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How to Cultivate Strategic Thinking

Dancers are excellent at these 6 strategy builders …revisit that art class!

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BY Natalie Nixon - 20 May 2016

When I was 4 years old my mother enrolled me into modern dance classes. Her primary motivation was concern over my clumsiness. However, my dance education ultimately gave me the skill set of a strategic systems designer. I explored this idea of dancers and choreographers as "systems designers" in a talk I gave last summer at the Copenhagen Institute for Interaction Design. Here are six reasons why you might want to revisit whatever form of artistic expression you cultivated at a young age!

1. Observe, See, Translate

Dance, like many of the arts, fundamentally taught me how to see. When you learn choreography you must have keen observation skills to incorporate physical movement outside of your body, incorporate them into your body and execute on the movement in a way that makes meaningful sense to an audience that has minimal background or context on the story. Dancers are translators, and strategy is an act of translating value. Observation and truly seeing is key to forming new questions around a strategic challenge.

2. Teaming

Dancers collaborate and must be mindful of synchronicity while respecting what they can learn from the dancers around them. In a dance rehearsal there is an appreciation for the diverse capabilities that each person brings. I was reminded of this most recently during a visit to observe an open rehearsal of Ballet X, Philadelphia's premier contemporary ballet company. That ensemble mentality is great for building emotional intelligence and embracing creative abrasion.

3. Cultivate curiosity 

Dance performance meant that I gained exposure to music with a range of cultural roots. This sparked a curiosity and appreciation for those who were different from me. Curiosity is the foundation of creativity, and the creative process is the key to innovation.

4. Discipline

While a final dance performance, or the unveiling of a gorgeous painting, or the scenic context of an opera may be entrancing- the hard work leading up to those events is nothing less than tedious and rigorous. The mental and physical discipline that is required in dance is transferable to the focus and time on task required for the details involved in building out tactics for a strategy.

5. Prototype

Dancers prototype constantly! They develop new work by iterative builds on rough draft versions of movements and love re-combinations and variations that shift based on scale, speed, rhythm and memes. The recent Design for Dance conference in San Francisco explored this skill set while working at the intersection of movement and technology. Their mission? To change everyday life through dance.

6. Dream in systems

Not every dancer is a choreographer, but, if given the opportunity to choreograph, one quickly learns that the skill set to zoom-in and zoom-out is essential. Choreographers are systems designers. They have the ability to scale, scope and map movement, temporal and spatial positions and develop perspective from multiple points of view.

Thus, keen observation, working well with others, being voraciously curious, cultivating both mental and physical discipline, and connecting the dots between dreaming big and integrating components systematically, is key to not only becoming an amazing dancer- it's also fundamental to strategy. Continually be a student of the arts to up the ante in your strategic competency.


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