A Beautiful Idea
Is what you do, where you work, or how you organize, beautiful? Among the many words used to describe our work lives the most neglected and maybe necessary might be described that one word: it’s time to take it seriously.
For those working in design one of the biggest challenges is getting people to understand that good design isn’t just about making things pretty, but making them better, more useful, more responsive, sustainable, and impactful. Good design is too often seen as a ‘nice to have’ than a ‘must have’ and is thus invested in accordingly.
‘Beautiful’ as a concept has it even worse. In my entire working career I’ve never heard the word uttered even once on a matter of professional importance by others. That’s a shame and it speaks loudly to our present situation where innovation is hard to come by, organizations struggle to attract and retain good people, and the battle for attention — of the market and our workforce — is maybe the biggest one of them all.
But beauty is worth a look, particularly because it is, well, beautiful.
A beautiful term
What is beautiful? Consider the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition.
beautiful |ˈbyo͞odəfəl| adjective
pleasing the senses or mind aesthetically: beautiful poetry | a beautiful young woman | the mountains were calm and beautiful.
• of a very high standard; excellent: the house had been left in beautiful order | she spoke in beautiful English.
Note two key features of this definition: pleasing the senses or mind and high standards. The first part might sound a bit hedonistic (PDF), but when you consider what motivates us at the most base level of existence: it’s pleasure and pain. We are attracted to people, experiences, objects and environments that generate pleasure. In an environment described above when attracting talent, eyeballs — attention — is so hard to come by, why would we not amplify beauty?
The second term is high standards. It’s not enough to attract attention, we need to hold it and to inspire action, loyalty and persistence if we wish to succeed on most counts. Quality is a competitive advantage in many environments, particularly in human services where the complexity associated with poor quality decisions, processes and management are potentially catastrophic. (Enron, anyone?).
An associated term to this is aesthetics, which is defined as:
aesthetic |esˈTHedik| (also esthetic) adjective
concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty: the pictures give great aesthetic pleasure.
• giving or designed to give pleasure through beauty; of pleasing appearance.
Aesthetics is the more active appreciation of beauty — the application of it in the world. Organizational aesthetics is an emergent area of scholarship and practice that seeks to understand the role of beauty in the organization and its implications. Steven Taylor describes organizational aesthetics through storytelling, outlining the way he came to know something through connecting his work with his senses. His story points to different ways in which organizational aesthetics is experienced and understood, but ultimately how its sensed. It’s that attention to the senses that really sets this field apart, but also how practical it is.
Organizational aesthetics are about practical realities of organizational life, brought to bear through our five senses, not just the mind. Strange that so much of what is produced in the literature and scholarship is so cognitive and devoid of discussion of any other sensory experiences. Yet, we are sensuous beings and most healthy when we are in touch (literally!) with our senses in our lives. Consider the cortical homunculus and you’ll know that we feel through a lot more than we often use in our work lives.
Organizational aesthetics is about using methods that tap into these senses and the qualities of physical, social, psychological spaces where they can be used more fully to contribute to more impactful, healthier and happier environments for humans to work and thrive. This approach is rooted in design and the hypothesis that, as human created (thus designed) constructs, the modern organization can design in beauty as much as it can design beauty away. Like design itself, organizational aesthetics is practical, above all.
Citing earlier work from Roozenberg & Eekles (1995) on the topic of design causality, Steven De Groot, from the Eindhoven University of Technology, points to the way in which design is a responsive means to helping an organization adapt.
By fulfilling functions a design satisfies needs, and gives people the possibility to realize one or more values. Transferring these fundamentals, the design of the organization needs to change as a consequence of changing roles and needs of the employees in this case.
Roozenberg and Eekles assert that form follows value and thus, as De Groot sought to explore, explicit value of beauty can produce beautiful organizations. The reasoning for this research comes from earlier studies that show that when organizations value and nurture beauty within them, employees are happier, their commitment increases and the organizational function is improved.
Dispelling beautiful myths
Despite the reams of research that has emerged from a variety of disciplines showing the connections between beauty and positive outcomes and experiences in organizations, there will be many who are still troubled by the idea of integrating the word ‘beautiful’ into the serious world of work. It may be tempted to rely on a few myths to deny its utility so let’s dispel those right away.
- Promotion of beauty is not denial of the ugly. Ugly is everywhere: in the news, on social media (spent time on Facebook lately?), and embedded in many of our global, social challenges. Embracing the beautiful is not about denying ugly, but drawing our focus to areas where we can create change. As I discussed in a previous post, good design is increasingly about reducing information overload and focusing on areas we can influence by creating positive attractors, not negative ones. It’s based on attention and human nature. We stop and remark on fresh cut flowers. We comment on a colleagues’ attractive new outfit or clothing item (“I love your new socks!”). We see something that is well designed and we admire it, covet it or just enjoy it. Beauty captures something of the most rarest of commodities in the modern age: attention. We won’t change the world by yelling louder, we’ll change it by speaking beautifully, better.
- There’s no single definition of beauty. Beauty is truly subjective. What I might find particularly beautiful is different than what someone else will, yet there is much evidence that there is also a shared sense of the beautiful. Pierre Bourdieu’s work on taste and taste-making (PDF) points to the social means in which we — fair or not — share perspectives to elevate ideas, concepts and artifacts. We are social and thus share social rules, tastes and ideas and that this might be done across cultures, within ‘tribes’ or tied to specific settings or groups, but there is always something shared.
- There are shared principles of beauty. What makes for a shared cultural experience is something that we refer to as simple rules in complexity studies. These are rules that may be explicit, unconscious or tacit that guide collective actions and shared experiences. It, combined with history (and something we call path dependence – a driver of stability and stasis in a system), is what allows us to have some collective appreciation of the beautiful. It’s why natural elements (e.g., plants) or use of certain colours can create a positive atmosphere and psychological experience within a setting even if those plants or colours are universally loved.
- There is plenty of evidence to support the case for making changes based on beauty. This ‘absence of evidence’ myth will take a while to dispel as people will see (or not see) what they want to. All I would suggest is that you take a long hard look at some of the research — in particular Steven de Groot’s doctoral work — and put that up against any other theory or program of research and explain how it’s less than — particularly given how young of a field it is. There is an entire academic journal devoted to this topic (and, like in any journal, not all the evidence is top-notch, but there’s good work in there and throughout the literature). Consider how management theory, a well-established area of scholarship, is already becoming ‘a compendium of dead ideas‘ given the paucity of solid research behind it and yet something like organizational aesthetics hasn’t taken hold? The battle is long, but adoption of some new, beautiful thinking is one that will pay off. I’ve not even started getting into the arguments for environmental and organizational psychology or design.
Change in a complex system is about creating, finding and amplifying positive attractors and dampening and eliminating negative ones (and in complex systems positive isn’t always good and negative bad, it’s about what the goals are in the system — what you wish to achieve within that system. In society, these are almost always socially negotiated, somewhat contested).
Attracting attention, ideas, and energy is one of our biggest social challenges at the moment and a huge barrier to change.
Everyone’s looking for a way to capture attention and hold it when there is a beautiful solution right under their noses.
“Everyone needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike” – John Muir, 1869
Image Credit: Author