Business Creativity: Why Great Business is More Art than Science

September 30, 2019

by Jonathan Gifford & Dr. Mark Powell

We put a lot of time and effort into trying to make business scientific. We like to feel that there is a magic set of measurements that will prove that businesses are on track and that they will survive and prosper.

But we need to remind ourselves that building a great business and keeping it running successfully through the years is – above all else – an act of creativity.

Passions, Hunches, Inspired Guesses

Great businesses are created from passions; hunches; convictions; inspired guesses. Successful businesses are constantly transformed in exactly the same way. They stay relevant by making sure that their products continue to satisfy some important, relevant human need as times and expectations change – which is an art, not a science.

Great brands understand this. When you drink a Coca-Cola, you are not just tasting a fizzy drink, you are taking part in a long-running cultural experience; little bits of the Coca-Cola story that are lurking around in your subconscious are brought together by your brain and combined with your actual sensations to deliver the overall experience of ‘drinking a Coke.’ If you’re a fan of Apple products, you believe that using an Apple device is helping you to ‘think different’ and helping you to express yourself creatively.

Great products – and great businesses – engage with us. They put on a performance. And the people who know most about putting on performances are not scientists, they are artists.

Dr Mark Powell and I have now co-authored four books around our conviction that business needs to move away from its old industrial, scientific model to a new, creative model for the age we live in – the Age of Ideas. We need to stop trying to run our businesses like perfectly efficient factories and start running them like orchestras, or theatre ensembles, or troupes of dancers. We need to get together and rehearse – trying out crazy new ideas and looking for the little touches of magic that will reach out to audiences and move them in some fundamental human way. We need to figure out how to make our audiences laugh and cry; to be inspired and delighted.

Parallel Careers: Business and the Arts

Mark has thirty years’ experience of business and strategy consultancy at partner level with top international firms. He also had a parallel career as a competitive Latin American dancer, having discovered his passion for dance when he was a student at Cambridge University. Over the course of his dance career, he won over 50 titles, including two British and two World Championships – the last achieved in the over-35s category when he was working as a partner at KPMG.

I worked as a Fleet Street advertising man before moving into magazine publishing with BBC Magazines. Like Mark, I discovered a passion – in my case for music – while I was a young man. I played saxophone in bands in Canterbury, where I studied philosophy at the University of Kent, and later played professionally in London for several years, before impoverishment drove me to get a proper job in advertising. I continued to play semi-professionally throughout my business career.

What Mark and I realised in the course of our dual business and arts careers was that the way we worked with our dance partners or fellow musicians to create compelling performances was very different from the way we worked with our colleagues in business – and that the way we worked as performers was better: more ensemble-based; more creative; more focused on the essential need to deliver a performance that would delight our audiences.

Performance Thinking

Our latest book, The Five Principles of Performance Thinking, attempts to systematize our thinking about business and the arts. It sets out the core principles that we believe underpin every great performer’s approach; the key techniques and mindsets they use to develop and deliver outstanding performances.

And the book relates these principles to the world of business. It’s all very well to say, ‘Business leaders should think of themselves as being like the conductor of a great orchestra.’ Or, ‘Teams should function like theatre ensembles, helping each other to deliver great performances that bring out the best in everyone.’ Businessmen and women will only be able to make sense of concepts like these and adopt them in their daily behaviours if they have a real, gut-level understanding of what they mean.

The Five Principles of Performance Thinking sets out to deliver both a framework for understanding what performing artists do and to provide gut-level, ‘ah-ha!’ moments of recognition about how they do what they do. We all know a great performance when we see one, after all. Great performances are exquisitely designed to evoke an emotional response in us, their audience. We experience something or see something in a new and unexpected light. We gasp or smile. We can be moved to tears.

Creating Emotional Responses

Great businesses and great products don’t have to evoke such complex human emotions, but they still move us. They make us happy, or proud, or delighted. They make our lives easier, or more productive, or more creative – and that creates its own emotional response.

Creating the businesses that will deliver these emotional responses is, as we said at the outset, an act of creativity. Every entrepreneur knows this. They know that they are struggling to create something new and different and exciting with their little ensemble of revolutionaries in exactly the same way that a theatre ensemble sets out to find new meaning and bring out new emotion from their performance of a play.

Managers of established businesses can come to believe that their task is simply to keep the machine running efficiently – to take all the measurements, pull all the levers and turn all the dials to keep the machine running at peak efficiency.

We have to be more creative than that in our approach to business.

Efficiency in modern business is merely a given. It’s not a game changer. What really matters is whether the audience is loving the show; whether our performance reaches out to them and delights them. Modern businessmen and women should be encouraged to embrace the creativity inherent in their work and to see themselves as the artists that they are.


Jonathan Gifford is a business author whose writing focuses on the human aspects of business, management and leadership. Jonathan studied philosophy at the University of Kent at Canterbury and spent the early part of his career in advertising sales and management with national newspapers, including The Guardian, The Sunday Express and The Mail on Sunday. At BBC Magazines he was later the launch publisher of the award-winning BBC History Magazine. Jonathan is a partner in the digital marketing consultancy, Bluequest Media. He lectures in leadership development for programmes run by Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, and also lectures in marketing and business studies for the European Communications School in London.

Dr Mark Powell is a business writer, consultant and entrepreneur with over 30 years of experience. His increasing focus has been using performing arts to solve modern day business challenges.

Gifford and Powell are the authors of the recently-released book, The Five Principles of Performance Thinking.