How Looking at Art Can Make You a Better Thinker, Communicator, and Leader

How Looking at Art Can Make You a Better Thinker, Communicator, and Leader

“It was quite a sight!  A dozen senior executives from a big, conservative financial services firm, all sitting on the floor in front of a painting, talking about what it could mean and why they think that.”

On a typical dreary November day, and Suzi and I were sitting in the café inside Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.  She had just left her job as Head of Design Thinking at Fidelity Investments and I was taking a sabbatical before deciding what would be next for my career.  Introduced by a mutual friend, we decided to swap stories over lunch and a walk through one of the museum’s special exhibitions.

She was describing a Visual Thinking (VTS) session she had recently facilitated and the nearly instant impact it had on the way executives expressed themselves and communicated with each other.  She saw them engage in a level of creative problem-solving and critical thinking that they hadn’t in the past.

Intrigued, I set off to learn more.  What I discovered was a powerful, proven, and gasp fun way to help my clients navigate the ambiguous early days of innovation and embrace their inner curiosity and creativity.


Why should you care about VTS?

Imagine someone says to you, “If you and your team spend 1-2 hours with me each month for 9 months, I guarantee an improvement in your abilities to:

  • Quickly gather and synthesize accurate and unique insights by listening deeply and re-phrasing what they heard ensure understanding
  • Think critically and creatively by examining information or an idea from all angles, rethinking it, and deciding whether to keep, revise, or discard it
  • Communicate more clearly, respectfully, and productively with a variety of people inside and outside the organization
  • Work cross-functionally because they can apply critical thinking skills confidently to topics outside of their expertise
  • Innovate and experiment because they have learned how to individually and as a team operate in uncertainty
  • Provide more effective feedback by phrasing criticisms as questions and engaging in collaborative discovery and problem-solving conversations

Would you make the time commitment?

Now, what if they said, “All you have to do each month is sit together in a conference room and take part in a conversation.  No travel.  No additional expenses.  Just turn off your email and your phone for one hour and have a conversation in a room you already pay rent on.”

Would you do it then?

Of course you would.

Because you’ve been to trainings that focus on only one of the items in the list above and those trainings are expensive, time-consuming, and not nearly as effective as they should be.


What is Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS)?

According to the book, Visual Thinking Strategies: Using Art to Deepen Learning Across School Disciplines, VTS “uses art to teach visual literacy, thinking, and communication skills – listening an expressing oneself.”

Philip Yenawine was the Director of Education at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York from 1983 – 1993.  During that time, he noticed that despite the museum’s efforts to organize and craft detailed explanations and interpretations for each piece of art, visitors would still ask lots of “Why?” questions and would remember little, if anything, from their visit.

Frustrated but curious, he and his team began studying developmental research and theory and discovered that what MOMA visitors needed wasn’t explanations, details, and facts, it was “permission to be puzzled and to think.  Consent to use their powerful eyes and intelligent minds.  Time to noodle and figure things out.  The go-ahead to use what they already know to reflect on what they don’t; the first steps of learning.”

Philip and his team with MOMA partnered with cognitive psychologist Abigail Housen to develop and test a process now known as Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS).

In the 30 years since their initial experiments, Philip and Abigail’s work has been used in 28 countries and 58 museums, over 12,000 students have engaged in VTS discussions and 1,200 people have become trained facilitators.



How to do VTS

The secret to VTS’ effectiveness is in the facilitation so if you’re going to do this, invest in an expert facilitator.  An expert facilitator is the only way to get the results listed above.


Here’s how a VTS session works:

  • Facilitator shares a piece of art specially selected so that “the subjects are familiar… but they also contain elements of mystery.”
  • Attendees take one minute to silently focus on the art
  • Facilitator asks 3 questions over the hour:
    • What’s going on in this picture?
    • What do you see that makes you say that?
    • What more can you find?
  • As each individual answers a question, the Facilitator:
    • Points at what is being observed
    • Paraphrases what has been said
    • Links what has been said to what others have said
  • Facilitator wraps up the session by thanking everyone and sharing something s/he learned from listening. They do NOT give “the answer” because “this isn’t about right and wrong but about thinking and…that the students singly and together are capable of wonderful, grounded ideas.”

That’s it – 1 piece of art, 3 questions, and at least 5 major benefits if you commit to the process.


Seems like something worth sitting on an art gallery floor for, right?

To learn more, read Visual Thinking Strategies: Using Art to Deepen Learning Across School Disciplines by Philip Yenawine and visit the website Visual Thinking Strategies

10 Moments of Innovation Zen: Travel

10 Moments of Innovation Zen: Travel

Sunday was Read a Roadmap Day which is, naturally, one of MileZero’s favorite days.

For hundreds of years, maps were works of art. Available to only the rich and powerful, they described the full sum of our understanding of the land and sea, and told stories of the fantastical creatures that lived beyond our shores.

Even as maps became more accessible, reading a roadmap still felt like reading a treasure map. As a kid, I loved to study the different types and colors of lines signaled different types of roads. Dozens of symbols each translated to some wondrous place or service. And don’t get me started on the wonder and magic of AAA’s TripTiks!

As time goes on, fewer and fewer people know how to read road maps, which is understandable given that technology puts real-time custom location information at our fingertips. But there’s still magic in maps and in the discoveries that only occur through travel.

So, for this week’s 10 Moments of Innovation Zen, and in honor of Read a Roadmap Day, here i are 10 innovations in travel that you can enjoy from your own home (which is really your only option at the moment)

Savage Beauty by Kari Kola in Connemara, Galway County, Ireland

Savage Beauty, the largest site-specific light artwork ever created because art need not be constrained to pencil, paint, and canvas

Nordlandsbanen Bodo — Trodheim

Slow TV in which there is no story line, no script, no drama, no climax, just 9+ hours of Norwegian landscape as viewed from a train

Easter Island

Heritage on the Edge by Google showing how World Heritage Sites are affected by global climate change

Animal Cams so you can virtually visit the pandas at the Smithsonian National Zoo or the penguins, fish, seals, and other inhabitants of the New England Aquarium

Dotonbori area in Osaka Japan

Virtual Walking Tours of NYC, South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, LA, San Diego, and a few US college campuses

Staircase at The Vatican Museum

Virtual Museum Tours of the LouvreMadrid’s Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, and The Vatican Museum

Berlin Philharmonic Hall

Virtual Concerts performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra or the Berlin Philharmonic

Madama Butterfly, Royal Swedish Opera

Virtual Operas from all over the world, including the Royal Swedish Opera’s Madama Butterfly and the Polish National Opera’s Tosca

Arches National Park

Google Earth lets you visit anywhere on, well, earth and, with this link, you can visit any of the US National Parks

Royal Portuguese Reading Rooms, Rio de Janeiro, by Getty Images

Listicles of the best of anything, including the world’s most beautiful libraries (sorry, I just love books too much)

A Career in Innovation — Part 1: The Experience

A Career in Innovation — Part 1: The Experience

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.