Something interesting is happening in the relationship between art and science in the field of professional communications.
Big data is flooding into marketing, public relations and publishing, pushing analytics to the center of strategy, ideation, content creation and measurement. Yet, the demand for creativity has never been greater.
Big data, the argument goes, is revolutionizing business because it enables managers to make evidence-based decisions instead of relying on intuition, inference and experience. “Data-driven decisions are better decisions—it’s as simple as that,” say MIT technologists Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson. And who would dispute it? But that sentiment shouldn’t lead us to conclude that data is all we need to move us forward.
For more than a hundred years, problem solving has been dominated by linear, sequential, reductive and deeply analytical thinking. We take it for granted that this is the best, even the only proper way to think. It has led to good things, but also to the rigid, hierarchical command-control systems that are collapsing around us.
Reliance on reams of data and elegant algorithms isn’t enough to help our institutions make the shift required to cope with forces of radical discontinuity. Becoming overly enamored with data-driven decision-making, in fact, risks reinforcing the very attributes we need to move beyond if we’re to help not just business but the species and planet evolve productively rather than destructively.
We’re faced with a creative challenge, not just a data revolution. That’s why practices like design thinking, mindfulness, integrated performance systems and similar approaches have moved into the executive suite over the past several years. Design thinking, for example, means the ability to combine empathy for the context of a problem with creativity in generating insights and solutions. By understanding how designers ideate and solve problems, the thinking goes, businesses will generate better ideas and increase their ability to innovate in a way that will be ultimately more useful than simply selling more product.
Design thinking is based on a collaborative, iterative work style that seeks to create holistic solutions rather than break a problem down into its pieces. This way of thinking, characteristic of the brain’s right hemisphere, is especially crucial if our organizations are to become—as they must—more open, participatory, transparent, fluid, horizontal and social.
Brilliant insights can’t be engineered. They come from seeing something in information that ignites a flash of understanding, provokes a mental leap, sparks a creative connection. That’s the brain’s right hemisphere at work. That’s intuition. We need to embrace it, not smother it with more zero-sum, left-brain logic and analysis.
This dialectic between analytics and intuition points to the emergence of what author Daniel Pink calls “a whole new mind.” In his best-selling book by that name, Pink made the case that “the future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind – creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers…It is an age [that requires] the capacity to detect patterns and opportunities, to create artistic and emotional beauty, to craft a satisfying narrative, and to combine seemingly unrelated ideas into something new.”
It isn’t about one hemisphere over the other, data versus intuition. In truth, we need the right and left brain to work in partnership to facilitate a more complete grasp of the problems we face and produce the humanistic solutions we need. Aligning them creates more than a new mind, but a higher and better one.
So by all means bring on the research, the data and metrics. But let’s also fire up the neural pathways that delight in art, that thrill with stories, that find uplift in the unexpected. In the marriage of art and science lies the future.