This is a painting of a friend, Vera.

She kindly allowed me to use one of her photos from material for portrait practice. I did more than 15 drawings and 11 watercolour portraits from that photo.   And they are all completely different.  In terms of likeness, some are better than others but even amongst the better ones there is a great difference. How can this be?

It is all about seeing. Milton Glaser, who designed the I love NY  logo talks about how profound it is that we can see an object, represent it in two dimensions on paper, then look at the object again and use our perception to update the representation. Charles Reid the watercolourist, talks about how artists draw and paint from what is in their memory rather than what is before them. Failing to look at what you are drawing is one of the most fundamental errors an art student can make. So we typically draw an eye as an almond, a circle and a dot when the eye and the lid is full of beautiful shapes and shades. Looking and not seeing is where the journey to reality may begin.

But what does this have to do with business? I take a risk by including my passion for painting in these newsletters but the metaphor between the two worlds immediate. Seeing is about knowing our current reality, a crucial component in strategy, planning and team alignment.

Seeing is about engaging with ‘Brutal Truth’. In “Good to Great” Jim Collins devotes a significant portion of his model, to finding a clear view of what is really going on. It begins with a decision to find it. Then we have to look (or listen) and see (or hear, or feel) the facts. When you have this view, your strategy and your plan can take shape. Of course there is a place for dreaming. I suppose any good strategy is founded in reality, but built on dreams. But many visions and strategies are simply divorced from reality. I had a client a while back whose vision was to be the biggest supplier of their product in the world, when they were simply way way way behind even their next biggest competitor in our emerging corner of the planet. Their vision was simply not rooted in reality.

And how can we get to see better? Well again how can the artist learn to represent better, what they are drawing or painting?

  1. Practice, which means repetition. Here is Milton Glaser on the topic of practice:  As we practice we learn to put aside our mental images and engage with the intricate shapes of reality.
  2. Challenge your perceptions. Review past decisions. Engage in disagreement. Build the trust in your team to thrive on conflict. Susan Scott, author of ‘Fierce Conversations’ asks the reflective question, “what are you ignoring, what is your contribution to a situation?” If you do a SWOT analysis, how valid are the strengths and weaknesses on which you base your opportunities and threats? Or will the strengths on which you now thrive be weaknesses as you when you find yourself engaged in your chosen opportunity. Take on those sacred cows. Here is one. Watching my Charles Reid video I developed a suspicion that he himself does not see exactly what is in front of him when he does portraits but has developed a more sophisticated system of symbols.
  3. Make mistakes. Do the work. Give yourself permission to give it a good go and make a mess. I asked a friend to pose at a coffee shop for me and I drew and painted these really bad portraits. I had so much to learn in terms of drawing and painting technique. But it triggered my desire to make it happen and has fuelled all of the mistakes I have made since then.
  4. Learn from your mistakes. And give yourself space to learn the lessons. As I look at all the paintings of Vera I am able to recognise the consistent errors I make in seeing. I have reviewed these works and have read and watched videos about how to draw and how to paint figures and portraits. J Richard Hackman points to the magical opportunity for learning at the end of an event. Do you and your team take five minutes to review the success of a meeting?
  5. Get an outside view. To loosely paraphrase Kurt Gödel, you can’t access all the information available to you in the system you inhabit. It may be there in front of you, but you need input from someone from outside the system. Living as I do in family of artists and as I post on my blog and on Facebook I get feedback. Not all of this feedback is given in a charitable spirit but there are usually good lessons.
  6. Be discipled. Sometimes we benefit most from walking in the steps of the master. Prof van Oudtshoorn at Middlesex used to say “the best coaches are usually coached by the best coaches”. I spent some hard cash on lessons with Ryno Swart, and on painting videos of Charles Reid and Alvaro Castagnet. Watching videos may not be as good as sitting under the daily teaching of the master but it is a close second. I also spent three days in the last week, sitting under the teaching of Daniel Meier, who developed the Solution Circle approach to coaching teams. A challenging, valuable week. You don’t have to idolise someone to learn from them. Who are you following?