Successful business is art, not science

13th October 2015

The latest John Peel lecture featured Brian Eno, the renowned music producer – think Talking Heads, U2, Coldplay – talks about the creative industries, art and culture. It’s a fascinating forty minutes, but in my view it’s his definition of art that has the most significant implications for business.

Eno defines Art as ‘everything that you don’t have to do‘, which is mostly stylising things like food, hair, clothes and rooms, as well as more traditional media such as books, songs and paintings. He goes on to say that Art is a way for us to keep up with ultra-fast change by synchronising with each other; seeing what other people are doing and thinking, using that as our impetus to change, and remoulding ourselves through incorporating new perspectives and ideas.

Why is art important to business?

The idea that art is everything we don’t have to do is essential to the best performing businesses. The ones that ‘go the extra mile’, that add value, that do more than is strictly necessary to take your money.

My favourite example of this is Metro Bank. When there were some teething troubles with my account recently, they offered to drive to my home with some forms for me to sign at 7pm one evening so that I wouldn’t suffer any delays in using the account the next day. Yes. A bank. 7pm on a Tuesday. Astounding.

For me, that’s art. It’s extra, it’s not something they needed to do, it’s an embellishment, an adornment, a stylisation of the basic service. And it’s massively effective. I will be telling that story for a very long time, and word gets around.

The problem is you can’t train people to deliver that level of service. The rules and procedures book would never be big enough to cover all the eventualities. Besides, the best people aren’t following rules, they just do it. They improvise, because of who they are and because they are deeply engaged with what they do.

What about the art in your business?

Chances are your business is very good at all the things it has to do, like talking to clients, sending out invoices, getting the cash in, paying the staff, dealing with suppliers, paying tax, paying the rent, organising the Christmas party.

But what about all the things your business doesn’t have to do? Like business development, customer service, strategy, talent development, celebrating success, encouraging innovation. How would you rate your business, honestly?

And more importantly, when was the last time you sat down (or took a walk) and considered how you could really improve these areas?

What happens next for your business?

Metro Bank is the first bank to do what it does in the UK. There will be others. There will be copycats in other industries. This ‘above and beyond’ approach will spread like a virus and affect all of us.

The question is, will you choose to act now, or be forced to act later?

Imagine what highly motivated and engaged staff, who do more than they have to, will do for your business values, and your business performance.

And what about you?

Even if you’re not impressed by anything above, you’d be mad to ignore his most important message. We are all artists now. Whether you agree or not, you might want to look at how much of your time you spend stylising and synchronising.


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