The Creative Curriculum

Many industry observers maintain that the corporate world is a cold, mechanized environment. Courses in creativity are designed to counter this trend, helping executives regain their humanity—and in the process, become more inspirational leaders.
The Creative Curriculum

Most executives don’t sign up for education courses planning to chase red helium balloons through a conference room. Few MBA students enroll in business school with the expectation that they’ll be writing Japanese haiku their first semester. Those who do, however, are usually part of a new wave of business education that seeks to educate the whole person by unlocking the creative potential within.

“I believe there’s a disconnect between the work people do in the business world and the lives they lead when they’re not in the business world. Creativity courses help these two separate spheres get reconnected,” says Mary Pinard, an associate professor of English at Babson College in Babson Park, Massachusetts. She also is a poet and a creativity consultant in the school’s MBA program.

“People are starting to understand that one of the new calls in the workplace is to bring more of yourself,” says Nicholas Janni, a visiting fellow at the Praxis Centre, Cranfield School of Management, in Bedford, England. There he teaches leadership courses and creativity classes to both MBA students and working executives. “Until recently, some of the softer issues like emotional intelligence were seen as interesting but not central to business. I think that now people realize that these issues are crucial to the bottom line. Research projects have shown that when employees feel their creativity is valued, their satisfaction increases and their whole level of commitment goes up. Companies no longer can focus only on profit or only on emotional intelligence. What’s rapidly becoming clear is that the two are interdependent.”

A business course that emphasizes creativity teaches participants an entirely different way of looking at the world. It’s not organizational behavior or basic accounting— but it could be just as relevant to the way a manager does his job.

Rhyme and Reason

For the past ten years at Babson, a creativity “stream” has been part of the module that first-year students must take during their first five weeks on campus. They’re randomly assigned to one of seven classes where they learn poetry, painting, fiction-writing, theatrical improvisation, puppeteering, movement, or music; each module is taught by a “creativity consultant” who is a working artist proficient in that field. From their very first session with their creativity consultant, students are immersed in the principles of the creative process.

“The idea is to expose them, in a very hands-on way, to the notion of creative process,” says Pinard. “Students should come away from these classes with a more attuned sense of self, and this will speak powerfully to whatever tasks or decisions they have to make in the business setting.”

Harry Vardis, a trainer at Creative Focus Inc. in Atlanta, Georgia, offers a “creativity boot camp” to executives in companies ranging from Yahoo! to the U.S. Army. For the past three years, he has taught creativity programs to MBA students at Emory University in Atlanta and Anahuac University in Mexico City, and he’s beginning to work with other schools such as Kennesaw State University in Georgia.

“We teach people how to notice things—how to hear things, how to deal with the senses,” Vardis says. He has constructed a creativity curriculum that revolves around the basic requirements of a businessperson’s life—dealing with customers, managing employees, creating new products, making presentations, staying ahead of competition— and lays out ways managers can do these jobs more creatively and effectively.

Vardis’ classes also focus on the best ways to arrange space to induce creativity. If two employees interact well and seem to spark ideas from each other, should their offices be moved closer together so they can be in constant contact, or should they be installed at opposite ends of the hall so that they catch other employees in their nets as they head toward each others’ offices? Says Vardis, “Managers need to be aware of the best ways to utilize space and relationships to get people to be team players or more individualistic. We go through four different models of architecture and team-building in this session.”

At Cranfield, the creativity instruction usually begins with teaching participants how to relax enough to access their imaginations. “People need to understand that there’s a whole part of the creative process that’s outside the rational mind,” says Janni. “I think of it as a four-stage process: preparation, incubation, illumination, and translation. The first and last are very proactive stages. But the second and third stages require you to go into a different mode of consciousness. The first stage is a mode of doing; the second is a mode of being.

“In a lot of corporate settings, they want you to be creative in the doing mode, so you go straight from preparation to translation and back again,” he continues. “But we’re teaching them that—if you want to get new ideas and new insights—there’s a whole other crucial stage where you really have to get into the being part of the process. It involves learning to be receptive and being able to tolerate not knowing, being out of control. That’s very difficult for the corporate mind to understand.”

According to Janni, to sink into the incubation stage, executives need to slow down. “I do quite a lot of work taking people into a stage of deep relaxation, where they become more receptive. They listen much better—to other people and to their own imaginations. They quiet down a bit. That’s a prerequisite for entering a more creative state of mind.” To get participants to achieve this state, he often has them lying on the floor and practicing deep breathing exercises. Eventually, he says, participants will learn to balance the two states of being even when they’re in the working world.

Embracing Ambiguity

For all these creativity instructors, there is a strong emphasis on what Pinard calls “the messiness of process”—the strange, unfamiliar, and often uncomfortable sense of ambiguity that occurs in the middle of creating something from nothing. Pinard encourages students to embrace this ambiguity. For instance, at the end of their five-week creativity stream, students must do a presentation to the entire Babson community based on what they’ve learned.

At Cranfield, the creativity instruction usually begins with teaching participants how to relax enough to access their imaginations.

“I try hard to keep them from deciding in the first week, or even the first hour, what they’re going to do in their final presentation, which is their impulse,” Pinard says. “They want to decide immediately and then perfect—which is completely antithetical to the notion of discovery and process. If I’ve been successful, by week four they still don’t know what they’re going to do for their presentation. In week five, I let them think about the presentation. The result is a very fresh presentation driven by the work they’ve done rather than their idea of what the work should be.”

In addition, Pinard says, the Babson staff has decided against employing any complex equipment, like a video camera, that needs some technical expertise. “Such equipment gives students a way out of the difficult task ahead of them, which is to be engaged in a process with no clear end,” she says.

Not only is the creative process filled with ambiguity, it requires such uncertainty in order to thrive—and it requires an environment that encourages the presentation of unfinished ideas. Few corporate workplaces can claim to be so tolerant. For instance, when Janni is teaching classes of working executives, he asks them to assess their corporate culture.

“I ask, ‘Is yours a culture where people feel free to express half-baked ideas, or the beginning of an idea, or an idea that actually sounds ridiculous? Or will you be laughed at?’ The answer will tell me whether this is a culture where creativity can flourish,” he says.

In a receptive environment, creativity stands a far better chance of succeeding. “People are inherently creative,” says Vardis. “The best teachers of creativity are kindergarten teachers, because they’re always telling kids, ‘This is so great!’ They keep reinforcing what the child does. But when kids turn eight or nine, they start hearing the word ‘no.’ Judgment sets in—and that’s when creativity starts to get squelched. What we’re trying to do is reintroduce freedom of thinking in minds that have been told they cannot do something a certain way.

“The way to do it is to separate idea generation from idea evaluation,” Vardis adds. “If you want to create an idea, for the next 45 minutes just create ideas—don’t evaluate them. Write down anything that comes to your mind. At the end of that period, you can evaluate them based on the criteria you need. But if you evaluate and generate at the same time, you’re going to kill more ideas than you ever put out.”

Bottom Line

Programs at Babson, Emory, and Cranfield have been quite successful, generally receiving excellent evaluations and high enrollments. Nonetheless, the instructors sometimes find their students skeptical at first. “We get a lot of resistance and quizzical looks,” Pinard says. “Some students will say, ‘I came here to learn business principles. What does this have to do with anything?’ Others will say, ‘This doesn’t mean anything because it’s not graded. It’s pass/fail, so how could I possibly value it?’ Depending on what the resistance is, there are points along the stream that will address those resistances. Most students are transformed by the end.”

“When educational drama conventions are used in business learning contexts, students engage with subject matter and learn in a deeper, more meaningful, and more memorable way. Some students have even described the use of drama as ‘DISGUISED LEARNING’—learning you do when you don’t think you are learning.” —Glenn Pearce, University of Western Sydney

This is particularly evident during the Q&A sessions that are part of the presentations students give at the conclusion of Babson’s creativity program. “The Q&A is really critical, because it gives students a chance to say, ‘This is what happened to me, this is why it’s important.’ Those are a profound ten minutes. The students become almost textbook speakers on the nature of creativity,” says Pinard.

All the instructors hope that their MBA students and highlevel executives go on to incorporate principles of creativity into their daily working lives. Says Janni, “We’d also like them to be much clearer about what we call their presence as leaders. They should be more vulnerable to people, know how to communicate in ways that inspire people, be more authentic, and be more transparent. Emotional intelligence is a part of great leadership as well, so we hope they will have learned how to manage their own emotions and be more sensitive to the emotions of others.”

In fact, researchers at Cranfield are considering a project that will enable them to track the increase of productivity in an organization after some of its members have been through the creativity sessions. Janni believes they’ll find proof that creativity makes employees more productive and companies more profitable, either “through improved customer service or through generating new ideas about the business,” he says.

In a business world where competition is fierce and innovation is fast, the corporate executive who can constantly generate new ideas is a valuable commodity. The goal of creativity classes is to loosen up closed minds and let the corporate imagination run free—and help the company’s profits soar.