, shapes, and creates further qualities to create qualitative forms. Its findings entail personal understandings expressed through stories, prose, poetry, speeches, images, compositions, objects, actions and performances.
Consider this example. When golf pro J.C. Anderson was asked to describe how to achieve the ultimate golf swing, he replied with accurate but tongue-in-cheek 'sciencese':
I try to flat-load my feet, so I can snap my power package. That way I can amplify both lag and drag pressure through impact fix. As long as my #2 power accumulator doesn't break down, I can reach maximum centrifugal force with minimum pivotal resistance. You see, the pivot is the utilization of multiple centers, to produce a circular motion for generating centrifugal force on an adjusted plane, plus maintain the balance necessary to maintain the two-line delivery path. See, golf is a geometrically-oriented layer of force. It involves a physical, muscular thrust in the geometry of the circle. You can divide the golf swing into 24 basic components, each having between 12 and 15 variations.
An artist can also capture the dynamics of a golf swing. Renowned photographer Harold Edgerton used a multi-flash film image of Bobby Jones–a golfer credited with the perfect swing of his time. Edgerton's photograph expresses, as Eisner put it, "the many thousands of qualities for which we have no vocabulary."
Both of these depictions tell us about golf, but each does so differently: the scientific approach states facts, while the artistic approach expresses understanding. Useful knowledge depends on both.
Choosing an artistic approach means using our selves to process experience. To avoid the perceptual pitfalls that accompany this choice demands a mind ready to make intelligent sense of experience and to then create expressive forms that inform others.
Eisner's advice about pursuing this achievement: no matter how tempting, don't ever constrain yourself to what quantitative measurement can reveal. He hoped we would open up to the world of qualitative experience and expression. Also, be prepared for the inevitable complications: Eisner recommends becoming both a skillful connoisseur and creator of qualitative forms. For this, he took his cue from America's Pragmatist philosophers, especially John Dewey. Dewey believed artistic people–those able to express experience-based understanding with sensitivity and skill–are as critical to knowledge-building as scientists are. Without artists involved, he argued, scientists are left working alone, telling only half of the story.
Why should modern organizational leaders take advice from an education professor and a 19th century philosopher? Is it really worth investing often-limited human and financial capital to develop artistic capabilities?
It is. It's worth it because there is a good chance that your organization will also need the artistry that Google and Intel have embraced; and learning the art of artistic inquiry is a good place to start.
Hilary Austen is an adjunct professor at the Rotman School of Management and author of Artistry Unleashed: A Guide to Pursuing Great Performance in Work and Life (Rotman-UTP Publishing, 2010.) She is the co-founder of Catalyst Consulting Team, based in northern California.
For the full text of Prof. Autor's article and a chart outlining the differences between artistic and scientific enquiry, see the fall 2014 issue of Rotman Management magazine.