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Is Business An Art?

August 8, 2014
by Melanie Cheng



Recently, I was talking with two friends who say that it’s not. One works for a leading commercial design manufacturer (what I’ll call a business around art), and the other works at SAP (business) and has a professional photography career (art) on the side.

Starting a business is fricken hard, and maintaining a successful business is just as hard. (Btw, if you don’t believe these basic assumptions, read about the daily 99% bad-decision rate of CEOs – especially successful ones – and how rare it is to create a company that lasts.)

And yet, these friends tell me that business may be difficult and require ingenuity, but ultimately you’re just navigating and optimizing life in the box. The business world box.

Especially as an entrepreneur, there are so many opportunities for failure as you learn and evolve to find your footing. To me, running your own business is absolutely an art – constantly calibrating your vision vs reality, what your ‘customers’ or ‘clients’ say that want vs what they actually need, what will make money vs what will make an impact, what you personally enjoy vs what is best for business viability, and managing human resources who are volatile complex beings by nature.

Screen Shot 2014-08-08 at 11.28.24 AMBut, perhaps, this orchestration is simply an act and exercise in engineering, not art. Engineering all these moving parts to work together seamlessly and effortlessly.

And yet, I think that even engineering – the most elegant and creative engineering – can transcend the boring and actually be beautiful. In fact, I just met with the owner of a design firm who said that some of his contractors just delivered some wireframes for an intricate and complex application, which were so well-done and so brilliantly executed that they literally made him cry.

So, I’m contending that art is defined by beauty, and that the way that business can be engineered and executed can in fact be beautiful. And, thus, it can be art.

Which brings up the next question: How to engineer business in more beautiful ways? What would make a business beautiful? My thoughts at the moment:

  • Operating lean: doing (a lot) more with less
  • Joy among the team: true happiness on a human level
  • Impact: doing good for the world while also making money
  • Collaboration: integrating models that ‘raise the tide for all boats’ in an industry; down with the one-winner model
  • Empowerment: of customers, clients, staff, board, executives, partners, everyone…
  • Innovation: expanding minds to new possibilities and more creativity
  • Community: fostering caring human bonds and relationships
  • Sustainability: honoring and protecting the most abundant art around us, Mother Nature

That would be beautiful. I think that integrating all these things is the ultimate Michelangelo of business.

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