What abstract art taught me about systems change

Posted by: on June 22nd, 2020

I don’t know about you but for much of my life abstract art was a complete mystery to me. No matter how I tried, I could not make sense out of a canvas that had no recognizable form or reference to a person, place or thing. Then years ago as I stood on the rocky shore of Maine on holiday with a group of fellow painters, I pulled out my watercolors and within a short period of time realized a studied painting was not going to be possible. The tide coming in quickly, waves booming, rocks disappearing, sun setting, wind blowing – there was nothing to be done except paint, and fast! The result was a blur of color and shapes with white spaces to indicate foam and one little white shape indicating a sailboat in the distance. My art instructor suggested I might be an abstract expressionist.

The painting was not good, but the experience taught me something about seeing. When the ability to capture a studied landscape was not possible, I relied on inner references to make sense of what I was seeing. How do I represent a hard crash of wave in one second? What colors convey the streaks of fading light across the distant waters? And how do I capture the silence between the waves when the pools of waters slip between the rocks?

When change happens quickly and we do not have time to ponder, in meticulous fashion, the shape, form and structure of the scene before us, we are forced to rely on our inner guide to make meaning. That is the essence of abstract art. The artist is working from an inner world without reliance on references from the outer world to create meaning.

Today our systems are changing so rapidly it is difficult to make meaning in logical, linear fashion. In the time we take to study a system, our system has already changed. We wonder why it feels so difficult to capture static processes in writing or follow explicit policies and rules. Perhaps it is because processes are dynamic and tacit understanding is more powerful than written words.

We register the quality of the experience inside the system long before we understand the system. So whether it is the rocky coast of Maine or an organization system, a studied rendering is not possible in times of upheaval and change. What IS possible is to allow the system to reveal itself in more subtle, unseen ways such as in the quality of experience. Do we feel valued? Do we get the information we need to do our work? Do we consider the collective impact on the organization / system when we respond and adapt to difficult challenges?

If we suspend our reliance on external cues to define a system, we can allow the interior cues to inform us of what we are experiencing. We will find that all systems do change and sometimes rapidly. In order to navigate and make meaning of that change, we need a little abstract thinking.