The Unofficial Partner column: In praise of art school

Richard Gillis laments the lack of dreamers in the sports business.

The Unofficial Partner column: In praise of art school

Growing up in the 1970s, new ideas penetrated my life at a rate of around one every three or four years.

Stagflation; go to work on an egg; and the revelation that when you put the right combination of numbers into a pocket calculator, you could make it spell the words ‘Poodog’ and ‘A-hole’ when held upside down.

That was the sum of my exposure to progressive thinking during the period 1974 to 1978.

Cleverness was a marginal activity, denoted on film and TV by the wearing of glasses and/or a lab coat. Inventors were people like Caractacus Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, an endearing dreamer living in chaotic rural poverty, albeit one who managed to pay the mortgage on a shabby chic windmill on the South Downs and run a vintage flying car.

Today, ideas are a commodity item, flying at us from every corner of the internet and, like every area of marketing, sport is in thrall to the cult of disruption.

No self-respecting conference hack will talk for five minutes without referencing The D Word, which has lost all meaning, reduced to press release fodder by PRs hoping some Silicon Valley glitz will rub off on their client’s pedestrian ‘new’ thing.

Real disruption is quite rare and is by nature highly unpredictable.

A while ago I met the author and broadcaster Steven Johnson, who wrote a really good book about the meaning of innovation, called How We Got To Now.

Each chapter takes a single subject and reveals the extraordinary chain of events that led to the everyday items we now take for granted. The six topics are: Glass, Cold, Sound, Clean, Time and Light.

The story of glass points out that Gutenberg’s printing press led to a surge in the demand for spectacles, ‘as the new practice of reading made Europeans across the continent suddenly realize that they were farsighted; the market demand for spectacles encouraged a growing number of people to produce and experiment with lenses, which led to the invention of the microscope, which shortly thereafter enabled us to perceive that our bodies were made up of microscopic cells. You wouldn’t think that printing technology would have anything to do with the expansion of our vision down to the cellular scale’.

The central idea of Johnson’s book is that great innovations involve a virtually unknowable chain of causality. There’s no chance that we will be able to identify the connections that will be made in the future, let alone predict them in advance.

There are lessons here for anyone with a remit to cultivate innovation in the workplace. Point one is, don’t expect your next big thing to come out of an office.

The downside of creating organisations is that they tend to eradicate chaos and unpredictability, the very things needed to encourage the mental leaps required. 

Most businesses don’t tolerate the type of loose, unformed thinking needed to bring new perspectives to existing problems.

Instead, real disruptors share a tendency to exist on the margins, either of society as a whole or more narrowly, within their particular area of expertise.

"The defining characteristic of a genuine innovator is that they cultivate hobbies, often combining a day job with a million and one different interests,” said Johnson, referencing Apple’s co-founders, “that whole ‘Jobs and Wozniak working in the garage’ model”.

This hobbyist tendency encourages the weird collision of interests that are at the heart of creativity.

By contrast, sport and marketing are very rule-based pursuits, which leads to the second problem.

The sports business is – unsurprisingly – dominated by a business school mentality. This rewards consistency and repetition and is very adept at taking ideas and making money from them. But it’s not where the ideas are born.

Business school v art school is one of the great divides running through all areas of life and is very pronounced in the marketing industry, of which sport is a part.

When was the last time you asked someone working in sport if they went to art school?

Rather than encourage creativity, governments have slashed arts budgets and increased tuition fees, two factors that combine to make studying art subjects a greater risk for most 18-year-olds.

So there’s been a big dip in young people taking the art school route, which will have long term implications on encouraging the important skills of lateral thinking and creative problem-solving.

This is a shame. The sports business needs more dreamers.