Concerning Organizational Aesthetics

John Dewey wrote about the disconnect that was forged between aesthetics and everyday. He describes how artistic practices were once part of the daily life of individuals in different communities. Dewey wanted to reconnect the aesthetic to the everyday, including our jobs. It is with this framework in mind that I present some ideas from Steven de Groot’s recent book Organisational Aesthetics: Developing Beautiful Organisations (April 2020).

Beginning with a traditional triad (beauty, truth, and goodness), de Groot claims that businesses have focused mostly on the categories of truth and goodness. By this, he explains that organizational design as a discipline arose during the Industrial Revolution. The focus has been on the good and the true with the development on scientific, quality, and performance management. But beauty has been left out of these discussions, since it is more commonly associated with nature or works of art. So, this book is a welcome addition to discussions of both aesthetics and organizational design.

After explaining the need for an aesthetic lens, de Groot unpacks eight design principles that were developed from extensive interviews with and other research about 30 organizations in the Netherlands. I won’t detail all eight here, but I will mention a few of them that stood out.

First, raise employees’ aesthetic awareness. Most people going to work focus on their various tasks. By adding and encouraging aesthetic stimuli, employees will develop habits of noticing the aesthetic in their surroundings and the organization. It may seem almost too obvious, but organizations should ask their employees if they find the organization beautiful.

This transitions into another one: maintain curiosity. It is not surprising that workers develop habits in their jobs, which can frequently become somewhat mechanical. Good companies (and leaders) will intentionally create some ambiguity, complexity, or unsettledness to act as a catalyst for employees to continue to explore and learn. One way is to help create the possibility for positive aesthetic experiences.

The final one I will mention here is: seize critical moments and events. Suppose someone realizes that their organizations needs to develop an aesthetic lens, the next question might be how to go about implementing it. “Empirical research has shown that organisations that have adopted this perspective made the switch on the occasion of a critical event in their history, such as a relocation, refurbishment, new management, or the transition to a value-driven strategy” (88-89). Organisations that are undergoing one major change should consider whether there are other changes needed, such as a focus on the aesthetic. And de Groot provides ten occasions (or steppingstones) that could help foster this kind of change.

ORMIT offices

The final section of this book presents eleven organizations, and their approach to using and developing an aesthetic lens. Rather than only presenting presenting theory and ideas, de Groot recounts aspects of his discussions with organization leaders on the beautiful as a strategy, aesthetic stimuli, work to be done, and the returns of caring about the aesthetic. An admirable addition was one organization—City of Utrecht—that actually refused to engage in any discussion with him about aesthetics, even referring to the discussion as ‘presumptuous.’ Clearly, de Groot did not merely stack the deck in favor of any of his preferred ideas. This section provides insight into how people think about aesthetics in the ‘practical’ world of running an organization.

While occasionally the idea of an ‘aesthetic’ organization did not seem too different from a well-functioning organization, de Groot presents original research here that sets the stage for more exploration. Additionally, it adds new directions, questions, and practices for an understanding of management and organizations.

See more about the Dutch author Steven de Groot and his recently translated book on organizational aesthetics.

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