For most people, pirouettes, pliés, and dancing on one’s toes evoke images of Save the Last Dance, childhood ballerina aspirations or that one time they saw The Nutcracker. Ballet is an art form close to my heart; I was on my way to becoming a professional dancer until the age of seventeen, when university came along and I decided that mental gymnastics might be an interesting diversion from the physical sort.
With almost two decades of dance under my belt, I clearly appreciate the arts. But the arts get a bad rap. It is easy to scoff at their lack of direct financial value, or counter that government funds be best invested elsewhere with more tangible, ‘practical’ outcomes. Indeed, in times of austerity, art budgets are some of the first to be cut. Toronto District School Board recently considered cutting funds directed at elementary school music programs. And, in June, British art organizations dodged a national budget cut that would have just about halved their government funding.
Now, three years into my business program, I am recognizing the value of all that time spent in dance class. While school has taught me the technicalities of business, some of the most important lessons I’ve learned about business and innovation come from the studio.
Discipline and the importance of process
Perfecting an art requires patience, commitment, and focus. Simply showing up at dance class once in a while will not bring about improvement. Performing a full-length Swan Lake requires a process and a discipline that’ll get you there: daily classes, rehearsals, and training specific to the choreography. In business, when results do not come about easily, recognizing the steps you must take to achieving the desired goals is one thing, but having the discipline to follow every one of them through is another. Results lie in adherence to a process where hurdles are overcome, skills are developed, and ideas are brought to life.
Reinvention requires flexibility and an open mind
Some claim that ballet is a dying art, but I would argue that it’s rather undergoing a major shift. While ballet companies rely on classics like Sleeping Beauty or Don Quixote to maintain the interest of long-time balletomanes, they are also capturing younger audiences by commissioning works that take classical dance to new places. Consider the Royal Ballet’s 2013/2014 season, where modern choreographer Wayne McGregor’s Chroma appears next to mainstays like Giselle. With this transformation, being open as a dancer to different styles becomes important. Business is also transforming at a rapid rate, and closing yourself off to innovation with an attachment to the usual way of doing things does not make sense in a world moving at such speed.
Anticipate and improvise
The key to remembering choreography is to anticipate what comes next. If you are not thinking ahead, you are already behind. Even then, anticipation can only get you so far, because some situations do not allow for preemptive calculation – the music skips a beat or your partner misses their cue. Where anticipation is difficult, improvisation is the next best thing. In business, this is known as “emergent strategy”, and is becoming increasingly important in today’s hypercompetitive, fast-paced environment, where being first-to-market is often the key to success. Take Google, which regularly releases products in beta and fixes the glitches later. Ultimately, every businessperson would like to have the foresight to anticipate the next big thing, but where foresight falls through, improvisation and intuition prevail.
The details and the bigger picture are equally important
A good dancer is able to find balance between the component details that allow them to create positions and the movement as a whole. You can’t stand on your toes without taking mental inventory of various body parts, such as your knees, arms, and ankles. However, focusing on the details without a general feel for the music and the movement render dancing awkward and mechanical. Focusing on both the particulars and the overall image allows businesses to thrive, especially in the service industries. Imagine the luxury hotel experience without the turndown chocolate, the concierge who knows your name, and the towel swans. It just doesn’t seem so luxurious.
Like business, dance is a competitive field, and efforts to outdo one’s colleagues can become fierce, even aggressive. There are limited bonuses and promotions to be doled out, and inevitably only the top performers are rewarded. Healthy competition is good in that it challenges all parties involved and counteracts complacency. However, a Machiavellian outlook can be detrimental to you and your company; besides stressing you out, it will inhibit the risk-taking and the support system needed to create a culture of innovation. You don’t have to be altruistic, but you should be nice. After all, real life is not like Black Swan.