In 1945, Picasso created a series of eleven lithographs called “Bull”. The Bull series brings us on a journey from realism to abstraction. Picasso kept subtracting from a realistic image of a bull until all that is left is the essence of the Bull. This is validated by his thoughts on art itself, when he said, “Art is the elimination of the unnecessary.” Picasso used bulls as metaphors in his work. While he refused to explain the metaphor, many observers interpreted the bull to represent various ideas: the Spanish people, power, fascism, and indeed his own self-image.
I like this final interpretation of the bull as self, my own interpretation comes from my own experience of life. Life is letting go of an ego that I have developed throughout my life. It is as if I have climbed a mountain collecting a concept of identity and now I am on an odyssey down the mountain as I jettison elements of identity and mindset that I feel no longer serve whom I am striving to be. We all collect “social and mental trash” through a mix of socialization, education, upbringing, and our life experiences.
This approach to life is more about becoming (and discarding) than accumulating. In fact, it is more about being in the present than living in the future, a challenge I work on. I am often guided by the words attributed to Lao Tzu, “To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, remove things every day.” This Thursday Thought is not about this philosophy on a personal level, I wanted to project it onto organizational transformation.
Michelangelo approached sculpting in a similar way to how Picasso approached his Bull series. Michelangelo explained, “The sculptor arrives at his end by taking away what is superfluous.” Let’s use this now to look at how you create new organizational habits (it goes for personal habits too, but that is beyond the scope of this article).
When I begin working with organizations on a culture of innovation, there is an assumption that we will introduce new ways of working, new processes, new procedures, new tools, new mental models, and new business models. That is not how I approach it at all and I believe that is the wrong approach.
Most senior leaders, most CEO’s and most executives are already at maximum capacity. They have no room for anything new, in fact, this bandwidth issue is a huge blocker to transformation.
A much more realistic approach is “The Michelangelo Approach”. Organizations already have much of the answers to their success, but sometimes, they get in their own ways through outdated policies, energy-sapping politics, and resistant mindsets.
One of Michelangelo’s most famous quotes is that “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” I see working with organizations in the same way. They are like a block of stone, the older the organization the more stone has accumulated over the years. This stone is caked on heavily in layers of increasing bureaucracy, decaying business models, and defunct mental models. When people are rewarded, remunerated, and recognized based on these old structures, it is ever more difficult to chisel them away, but there is beauty inside. When I encounter inevitable resistance – and as a changemaker, you know the people I am talking about – I try to have empathy and understand how I represent a threat to those who resist. I remember Michelangelo’s beautiful words:
Now, I admit, in the moment of struggle, one feels like using the chisel for more demonic acts, because this work is hard, rock hard (ahem, I couldn’t resist). It is helpful to remember transformation is more about subtraction and elimination of the unnecessary and superfluous — rather than addition.
To achieve transformation, I have found the following steps a useful starting point:
- Look at the present. What activities am I (are we) engaging in that I (we) can eliminate? Social media? Bureaucracy? Decaying business and mental models?
- When I identify them, I have my block of stone, and next, I take out my chisel and get to work eliminating that which does not serve me.
- Once, I have let the angel emerge, I only then add something new. I use this newfound capacity, this cognitive bandwidth, this time to pursue something new.
This is when I can look at the new canvas and take out my paintbrushes.
Now the Painter
One of my favourite Picasso quotes is,
For me, this means, that we must deconstruct the old in order to make way for the new. In transformation work, it is after I have removed the superfluous that I can start adding the new.
The most common refrain I heard when I published my book, “Undisruptable, a Mindset of Permanent Reinvention.” was, “Where did you get the time?” There is an assumption that it was a great sacrifice to my family, but this was not the case. I followed my own process and ate my own cooking. I stopped wasting time on anything that was an energy drain, I unsubscribed from a plethora of newsletters and I carved out the time. In addition, at the time I was furloughed by the organization that I worked for. I welcome the opportunity that this presented, it meant I had more time to do what energized me and I realized how much that role was draining me.
When I had completed the book, I applied the same mindset. I looked at the final lump of stone and I eliminated the unnecessary, to reveal the essence of Permanent Reinvention.
The next step forward often begins with a step back, embracing the new means letting go of the old.
Thanks for Reading
If you like this article, you might also like my book “Undisruptable: A Mindset of Permanent Reinvention for Individuals, Organisations, and Life” It is available anywhere you find books and is also available on audiobook.
To open up the thinking of your team in a fun and engaging way, you may also enjoy our corporate workshops, designed to create Aha moments for you and your team to break the mental barriers we often encounter.