The Poetry of Business

rosesThe business of poetry (or “po’ biz”) is a well-established but much-bemoaned part of sustaining a career in poetry, including self-promotion and business networking. But its converse–the idea that there is actually a poetry to business–is something I suspect few professionals outside the arts have paused to consider. Running a career in IT and management consulting alongside a vocation reading, writing, editing and publishing contemporary poetry, I have spent a lot of time not only thinking about, but inhabiting, the parallels.

That is why I was pleased to see a recent article on “The Benefits of Poetry for Professionals” gaining attention on the HBR Blog. I agree heartily that poetry can help develop compassion and creativity. However, I disagree with the idea that poets “simplify” complexity, but would instead suggest that they are able to understand complexity by embracing it. Likewise, I consider poets not so much “systems thinkers” but “systems embracers”–including even the paradoxical aspects of the system.

Companies often attempt to achieve paradoxical aims. The most fundamental aim in management is to reduce inputs while increasing outputs. Yet the idea of downsizing headcount while growing revenues can appear utterly impossible when viewed from inside the system. Metaphor brings us outside the system, and helps us see in new light.

For example, anyone with a garden knows that the harder you prune a rose bush, the more fiercely it brings forth buds. The poet Dylan Thomas called this dynamic “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower”–and this metaphor for an organism’s vitality in the face of adversity makes the traditional corporate paradigms–alignment, momentum, synergy–seem, a bit, well, sappy.

I have written before about the importance, especially at senior levels of business, of eschewing polarization, and striving for synthesis–both internally and in relation to the marketplace. This is the “art” to business–integrating intuition and data, spontaneity and structure, inspiration and logic. The ability that John Keats described to abide “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts” is an essential aspect of synthesis thinking.

And so, as much as an MBA can help to understand how to conduct the orchestra, an MFA can help to appreciate the beauty of each instrument. It is people, after all, who build great businesses, and art helps us understand what it means to be essentially human. Stéphane Mallarmé called poetry, “the language of a state of crisis.” I suggest it is the language to describe unforeseen opportunity, transcend black-and-white thinking, and navigate incomprehensible complexity.

Want to further yourself in your career? Maybe it’s time to swap that tome on GAAP accounting for a slim volume of poems.