Louise Macdonald: Creativity flows when business and arts combine

There is never any shortage of talk about the importance of cross-sector collaboration, and how the pandemic showed us what can be achieved when we are uniting around a common purpose. Quite right too – it is and it did, and we need it to continue.

But perhaps one area we don’t celebrate enough is the positive effect of organisations joining forces with those in the arts and creative industries to problem solve. Normally when businesses and creative industries appear in the same sentence, we’re discussing one of two options: CSR and sponsorship, or how the business community values creativity as a skill or approach. This is true of course; entrepreneurs by their very nature are creative, inventing solutions to problems and building businesses around them.

But maybe we could consider adding in a third lens; appreciating the value of what can happen when businesses ask arts organisations for their support to tackle core issues. Because that creative collaboration, which might seem at first glance somewhat “left field”, could be the key to unlocking something amazing.

Let’s take Macsween Haggis as an example. For the company’s 60th anniversary, they brought a writer into the business for a few months to gather the collective stories of the whole team, using two objects each person brought with them to their 1-2-1 session. One was personal, one related to their work at Macsween. The result was a performance of the history of the company, woven with team member’s anecdotes and personal objects, to be performed to the whole staff around Burns Night, and serve as a reminder of the values of the family-run business. What they didn’t plan for was the creative output which later evolved into a play at the Edinburgh Fringe eight months later, millions of hits online and plenty of media coverage.

What had started as a novel way to mark the 60th anniversary of the family business became a sensation, a story that recognised the values of the organisation, the relationship between employees and employer, and a boost in brand recognition and reputation.

Purposeful leaders and organisations can collaborate with the art and creative industries as a way to explore values in a richer way, create powerful connections across diverse teams, and to take deeper dives into tricky issues or challenges across the business. Recognise the high levels of skill, expertise and professionalism of those working in those industries bring – and what they might co-create with you. So instead of automatically hiring a consultant to come in and do a workshop on “business culture”, why not reach out to an organisation in the arts or creative industry and ask them what they would suggest to help your company?

When organisations are open to the creative ways of working employed by arts organisations, the results can be inspiring and long lasting – creating ripples of impact big and small. And there is value in all art forms, so yes, think illustrators or graffiti mural artists, but also think dance, spoken word, musicians and poets. If you’re going to embrace the creative partnership, leaders must think big, be vulnerable, willing to take risks and have courage. As Minecraft founder Chris van der Kuyl said at the recent Arts and Business Scotland Conference: “It might make people uncomfortable, but the outcome is always worth it.”

We know that diverse opinions, viewpoints, cultural backgrounds and experiences yield better solutions than trying to problem solve in an echo chamber. So don’t just invite your executive team to your workshop. Bring people whose varied experience and ideas, specialisms and ways of working will provide a unique perspective to the problem you hope to solve.

Then watch the creative collision create magic.

Louise Macdonald is national director of IoD (Institute of Directors) Scotland

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