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An Art Hacking workshop. Courtesy: Prof. Dr. Berit Sandberg

Art Hacking for Business Innovation: An Exploratory Case Study on Applied Artistic Strategies

“Business, Innovation and Art” Special Series Issue #10

By Berit Sandberg*

Published in Special Issue “Business, Open Innovation and Art” for MDPI Journal of Open Innovation: Technology, Market and Complexity, March 2019


Despite a growing interest in the effects of arts-based interventions on organizational change, concepts aiming at business innovation and product development other than residencies are rare. Furthermore, little is known about the role and impact of artists involved in idea-generating formats. How does the personal presence of artists in a heterogenous working group influence the procedure? To what extent do artists unfold their creative qualities while dealing with such a non-artistic challenge? The paper introduces a method named Art Hacking that applies professional labour attitudes typical for artists and artistic modes of thinking to business problems and enhances the approach by having artists attend the whole intervention. One of these events was taken as a case for exploring the role of four artists in the collective idea-generation process. The results of participatory observation along critical incident technique substantiate the thesis that in interdisciplinary “playgrounds” artists implicitly become process leaders. They are catalysts for awareness, sensemaking and change of perspective.



“In a complex and rapidly changing business world in which planning is falling to growing uncertainty, creativity has become a key resource [… ]. ‘Wicked problems’ as discussed by Rittel and Webber […] cannot be solved by rational, analytic approaches. When proven action patterns malfunction, approaches that help to develop novel, future-proof ideas are required.

“As ‘art is a question and an attempt to answer it’ (Alicja Kwade, visual artist) […], artists are used to coping with uncertainty and well adapted to moving in complex environments. The artistic process is about exploring unknown paths, radically changing directions if necessary, making detours, abandoning failure and starting anew. Artists are working with methods that differ from rational, systematic management procedures by candour, mindfulness and intuition [… ]. As artistic labour reaches far beyond analytical methods, artistic attitudes open different interpretations of reality (sensemaking).”

“Discussing the relevance of the artistic process, Grant notes that artists are able to master ambiguous, uncertain situations with ‘unregulated inspiration, . . . and a lack of rules and limits’ […]. Inventive rule-breaking as an essential artistic guiding principle is supposed to start innovation in business contexts just the same. Artists are turned into role models: ‘Like artists, business people today need to be constantly creating new ideas. As we enter the 21st century, organizations’ scarcest resource has become their dreamers, not their testers’, Adler claims linking artistic qualities to leadership […].”

“Whereas there is a growing pool of research on the mechanisms of action of arts-based interventions […] and learning […], aimed studies on artistic activities in research and development or business innovation are rare. That is particularly true with respect to the role artists play in collaborations that are meant to support product development or idea finding for organizational issues […].

“The potential of collaborations lies in the disclosure of implicit knowledge. Artists do not have the same perception as managers and construct knowledge differently than engineers would. For the company hosting a residency, the artists’ intuition becomes a resource that opens up new vistas on working contexts and points out alternative courses of action […]. Artists encourage new ways of thinking, when they interfere as ‘artistic agents’ ([…] translation from German by the author), who are constantly around, reflecting and commenting on the situation. On the other hand the encounter of artists and employees is causing friction [… ] and due to cultural differences, there may be communication problems the actors have to overcome […].”

“… the aim of this paper is twofold. Firstly, it will introduce Art Hacking, a creative method that is based on artistic strategies and work attitudes. Secondly, it will explore if and how artists demonstrate profession-specific attitudes in dealing with non-artistic assignments. The elements of Art Hacking provide the conceptual background for the examined case: an intervention with the participation of four artists aiming at idea generation for a business problem.[…]”

Courtesy: Prof. Dr. Berit Sandberg

The Conceptual Framework of Art Hacking

Core Idea and Theoretical Background

“The intervention format Art Hacking, which was created by the author, aims at collective idea generation and the development of solutions for complex, possibly socially constructed business problems afflicted with uncertainty, which from a management point of view cannot simply be solved with common economic tools.”

“[…] the design of Art Hacking is based on four insights from innovation research.

“(1) Diversity in teams stimulates divergent thinking and fosters idea generation, because different perspectives collide [… ].

(2) In every innovation process space is essential. [...]

(3) Materials have an intermediary function.[…]”

“Apart from positive side benefits to human resource development, Art Hacking is a chance for organizations to incorporate the expertise of outside parties (artists, scientists, customers, etc.) in organizational change or product development. As regards the latter, a joint Art Hacking workshop can be part of an open innovation strategy serving an outside-in process.[…]”

Objective and Philosophy

“The method simulates the artistic process: picking up on an issue, doing preliminary research and conducting a dialogue with the material without preconceived views as to its outcome […]. Artists choose a motif or an issue they love to explore but they do not have a clearly defined objective in doing so […]. Artistic labour is about finding solutions in ‘non-linear explorative movements’ […] and on creative roundabout routes. […]”

“[…] there are elements in Art Hacking that encourage participants to leave their thinking patterns aside, bend reality and sound out alternative solutions they would not have dared to even think about in the beginning. The format shall set up a space for purposeful play and divergent thinking […].”

“[…] Experience shows that the starting problem always recedes into the background during the process and gives way to a fundamental question, the players were not able to see in the beginning.[…]”

Process Sequence

“ Artistic labour never begins with a cold start. An ensemble will start their rehearsal process by warming up so as to focus and tune into each other [… ]. Visual artists have similar rituals for getting connected with the task they address themselves to. The next step of the process is an in-depth analysis of the chosen issue or the material, respectively. It is a playful, explorative and non-linear questioning […]. Based on these insights, the artwork is formed organically in a constant interplay of tentative action, perception and reflection — a process in which the space of possibilities gradually narrows. The artwork is finished when a harmonious expression is achieved.[…]”

“Art Hacking picks up on these stages but leaves them as overlapping, as they are in a genuine artistic process. The format has five phases during which solution approaches for the given issue are developed: attunement, creative research, single-minded play, composition, and showing (see Figure 1 ). These phases are not strictly separated. Some explorative tasks are only introduced at the third stage and there are tricks to keep both the penultimate stage playful and to overcome blocks.”

Figure 1. The process sequence of Art Hacking. Courtesy: Prof. Dr. Berit Sandberg


“The study is based on a case the above-described approach of Art Hacking was rolled out into. In other words, a given concept was applied to the case according to the above-mentioned sequences. The starting point for the arts-based idea-finding process was an unsolved problem that a big provider of child day-care establishments introduced: How can you encourage parents to engage in voluntary activities in the establishments and have them participate in joint efforts for child education in big cities? As four artists were working simultaneously on the issue, the case promised rich and concise information (homogenous sampling)[…]”


“Although the artists who participated in the workshop come from diverse art forms and seemed to be different in their personality in terms of extraversion, there were strong parallels in their individual behaviour. The aspects that appeared with all of them and repeated independently from the individuals at various points in the process can be mapped in two dimensions.”

Figure 2. Dimensions of artistic behaviour during Art Hacking. Courtesy: Prof. Dr. Berit Sandberg

“The first dimension represents interaction. Interaction has two levels: on the one hand the interaction with the issue and on the other interaction with fellow players. From an artistic point of view, interaction with the issue is the dialogue with the material out of which an art work arises. In the given context, it refers to handling the task, dealing with ideas and working with media in order to visualize solutions. The interaction with fellow players comprises any behaviour within the group or towards other participants during the process.

“The second dimension represents three different aspects of doing. These are perception (information acquisition from the environment), reflection (scrutinizing, comparative consideration) and action (targeted activity including communicative action). In combination with the two levels of interaction, a grid of six categories arises (see Figure 2) the findings are displayed in.

Interim Conclusion on Interaction with the Issue

“For the artists, it was important to start doing something and make anything happen — everything else would stem from that. […]The artists approached the tasks consciously and yet playfully without having a plan or a result in mind[…]”.

“The artists differed from other participants in not being afraid to make mistakes.[…] With many tasks, they had more endurance than other players — all the more even during periods of stagnation.”

Interim Conclusion on Interaction with Fellow Players

“The artists helped the other players to see possibilities that were not obvious and used several strategies to achieve a change of perspective and to get the groups going.”

“As empathic process leaders, the artists took the role of primus inter pares. By taking care of their fellow players, they held their groups together. […]”


“Considering creativity not as an expression of personal characteristics but as a process, there are distinctions to be drawn between artistic ways of problem-solving and designerly ways of thinking. The latter are the paragon for Design Thinking, which conveys procedural elements from industrial design such as observation and understanding, draft and refinement to idea generation [… ]. In design, the concept determines the action, meaning that the idea is imposed on the process. Designers tend to act solution-oriented without necessarily exploring the whole range of possible approaches. In search for the simplest explanation for a problem, they eliminate obvious options step by step. As prototyping is a way to implement and test preconceived ideas, abstract requirements are translated into concrete objects […]. In terms of logic of cognition, designerly thinking means abductive reasoning without calling the premise into question […]. Generally, the initial objective is not contested.

“In contrast, the artists who were working in the Art Hacking framework applied behaviour patterns that are rooted in artistic labour. Playing with ideas and materials comes before rational judgement and integration into the bigger picture. For an artist, the objects created are media for deeply exploring the issue and developing even seemingly unreasonable solutions. This process seems to evade any logic and allows for expanding the solution space by asking radically different questions […].

“Artists are said to be motivated by two drivers: either the wish to expose personal expression to an audience or an urge for learning in the course of creation: ‘artists who long to be seen and heard and artists who long to listen and understand’ […]. Among other factors, radical innovation success depends on the team’s willingness to prove their performance and on their learning ability. A performance prove orientation designates the desire to demonstrate competence and to receive public recognition, whereas a learning orientation comes to the fore through experimentation and fault tolerance.[…]”

“ […]the work process was obviously free from any hierarchy. However, the artists took the lead without enjoying a special status.[…]”

“[…] they were able to deal with the open situation and the creative assignments effortlessly because of their professional experience. They demonstrated aesthetic skills, took the initiative with fluency, encouraged lateral thinking by coming up with original ideas and led the process while stimulating a change of perspective by profound questions. With their ability to structure and reduce the abundant material, they pushed the process towards a convincing solution without having a clearly defined mission. When the groups transferred their concepts into objects, the artists instructed their fellow players. Last but not least, their perseverance in crisis situations pulled the others along. Usually it was the artists who set impulses that allowed for progress.

“In a process that was decisively dependent on creativity, their professional attitudes and artistic strategies elevated them to leadership simply because of their expertise. Their good instinct for the dynamics of the process turned them into moderators, pacesetters, facilitators and solicitors for artistic attitudes that the non-artistic workshop leader alone would very probably not have been able to similarly convey.”

“Furthermore, the artists’ unexpected leadership qualities can be linked to the concept of ‘Leadership as Art’ […], which pleads for an integration of artistic skills and attitudes into management. Accordingly, leadership should have an aesthetic dimension that comprises not only cognition and analytical knowledge but implicit knowledge, physical presence and expression through interaction as well. Artful leadership is based on expanded awareness and approves reflection dedicated to the endurance of ambiguity and contradiction […].”


Courtesy: Prof. Dr. Berit Sandberg

“[…] Art Hacking is a specific creative method and problem-solving-activity based on the course of the artistic process, on artistic attitudes and strategies. Its lack of straightforwardness combined with a sensuous and playful approach makes it suitable for addressing determinate organizational problems.”

“[…] the artists dealt with the business problem quite similarly to the creation of an artwork. They demonstrated that artistic working styles can successfully be applied to non-artistic tasks in particular with regard to those aiming at radical innovation.[…]”

“[…] Surprisingly, the artists took the lead anyway, cautiously and persistently guiding their fellow players through the process by being role models in creative behaviour without reclaiming a special status within the group, acting out an integrative form of creative leadership instead.”

Read the full article in MDPI Journal of Open Innovation: Technology, Market and Complexity.

*Author affiliations: HTW Berlin Business School, University of Applied Sciences Berlin

Past issues:

(BIA) Introduction

(BIA Issue #1)

Dying for a Paycheck

By Jeffrey Pfeffer


Twenty-First Century Leadership: A Return to Beauty

by Nancy J. Adler and Andre L. Delbecq

(BIA Issue #2)

Work of Art

by Esko Kilpi

(BIA Issue #3)

Arts and Design as Translational Mechanisms for Academic Entrepreneurship: The metaLAB at Harvard Case Study

by Luca Simeone, Giustina Secundo and Giovanni Schiuma

(BIA Issue #4)

Recombining Hand and Head

by Piero Formica

(BIA Issue #5)

Joseph Beuys’ Rediscovery of Man–Nature Relationship: A Pioneering Experience of Open Social Innovation

by Fabio Maria Montagnino

(BIA Issue #6)
Creativity in Business Education: A Review of Creative Self-Belief Theories and Arts-Based Methods

by Sogol Homayoun and Danah Henriksen

(BIA Issue #7)

Classical Guitar Study as Creativity Training: Potential Benefits for Managers and Entrepreneurs

by Jonathan Gangi

(BIA Issue #8)

Collaborative Innovation: Exploring the Intersections among Theater, Art and Business in the Classroom

By Sara Beckman, Stacy Jo Scott and Lisa Wymore

(BIA Issue #9)

From Design Thinking to Art Thinking with an Open Innovation Perspective — A Case Study of How Art Thinking Rescued a Cultural Institution in Dublin

by Peter Robbins

Coming up next:

(BIA Issue #11) TBA




Reviewing the leading edge at the intersection of art, science, culture, design, technology and innovation.

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BeiBei Song 宋贝贝

BeiBei Song 宋贝贝

#Innovation strategist. #Creativity agent. Executive educator & coach @StanfordBiz. #Art #science #tech fusionist & curator. Founder @Essinova.

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