The art of working

How creative skills can help employees beat stress and help in team-building 

Corporate workshops of Training Sideways in progress.
Corporate workshops of Training Sideways in progress.

In the training room of a chrome-and-glass edifice, part of the several information technology parks that dot Bengaluru, a session is in progress. Half the trainees are enacting a play—the theme is the firing of an unproductive employee—as the other half watches.

The session is facilitated by Anirban Bhattacharya of The Painted Sky, a Bengaluru-based organization that focuses on behavioural and skill-development programmes using art-based tools, such as theatre, painting, music and storytelling.

“We have taken a live situation from the corporate context. The participants need to come up with the script and create characters to enact that situation,” says Bhattacharya.

As the story unfolds, members of the audience are encouraged to give feedback. Rather than verbal inputs, however, they can step into the shoes of any one of the actors and show them how the situation could be handled differently. “There is no wrong or right way of doing this—it is just to drive home the point that alternatives exist,” says Bhattacharya.

The group of mid-level managers in the room seems a trifle hesitant at first but, as the play progresses, the members become more animated and throw themselves wholeheartedly into the exercise. “All our activities are group-based, which requires collaboration,” says Bhattacharya, adding that the scenario is similar when he uses painting as a tool to drive the training process. “When we first give them a large canvas, paints and brushes, people are intimidated, but once they get over it and become comfortable, it is fascinating to see how that reservation transforms from ‘I can’t do this’ to ‘I can’t stop doing this,’” says Bhattacharya. He adds that these training sessions are not meant just to create memories. “Learning has to happen and one needs to understand the company’s objective.”

A business asset

Art, be it music, dance, theatre or the visual arts, is a great way to bring people together. “Artists and businesses are discovering the benefits of developing partnerships,” wrote Giovanni Schiuma, professor of innovation management at the University of Basilicata, Italy, in a 2009 paper titled The Value Of Art-based Initiatives. He defines an art-based initiative as any organizational or management intervention using one or more art forms to enable people to undergo an art experience within an organizational context, as well as to embed the arts as a business asset.

Anirban and Soni Bhattacharya, co-founders of The Painted Sky. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Anirban and Soni Bhattacharya, co-founders of The Painted Sky. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

“Where there are people, there is drama,” quips Chennai-based T.T. Srinath, who has more than 25 years’ experience as a training programme facilitator and is on the executive committee of the Madras Players, a theatre group. In his book, All The World Is A Stage, Srinath notes that theatre-based learning initiatives could help unleash latent talent because “when an individual is encouraged to do what is not common to him, he discovers aspects of his personality he is not aware of”.

And this doesn’t stop at theatre.

Vasudev Prabhu of Harmonica Huddle, an organization that facilitates interactive workshops for companies, says some participants are reluctant and disconnected initially but do integrate with the group when the musical instrument comes into play.

Bhattacharya says art is a great leveller: Seniority or experience is unimportant on an art-based platform—a management trainee might have the same artistic skills as a chief executive officer (CEO), so there is no threat or competition.

Art stimulates the right side of the brain—the centre of imagination and pleasure—and enhances overall cognition and emotional intelligence, says Mumbai-based Pratap Gopalakrishnan, global human resources head at Danish business conglomerate Maersk Global Services. “Sessions that are built around the arts make you think out of the box and put you in a mood to create,” he says, adding that he has introduced music-based sessions in his own organization, with positive consequences. “I witnessed a lot of creativity and a surge of energy and enthusiasm among team members after the session,” he says.

According to Sunil Vishnu of Training Sideways, an art-based, soft-skills behavioural-training company in Chennai, art is a tool, not the mainstay, of the experiment. “Training cannot be just a lot of fun and then you go home. This is a learning platform that is aligned to the business, not merely entertainment and engagement,” he says. For instance, a storytelling workshop is meant to teach better communication skills, while a puppet-making workshop could foster team-bonding.

Prakash Rajachandran, chief enabling officer at the Lanson Group, points out that the feedback process at the end of the session is especially empowering.

Ideally, an organization’s learning and development team needs to communicate the objective of the programme clearly to the training provider. If that does not happen, the training could be irrelevant.

Pradeep Madhav, managing director of STCI Primary Dealer, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Securities Training Corporation of India, discovered this the hard way. “We used a group that promotes theatre, as we thought that by playing roles we could get different people connected. But I think our brief was not clearly understood—the workshop went off at a tangent and became monotonous and boring, and we could not derive much from it,” he says, adding that it is important to identify the right people for any training and communicate the requirements clearly.

Why follow-ups are essential

When Vishnu first started using art-based tools to deliver training solutions in 2011, there were few takers. Today, Training Sideways boasts of nearly 150 clients, including Vodafone, Airtel and Google.

Ananth Padmanabhan, CEO of HarperCollins India, who organized a theatre-based training programme for their senior management team in November, says, “I had just joined and thought it would be a good way to take people away from the office and get to know them.” It did prove to be “an eye-opening exercise, where you learn about yourself and others”. According to him, interpersonal skills and an understanding of personality dynamics are key to building successful teams, and the training programme can be a great way to build trust and effective communication.

Corporate workshops of Training Sideways in progress.
Corporate workshops of Training Sideways in progress.

Not everyone is convinced, however. Madhav says that while programmes of this nature are fun, feel-good sessions that people can enjoy and talk about, they don’t necessarily add value unless “it is done repeatedly and followed up on”.

Both Bhattacharya and Vishnu agree that follow-up sessions are necessary. “In some companies, we run a year-long programme, with three-four levels,” says Vishnu.

Padmanabhan concurs: “The goal (of the training programme) was to understand each other as a team and set professional goals for the company, and it worked marvellously. We do have to do follow-ups, so in February we revisited what we had promised and, based on actual results, we set new goals for the future.”

For Srinath, the reason for introducing art in a corporate space is remarkably simple. “Art always replicates life in a controlled environment,” he says.

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