Can You Teach MBAs to Be More Creative? Or Can Creativity Be Taught at All? I Think So. Same for Making Good Cupcakes.

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The picture above is the Valentine’s Day cupcakes Sarah Yoon (an IC designer) designed and produced, limited edition and no photoshop. Yum. I am happy to discover that many of our folks have talents outside their work and formal training. One guy makes bowtie and another one makes coasters. I think it is important that people should possess an artistic craft outside Adobe CS5 and Power Point.

As the Harvard B-School’s MBA class of 2010 celebrated their graduation outside Baker’s Library last summer, they were listening to a speech by John W. Coleman (also a member of the graduating class and getting a joint degree from the Kennedy School). Lots of talk around the need to think outside the box and be creative. I always wonder how much more creative you can become before and after B-schools.

I think generally speaking people are less creative post B-schools as they pick up more management concepts. “As we cross the stage tomorrow and step out into the world beyond this school, what if it’s more important than ever to recapture that child-like sense of imagination?” Coleman said. “What if, in a world so vastly transformed by crisis that it barely resembles the one we left in 2008, what matters most is not Excel proficiency or accounting acumen, but a passion and capacity for creativity?” It is very true, the question remains, what do you need to do? Maybe start with cupcakes.

Not many B-schools, if any, treat business creativity seriously (let alone they understand what it means). Even No.1 schools (three years in a row) like London Business School, there is nothing in the curriculum that teaches students how to be creative. What they have is a Centre for Creative Business, a not-for-profit joint venture between London Business School and University of the Arts London, which exists to educate and equip creative industry (TV, music, arts and film etc.) management teams; that’s very different from applying creativity in everyday managerial capacity.

In today hyper-competitive cut-throat business environment, creativity in business is really the most important capability. I am interested to know how many MBA and other Master programs are teaching the personal AND professional tools of creativity and methods for applied creativity in problem solving? Telling students to think outside the box is one thing, being able to teach them how to think outside the box but within a bigger box is the art – we all work with constrains. This is where design thinking comes into play.

The second biggest challenge is teaching them to be creative but also a good team worker. Creative people are generally speaking not good team workers. I get pissed every time people try to tell me “I come up with the idea!” and I wished I have taped the session and play them back where the idea actually came from. Being creative AND collaborative is another big bridge to cross.

And the third one, B-school profs struggle to understand creativity, let alone teach it. There is no point screaming out-of-the-box thinking and then talking about compliances and accounting policies. I am 100% sure that we can teach creativity (which I’ve done for decades), once you get slightly above an average I.Q. and you are a reasonably interesting person (I cannot help you if you are a super boring person, there may be a medication for that but I am not sure). I can teach you applied design thinking. Intelligence and creativity are not directly correlated. So you could be a genius and display little creativity or have fairly average intelligence and wield artistic talent and amazing creative powers.

Creativity is a learned behavior. I can teach and train people to be creative. But I cannot teach style and taste. Buying a Chanel cupcake doesn’t mean you appreciate one. That’s a different post another day.

A creative manager needs to have the courage to try new things and risk failure and understand calculated failure. It is like understanding there is a chance your parachute will not open and have a spare one. The not-so-strategic creative types will end up dropping from the sky without a parachute, the strategic creatives know how to handle risks and also understand the risk/reward relationships. They are not interested in doing crazy thing with no reward or knowing the reward is not big enough. These strategic creative people are innovators.

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