The Art Thinking Method – re-shaping Business Education

Sylvain Bureau, professor at the Jean-Baptiste Say Institute of ESCP Business School, created a way to reframe business education. With his Art Thinking Method, he is paving the way for a new, disruptive way of teaching business.

Sylvain Bureau, professor, co-founder of the Jean-Baptiste Say Institute of ESCP Business School, created a way to reframe business education. With his Art Thinking Method, he is paving the way for a new, disruptive way of teaching business.

Meeting Expectations

When students decide to undertake a degree in a prestigious Business School such as ESCP, they come with expectations. They expect excellence and innovativeness. They search for something they have never seen before, for new ways of engaging themselves, ways to feed their interests. And all of this, only innovative and passionate professors can provide. Sylvain Bureau, mentioned by Harvard Business Publishing as Business Education Innovator, is one of them. 

Sylvain aims at giving students experiences, skills, and actionable life lessons. He wants to go beyond technique and foster human skills, developing those traits that cannot be replaced by machines. His goal is to help students realise how much they are socially conditioned. “How are you gonna challenge the system of values that frame the way you act and think?” – he asks. Sylvain designed his teaching method to allow you to move beyond those constraints and rely on personal experiences. Known as The Art Thinking Method, Sylvain’s innovative teaching has been in the works for several years.

From left to right, Pr. Chuck Eesley (Stanford University) and Pr. Sylvain Bureau (ESCP BS) – founders of the Art Thinking Method.

How a method is born

Imagine a traditional French wedding: plenty of guests, all dressed up, sipping on their champagne, slowly walking around and having long conversations while snacking on small pastries for hours. This is the precise situation in which Sylvain Bureau met his future collaborator: the artist Pierre Tectin. Pierre started talking about Guy Debord’s Situationist International movement, and the match was made. Three years later, in 2011, the first Workshop was born.

Applying Debord’s drift strategy, Pierre and Sylvain first came up with a workshop with no end goal, to disrupt traditional ways of teaching, engage with the city and the people, and be critical and artistic. Leveraging Sylvain’s research, they slowly found a way to frame how people make art and crafted a systematic method to “create the improbable with certainty“. They brought students to the streets when traditional education tools proved insufficient and laid their political ideas, apprehensions and questions on the table. 

With the help of digital artists, old classmates, other universities’ professors, funding institutions (such as EY and the Chambre de Commerce Paris), locations such as the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Art Thinking Method and the Improbable Seminar slowly came to life. The Art Thinking Collective currently counts more than 60 members and 30 trained teachers. 

The Art Thinking Method aims to prepare executives to face and manage the improbable, help them develop purpose-driven organizations to meet new expectations, and find routes to change business models and managerial practices. The method perfectly applies to business students, as they need a specific skill set to enter the work field and face ever-growing uncertainty.

What the Art Thinking Method is all about

After years of trial and error, refining, and dedication, the Art Thinking Method is currently presented to the public in the form of the Improbable Seminar. The seminar is a three-day intensive experience with groups of participants. The groups have themes to work on and they participate in conferences, workshops and feedback sessions before hosting a final exhibition. 

In the seminar, the Art Thinking Method is applied in six steps: donate, deviate, destroy, drift, dialogue and display. The first step (donate) implies being involved, sharing without expecting anything in return and making, creating. The second step (deviate) focuses on taking inspiration from existing ideas, objects, symbols, and taking them out of their context. At first, they make something ugly, a monster. Third, comes the destruction. Here, participants must challenge the status quo and their own work, criticize. After destruction comes the drift, where people need to trust the process, find new partners and proceed without knowing the end goal. With new partnerships comes the dialogue, a deeper understanding and a learning opportunity to change the teams’ creation. Finally, it is time to display everybody’s work to an audience during an event.

The Art Thinking Method boosts 9/10 growing skills, including analytical thinking and innovation, emotional intelligence, and leadership and social influence.

Participants of the Improbable Seminar at the Institut du Monde Arabe, February 2022.

Being full humans

The Art Thinking Method aims at going beyond: beyond techniques, beyond traditional education, beyond ones’ convictions and beliefs. The goal is to un-learn. Even though he is a professor at ESCP Business School, Sylvain Bureau is far from being a traditional business teacher. “We can’t teach business as we used to teach it in the 20th century” – he says – when people only wanted to make money and get rich, as that’s what has destroyed our world. Optimizition is, therefore, no longer the goal.

To counter that, Sylvain does not merely aim at teaching but at creating life experiences. He wishes to help students learn, not only as professionals but as citizens, as human beings facing dramatic challenges. His teaching is a holistic experience that comprehends emotions, ideologies, and environmental and social issues. “Our students are used to be good academically, but they are not so used to be themselves and express what they have to say, because in general, we are not looking for their technical expertise”, and this is precisely the problem, according to Sylvain. By sharing the Art Thinking Method, he wishes to spread a new way of teaching.

Sylvain’s method goes against the obsession with quantification and focuses on action. “Business Schools are victims of a quantitative obsession”, he says, “and we believe we are performing as long as what we do can be counted”. But the real performance only happens when we allow ourselves to be fully human.

Stay a Second

Find out more about the Art Thinking Method:

Visit a virtual exhibition of past creations from the Improbable Seminar: