Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Ai Wei Wei and the art of choosing.

So is the photograph of acclaimed Chinese artist and activist Ai Wei Wei dropping a Han Dynasty vase art? I'd argue not really. As a photograph, it rises to the level of interesting, but to give it the crown of capital-A Art seems questionable. But don't get me wrong. I think it captures something brilliant and deeply artistic: the art of choosing.

When Ai dropped that vase, it was his unlikely and bold choice that was art. Eyes resolutely on camera, there's no doubt in his choice. Instead it is all defiant commitment in the face of anyone who'd question breaking something that seemed almost timeless.

I just happened to watch a documentary on Ai the other day, and at one point one of his many artists said that he was merely following directions, that he was just the hands awaiting guidance. And sure enough, Ai himself said that he really just made decisions. Others would execute the statues, the stadiums, the millions of porcelain sunflower seeds.

Just so happens I'm also reading "Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works," by former P&G CEO A.G. Lafley and University of Toronto B-School Dean Roger L. Martin. In it, they say "strategy is choice." That simple. And that hard.

If I drop a water balloon, there's nothing interesting about that choice. It's the same as the million other dropped water balloons. But despite its expectedness, I have made a choice--one that's roughly a million times less provocative and infinitely more forgettable than Ai's.

When we make choices in business, why do we expect the obvious ones will somehow work out for us? Why are we surprised when they have no impact on the market, why they sway so few customers? Of course going for pure shock value doesn't work, either. Dropping a baby would capture our attention, but repulse us entirely. Ai's choice with the vase is provocative, relevant, and executed with conviction--which, to my thinking, is the perfect combination.

It's also the epitome of the art of choosing.