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Management, The Art

Updated: Jul 25, 2023

by Ulises Pabon

The purpose of science is to create knowledge.

The word "science" has its etymological roots in Latin and Old French. It is derived from the Latin word “scire” which means “to know” and "scientia," which means "knowledge" or "understanding." By subjecting theories to rigorous scrutiny and hypothesis testing, science provides a framework of knowledge that allows us to understand the world.

Art is more difficult to define. I could use a circular definition and say that art is, simply put, what artists do. But that would be gratuitous. Art is generally referred to as the expression of human imagination, emotions or ideas through various mediums like painting, sculpture, music, literature, dance, and more. The root of the word “art” can be traced back to the Latin word "ars," which means "skill" or "craftsmanship."

So, is management a science or an art?

Before you take a stance, let me share a concept I learned from Roger Martin, the former dean of the Rotman School of Management.

He first published this idea in The Opposable Mind (2007), and wrote about it again in The Design of Business (2009). You might recognize Martin as the coauthor of Play to Win, the highly acclaimed bestseller A.G. Lafley - the former Chairman and CEO of Porter & Gamble - and he published in 2013. Martin’s most recent book, A New Way to Think (2022) is simply extraordinary. If you haven’t noticed yet, I read everything this guy writes. He’s an intellectual beast!

In The Opposable Mind, Martin explains what he calls Your Personal Knowledge System. Here’s a reproduction of Figure 5.1 from that book.

Martin proposes that the tools you use to organize your thinking and understand your world, and the experiences you accumulate, are a direct consequence of your stance: your most broad-based knowledge domain in which you define who you are in your world and what you are trying to accomplish in it.

Here’s why I’m sharing this. Management-as-science and management-as-art are stances. Each stance will highlight different tools which will lead you to different experiences. Rather than limit yourself to one stance, why not explore both?

Management-as-science, you probably know well. Most of what is written and taught under the discipline of management responds to this knowledge system.

It’s management-as-art where I want to linger a bit. It's written about less frequently. Yet, it offers a complementary perspective on management that can only expand your tool set and enrich your experience.

But the invitation is not without its difficulties. Science, to begin with, allows me to be prescriptive; art doesn’t.

Second, art results from the interplay between artist, artwork, and audience. Extending these three elements into management requires a stretch of the imagination, a creative leap. If you spend most of your time in the realm of analysis, you are likely to find the metaphor useless.

So, where can we find inspiration to dive into the management-as-art pool? That’s really up to you. I can only tell you where I went. I went to Max Maven.

Max Maven (1950 - 2022) was an American magician, mentalist, and author. Between September 1991 and August 1996, he penned an insightful monthly column titled Parallax. His subject matter: the art of conjuring; his overriding goal: elevate its aesthetics. In his writings, Maven brandishes a striking mix of wit and wisdom. He can be funny, challenging, cynical, profound, and inspiring - all, on the same essay. Orson Wells called him “the most original mind in magic.”

His column appeared in MAGIC, a monthly magazine published by Stan Allen. Here’s a quote from Maven's December 1995 column titled Iconoclast Call:

“Art is autobiographical, in its gestation - and communal in its realization. Once the artist places that self-account into his or her chosen medium, the next step is to transmit it to an audience. Only then does the artistic process actually - or at least potentially - flourish.”

His words, applied to management, set off a train of provocative questions in my mind.

If art is autobiographical, what does the exercise of management, in my hands, say about me? What story does it tell? What meaning, if any, does it convey?

If art is communal in its realization, what role do those I manage play, in the full expression of this art? Are they co-artists, the artwork, or the audience? How does my view of their roles affect my practice of management?

These are different questions than those proposed by management-as-science. That's what a different personal knowledge system does. What's unremarkable in one knowledge system can be prominent and salient in another.

Management-as-art is not better than management-as-science. It’s just another set of lenses to see the world. In today’s post-COVID upended workplace, however, it may be more relevant than ever. Managers that understand themselves better and know what they stand for will have a better chance of connecting with a workforce that has awakened to the calls of passion, purpose, and transparency.

While management-as-art doesn't provide answers, you need to give it serious consideration. It can help you formulate the questions you need, to find meaning in your practice of management. These answers will surely enhance your capacity to help people work together, which in turn empowers them to tackle wicked problems and surpass bold challenges. That is, after all, what management is all about.

Managers that understand themselves better and know what they stand for will have a better chance of connecting with a workforce that has awakened to the calls of passion, purpose, and transparency.

I’ll leave you with Maven’s closing remarks from his Iconoclast Call column. I couldn’t have found a better ending …

“Scientists may wander away from the village, go over the mountain, explore what’s there, then return and explain to the rest of the tribe. Such information usually has practical value; there is no mandate for aesthetics or emotional or spiritual resonance, although such may surely come along for the ride. Conversely, when the artist provides an account of what lies over the mountain, there is no mandate for practicality, let alone informational accuracy. And yet, curiously, those fanciful reports can be of remarkably practical value as we go about the task of sorting out our lives.

So tell me, what did you see when you went over the mountain?”

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