MORE THAN A QUARTER CENTURY after Salvador Dali’s death, Nathan Schwagler, co-director of the Innovation Labs at The Dali Museum in Saint Petersburg, uses the painter’s artwork to change how people view their own business practices. Schwagler delivered the keynote address at the April installment of SB2: Good Arts, where he utilized the famous painting Lincoln in Dalivision to show how shifting perspectives can change perceptions whether in a visual medium or in a corporate mindset. Schwagler sat down exclusively with SRQ to further explore the topic.

SRQHas something happened in business culture that opened the doors to creativity in the corporate world? Schwagler: It’s a function of competition and the accelerated nature of change. It used to be completely practical to get a job at a company and to be there for decades. No millennial thinks they will retire with the company they started with. They will live in five different cities before they turn 30. They will have eight jobs in four different industries. Right now, we’ve got a lot of mismatched people in jobs and an incredibly inefficient marketplace. Humanities and cultural institutions, specifically art museums, are in a position to add a lot to this conversation and help people figure out how to do their very best.

What makes The Dali a prime venue for pushing this realm of innovation? It’s nice if you have an art museum, but you don’t need an art museum to do creative problem-solving work. What you really need to do is have someone who understands how to architect a process. A lot of people in the world think the creative process is just this messy thing, like I take a shower and I have an idea? Most people don’t see themselves as creative, and they don’t understand that it’s a process to be deliberately creative. What we are really trying to do when we talk with the business community is to understand the frameworks you put into an organization to be deliberately creative. If you can get companies to do that, the serendipitous creativity starts to happen more on its own.

What are the universal tools that can be applied across any field to spur innovation?  One of the biggest mistakes I think companies can make is they will solve the wrong problem. If you are government, you will solve the wrong problem precisely. You need to put a pretty good frame around the challenge. A lot of people want to jump into brainstorming right away, but then you come up with a bunch of ideas that don’t actually create value. A good facilitator will be able to tap into the latent creative potential of everybody in that room and figure how to do that through various tools and exercises. We’ll use Dali’s paintings, like that Lincoln. We will have them analyze that painting from seven different perspectives. After they’ve immersed themselves in their business problem, we’ll take them into the galleries and teach them to learn how to look. And we’ll come back to their business problem and see how they take those look skills and apply them to that problem, to look at it in seven different ways. There are lots of good ways to play the ideation game, and hundreds of different tools. Then you have to refine an idea. It’s hard because there’s almost no difference between a really good idea and a really bad idea when it’s in the idea phase. Early on, they are almost indistinguishable.  And if there’s a person in the room who will tell you 10 reasons why it won’t work, then your whole thing could be shut down right then. The Harvard Business School did some research that identified that people who shoot down ideas in ideation sessions get promoted faster than people who come up with creative ideas. But if you do that enough, that person shooting down ideas becomes the modus operandi of the business. Few companies persist in economic cycles and industry cycles over time without changing business models. So this notion of an idea must be developed into a solution. You need to apply criteria against it and fit this into the system in which it needs to operate. We need to embrace it. The final phase is execution, an action plan. It’s flow chart kind of stuff, but there’s room for creativity there too. 

Should we just set aside the old case studies and best practices? There’s a time and place for ideation, and there’s a time and place for best practices and processes, especially when you think about how to make an idea scale. I don’t think you can turn a blind eye to it and say this idea doesn’t work, so don’t think about it. That means somebody else is going to come along with that idea and think about it, and you are going to be wishing you had done something about it.