On Course for Creativity

Improv exercises and mindfulness techniques help students learn to think innovatively.

On Course for Creativity

TODAY’S BUSINESS LEADERS want their employees to help them invent creative new solutions to their biggest problems. One way business schools can prepare graduates to fill that role is to teach students how to think innovatively, and one way to do that is to introduce them to the concepts of improvisation and mindfulness.

For the past six years, I have been teaching Creativity and Innovation at Miami University’s Farmer School of Business in Oxford, Ohio. The whole class is centered around bringing creativity to marketing and marketing strategy. I first taught the class to undergraduates, and now I deliver it to MBA and executive education students as well.

I draw on my own experiences, which include an academic background in marketing, six years working in the marketing industry, and time spent as a playwright, improv actor, and meditator. Not only am I a professional improviser, I also am part of the Applied Improvisation Network, which is composed of professionals who use improv in diverse disciplines. I passionately believe the improv technique can be used in settings that extend far beyond the stage—such as the business school classroom. It is also fun.

GETTING STARTED

To get students used to the idea of improv, and to develop the spirit of teamwork, I open each class with warm-up exercises and short improv games before moving to more complex activities.

One favorite warmup is the Shake-8. I lead students as we all shake first our right hands eight times, then our left hands; next we shake our right legs eight times, then our left ones. We all count out loud with each shake. We repeat the exercise with each limb as we go down to seven shakes, six shakes, and eventually drop to one. This quickly gets the blood flowing.

Another warmup is called Follow-the-Leader or Enemy/Protector. Students stand in a circle and secretly pick one classmate as their enemy and another as their protector. When the game starts, all the participants move around as they try to put their protectors between themselves and their enemies. Since one person’s enemy could be another’s protector, it’s a fun free-for-all with a lot of movement. More important, it forces people to become alert, attuned to their surroundings, and aware of the people nearby.

Once everyone is warmed up, we might move on to a short game such as One-Word Story. As students sit in a circle, one person is chosen to speak a word; the person beside her says another word, and the person beside him adds the next. The goal is to tell a coherent story one word at a time.

Or we might play Emotional Symphony, in which one person is a conductor and four or five other people are assigned emotions. As the conductor points to the other players, they express their emotions through poses and noises, varying their intensity as the conductor’s hand rises or falls. Another favorite is Mirrors, in which pairs of students take turns mimicking each other’s movements. (Read longer descriptions of these and other exercises.) All these activities are designed to get students thinking in new ways.

SHAPING THE MIND

As the class progresses, I introduce students to other practices designed to unlock the creative potential of the mind:

Guided visualization. I dim the lights and instruct the students to follow along to a voice prompt, which leads them through a progressive relaxation of each of their muscle groups, starting with their faces. (Many sample videos can be found on YouTube, including this one.) This is an easy way for students to relax as they slip into a meditative state.

Yoga and mindfulness techniques. I integrate yoga and meditation exercises into the class by inviting a yogi and a meditator to lead separate sessions. We treat both yoga and meditation as scientific, secular tools to help the mind. The yogi introduces students to breathing exercises, basic yoga poses, and the underlying philosophy of yoga. This gives students insight into the importance of yoga and overall wellness. The meditation coach, an expert from the Cincinnati Zen Center, simplifies the process of meditation and emphasizes that it is not a mystical practice. We also discuss scientific research on meditation. Students learn that, metaphorically speaking, our minds are like the ocean; all stress and turbulence are on the surface, but there is stillness underneath the waves. Meditation helps us connect with this stillness.

Poet William Plomer said, “Creativity is the power to connect the unconnected.” One of the reasons I use meditation in the classroom is that it frees the mind to make those connections. Many times, our conscious minds are so busy with the rush of our day-to-day priorities that they do not allow us to see those connections. Meditation calms our thoughts, giving us the freedom to make unexpected associations, and these associations are often what spark new ideas.

Automatic drawing. This technique has been used in classes that range from art to religion. Students place their pens or pencils against blank sheets of paper, close their eyes, and let their dominant hands move around on the page as their conscious minds “lose control” of their actions. I encourage them not to look at their work or judge it in any way, telling them, “You’re the observer, not the controller. Don’t dwell on any thoughts that come to your mind—just dismiss them and let them pass through. If necessary, tell yourself repeatedly, ‘Whatever comes out is fine.’”

Eventually, they set aside the first sheet without looking at it, then pick up a second sheet and start over. Once the second experiment is over, the class engages in discussion. I encourage students to look at their squiggly lines and see if there’s anything that surprises them or that they want to share with the class.

Automatic writing. As a variation of automatic drawing, students set their pens to blank paper and write whatever the hand suggests, without worrying about grammar, structure, or spelling. Over the many years I have run these two exercises with students, I have observed how variable the reactions are. Some students love them and incorporate them into their daily lives, but others don’t find them useful at all.

Empathy exercise. I provide groups of students with sets of pictures that depict a few real families living out their daily lives. Each student picks one face and develops an empathetic relationship with that person, imagining what that person’s life is like and building a character and description of that individual. I provide them a framework they can use to develop this profile, and I make it clear that the more nuanced their character description, the better. Students also have to identify one pressing need or “pain point” this person has.

Next, I randomly assign the groups to one of three different industries, which might be as disparate as food, transportation, software development, healthcare, or insurance. In their groups, students develop a product and marketing program that would help solve the pain points of the individuals for whom they have created empathetic relationships. Students often tell me later that this exercise is the one that has helped them most as they work on other projects and presentations, and even as they go through job interviews. This empathy exercise is especially important when students take design thinking classes later.

UNLEASHING CREATIVITY

A mix of improv and creativity exercises that we practice in class helps students become more nimble thinkers. Some activities are simple, but others are complex and come with time pressures.

Yes-And. In this improv technique, one person suggests an idea and the next person accepts the idea and builds on it. These Yes-And exercises initially are general but gradually become more focused on business problems. (See “The Book Case” below for an example of a Yes-And exercise I use in my classes.)

Ad design. I give students a list of five products, and ask them to develop an ad for one of them, using the creativity techniques we have discussed in class. They also have to document the creative process they used in the ad design—for instance, did they generate a distinct number of different ideas before settling on one? Thus, they are graded not only on their results but also on their journey.

In a similar exercise, I first take students through the basics of writing music and lyrics for ad jingles. Students then write a jingle for one product, choosing from among five brands. As with the ad exercise, I grade students on the process as well as the results.

Concept design. To stimulate creativity under pressure, I leave students in a busy shopping area on campus and give them two hours to come up with an idea for a restaurant. Because there are such tight time limits, I only grade the product, not the process.

PowerPoint karaoke. This exercise, which I tried for the first time last year, really hones students’ presentation skills. I put together five PowerPoint decks with unconnected, randomly selected slides; these include irrelevant but impressive-looking data as well as some funny visuals. Groups must come up to the podium to “present” a deck as if they have prepared it, even though they have had no time to review the slides in advance. They also are supposed to present with the same passion, enthusiasm, and energy they would muster for a presentation they had prepared. Because I retain control of the clicker, they have no say in how long a slide stays on the screen; they have to continue to build on it as long as it is displayed. Last year’s students loved this exercise, as it helped them develop their creative confidence and presentation skills.

TAILORING THE COURSE

I have successfully run my Creativity and Innovation class at several education levels, though I do make adjustments based on the size and type of the classes.

For instance, my undergraduate classes tend to have between 30 and 36 students, while the MBA and executive education classes usually are capped at 22 participants. While the smaller class sizes obviously allow me to interact more closely with students, I have not had any trouble running the exercises with the larger classes. The only thing I haven’t been able to incorporate into the bigger classes is yoga.

For undergraduates, the creativity class is a semesterlong core course in which each session lasts about 80 minutes. I bring marketing content into class discussions, and I give assignments that require students to solve marketing problems creatively. Students also work on a semesterlong client project in which they address a real problem faced by a corporation. Retail giant Target is my regular client, and students have developed several creative marketing recommendations and assets for that company over the years.

For MBAs, the creativity class is an elective. It takes place over 12 sessions, each three-and-a-half hours long, so assignments and activities have to be structured differently. Again, the content and assignments are marketing-oriented, and students work on a client project. The executive education course is much different as it tends to be a one-off session that lasts three-and-a-half hours. I customize activities and content for each group of executive clients. I keep improv, but drop activities such as automatic drawing, guided visualization, yoga, and meditation.

A COURSE FOR ALL

No matter the age group of the participants, all students seem to benefit from the creativity course. Somewhat counterintuitively, I’ve found that the older students tend to be the ones who are the most excited and engaged by the activities. The undergraduates also love the creativity exercises, but I notice some social constraints. For instance, improv is more awkward for the “cool kids” or those from fraternities and sororities, though they tend to enjoy the other activities.

But even for my younger students, the class can be transformative. Last year, for instance, I had one student who was initially skeptical of the Yes-And method. She did not like the thought of having to listen patiently to, as she put it, “all the stupid ideas before mine.” I responded, “You seem to be prejudging your colleagues’ comments, and we are trying to move away from judgment.” This simple observation made her change her attitude, and she became the most enthusiastic participant in class.

While I have not formally tracked how my students use improv and creativity later in their academic careers, many of them have told me that they employ some of the techniques in their other classes. My hope is that many also continue to use these techniques on their jobs.

I firmly believe that improv techniques should be used more often in a teaching environment—but I also believe that, for a class like this to be successful, the instructors must be true improvisors. They can’t just try to emulate TV shows such as “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” They have to truly understand how improv works and how to guide others through the process. I work constantly to hone my improv skills, and I have seen how much better my own classrooms are as I become more seasoned. As my teaching improves, my students will learn to think more creatively—and they’ll go out and share their new ideas with the world.

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