Have you ever had that eery feeling of some secret you’ve been keeping being subtly exposed by someone or something that has absolutely no way of knowing it? Have you ever had a conversation with someone, or read something, or seen something, and thought to yourself, “How do they know?”

I had that feeling a few months ago at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston.

And it made me laugh. Mostly so I wouldn’t cry.

A Bit of Background

The exhibit William Forsythe: Choreographic Objects is “the first comprehensive American exhibition of performative objects, video installations, and interactive sculptures of the internationally celebrated choreographer William Forsythe.”

For the uninitiated (me), William Forsythe is a famous choreographer who “redefine(d) classical ballet” through his unique approach to “choreography, staging, lighting, and dance analysis.” Since the early 1990s, he’s also been developing art installations that are designed to “stimulate movement from visitors.”

This all sounds well and good and like a fun exhibit, and I needed to find something to do with my dad while he was in town, so off we went!

Welcome to the Jungle

Room full of hanging rings and people trying to use them to go from one side to the other

William Forsythe, The Fact of The Matter, 2009

The second piece in the exhibit is Forsythe’s The Fact of the Matter — essentially a large room with hundreds of rings suspended from the ceiling by straps of various lengths, and accompanied by instructions to move from one end to the other using only the rings. This is the piece’s first showing in the US for (obvious) liability reasons.

Dad and I, overly confident in our physical fitness, decided that it would be a good idea to give it a try, and joined the line that circled the room (only 10 people were allowed on the piece at a time).

That’s when the feeling that I have experienced this before started to creep in.

45 minutes later, having made it only one-third of the way through the installation and narrowly avoiding breaking or spraining or pulling something on at least eight different occasions, I stepped out and collapsed against the wall.

After an embarrassing amount of recovery time, I walked to the next installation and realized why the whole experience felt so familiar.

It was the perfect encapsulation of a career in corporate innovation.

The Corporate Innovator’s experience in 45 minutes

  1. The initial rush of excitement because “Yea! We’re going to do something fun and new!”
  2. The gradual acceptance that you’re going to have to wait to get started because there are rules and we need to be safe and not take any risks
  3. The eager learning as you patiently wait, watch others give it a try, and search the internet for tips on how to succeed
  4. The rising confidence that, by watching and studying, you have learned enough to do better than the people currently trying
  5. The helpful arrogance you display as you shout advice and guidance to people doing the work
  6. The rush of adrenaline you feel when it is finally your turn
  7. The certainty and strength you feel as you start, grabbing a ring in each hand and pulling yourself off the ground
  8. The terror of placing your foot in the first ring and feeling it shoot out in a direction that it definitely should not go and realizing that this is SO MUCH HARDER than you thought it would be
  9. The quiet resilience that takes root as you get your first foot back under control, your second foot in its ring, and realize that you can’t bail now because you haven’t gotten anywhere and all the people you gave advice to are standing along a different wall watching you (and probably feeling quite smug, if we’re going to be honest)
  10. The sense of doom when you realize that, now that you have all your limbs under control, you need to move a foot out of its current ring and into another one
  11. Repeat steps 8 through 10 until you are so physically and emotionally exhausted that you wonder what you were ever thinking, that you now have pain in muscles you didn’t even know you had, and that you’re definitely having wine with dinner tonight.
  12. The relief of returning to solid ground and feeling supported as you lean against a wall, then watching all those young whipper-snappers who shouted advice at you and who are now hanging on to rings and straps for dear life
  13. The hard soul-searching as you choose whether or not to do it all over again

What Forsythe (apparently) knows about corporate innovation that most don’t

  1. You don’t know anything until you do something: I saw lots of ways to get from one end to the other and thought I had a brilliant plan. But the only thing I knew for sure after I grasped the first ring was that I needed to stay as close to the ground as possible.
  2. Doing something is much harder than watching someone else do it: No matter how much you study or observe others, no matter how “good” your advice may seem, no matter how much experience you have in something like this (I spent my childhood playing on a jungle gym!), doing something is always, always harder than watching and critiquing others.
  3. There is no one “best” way, just the way that works for you: I spent 30 minutes watching people move from ring to ring. Some people (mostly kids) went fast and made it look effortless, some people took a more measured approach, and some (mostly older folks) kept their feet on the ground and only moved their hands from ring to ring. Everyone approached the task differently, taking into account their abilities and working to achieve their own definitions of success.
  4. The hardest part is moving forward: Every time I stabilized myself, I felt a warm rush of relief. “I’ve got this,” I would think to myself. And then I would realize that I had a choice — I could stand still and be safe OR I could move my foot to another ring, fundamentally de-stabilizing myself and sending limbs flying everywhere, but also getting closer to my goal.
  5. You only fail when you start blaming: Yes, I bailed well short of my goal. I didn’t have the upper body strength to keep going. But did I fail? Nope. I learned that I need to work harder to strengthen my arms, shoulders, and core. Did other people bail before they got to the end? Yep. Did some of them fail? Yes they did. They blamed the exhibit (“of course I couldn’t make it to the end, it was designed by a professional choreographer, only professional dancers can do it”), they blamed things they couldn’t control (“I’m too old for this”), and they blamed other people (“that kid was always in my way!”). They didn’t celebrate their courage to start or recognize what they learned. They just moved on from that “stupid installation” that will never work.

The next room

Just when I thought Forsythe might have just gotten lucky with his “Experience a Career in Corporate Innovation” installation, I walked into the next room. Filled with chalkboards, he had somehow captured the progression of meetings corporate innovators endure as they present to ever higher levels of management…

That story coming soon.