Can Creativity Be Taught?
Every great leader is a creative leader. If creativity can be taught how is it done?
In the early 1980s I was trundling along on a New York subway with a colleague when he suddenly said, “14, 18, 23, 28, 34. What is the next number in this series?”
For the next ten minutes I manfully tried to figure out the mathematical relationship among these numbers. Finally, as we stepped off the subway I admitted I was stumped. My colleague, with a devilish grin, merely pointed at 42 emblazoned on the wall of the subway station. We had just travelled from 14th to 42nd Street, and it had never occurred to me that the answer was a stop on the subway. I had been so locked into the assumption that numerical problems had mathematical solutions that I failed to notice the answer staring at me from the pillars of every station.
As any Zen Master worth his salt would gleefully point out, I had failed to pay attention. Intent on asking the wrong questions, I paid a stiff price in embarrassment and chagrin.
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Mark Twain famously quipped that everyone complains about the weather but no one does anything about it. In business we all know we must do a better job at “getting outside the box” but very few of us do anything about it. We are so locked in to thinking in a linear way that like a Zen novice we fail to notice that innovative breakthroughs emerge from thinking in a non-linear fashion.
For example, in the early days of the personal computer, companies like Lotus, WordPerfect, and Netscape assumed their job was producing the best stand-alone spreadsheet, word processing package, or web browser. While linearly adding features as fast as they could they failed to notice that Microsoft had non-linearly figured out that what end-users really wanted: the seamless integration of word processing, spread sheets, a browser, email etc. By questioning the assumptions underlying stand-alone software, Microsoft Office creatively relegated an entire industry and many wonderful companies to the scrap heap of history.
In 1956 my mentor, Louis R. Mobley, realized that IBM’s success depended on teaching executives to think creatively rather than teaching them how to read financial reports. As a result the IBM Executive School was built around these six insights.
First, traditional teaching methodologies like reading, lecturing, testing, and memorization are worse than useless. They are actually the counter-productive way in which boxes get built. Most education focuses on providing answers in a linear step by step way. Mobley realized that asking radically different questionsin a non-linear way is the key to creativity.
Mobley’s second discovery is that becoming creative is an unlearning rather than a learning process. The goal of the IBM Executive School was not to add more assumptions but to upend existing assumptions. Designed as a “mind blowing experience,” IBM executives were pummeled out of their comfort zone often in embarrassing, frustrating, even infuriating ways. Providing a humblingexperience for hot shot executives with egos to match had its risks, but Mobley ran those risks to get that “Wow, I never thought of it that way before!” reaction that is the birth pang of creativity. Third, Mobley realized that we don’t learn to be creative. We must become creative people. A Marine recruit doesn’t learn to be a Marine by reading a manual. He becomes a Marine by undergoing the rigors of boot camp. Like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, he is transformed into a Marine. Mobley’s Executive School was a twelve week experiential boot camp. Classes, lectures, and books, were exchanged for riddles, simulations, and games. Like psychologists, Mobley and his staff were always dreaming up experiments where the “obvious” answer was never adequate. Shock and awe was used to open up his students to alternative modes of thinking.
Mobley’s fourth insight is that the fastest way to become creative is to hang around with creative people –regardless of how stupid they make us feel. An early experiment in controlled chaos, The IBM Executive School was an unsystematic, unstructured environment where most of the benefits accrued through peer to peer interaction much of it informal and off line.
Fifth, Mobley discovered that creativity is highly correlated with self-knowledge. It is impossible to overcome biases if we don’t know they are there, and Mobley’s school was designed to be one big mirror.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, Mobley gave his students permission to be wrong. Every great idea grows from the potting soil of hundreds of bad ones, and the single biggest reason why most of us never live up to our creative potential is from fear of making a fool out of ourselves. For Mobley there were no bad ideas or wrong ideas only building blocks for even better ideas.
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In today’s ever changing marketplace most products do not fail because they don’t add features fast enough. They fail because like WordPerfect and Lotus their product becomes a feature in another company’s bigger and more robust offering. They fail because they are blindsided by a strategic decision that emerges from a completely unanticipated direction. They fail from a lack of creative leadership.
While very few of us will ever have the opportunity to experience a program like the IBM Executive School, we can simulate the experience. Take a job that makes you uncomfortable and calls for tools that you are afraid you don’t currently have.
Play over your head by finding a boss, teacher, or mentor that infuriates your ego rather than soothes it. It is no accident that movies we love so much like the Karate Kid, Star Wars, The Matrix, or The Devil Wears Prada invariably feature gurus incessantly driving their students nuts. Like a Marine Corp recruit, you may initially hate your drill sergeant but you’ll end up loving him.
Make friends with frustration; if you are not occasionally frustrated, even angered, by a teacher or learning environment that seems bent on nothing more than highlighting your limitations, you are probably wasting your time. The politically correct notion that no one should feel “uncomfortable” has no place here. Instead resist the temptation to build a case through appeals to what is “fair” when the going gets tough and you’re feeling sorry for yourself. What is fair is what is possible. Creativity requires treating the impossible as possible.
Finally and most importantly, never quit. I confess that I’m a huge fan of The Devil Wears Prada. One of my favorite scenes is when Anne Hathaway’s character is going through hell at the hands of her impossibly demanding boss. She can’t seem to do anything right, but despite her agony she confides to a colleague, “I know what she wants. She wants me to quit. But I’ll never, never, never quit.” Her tenacity is critical to the way she is eventually transformed into someone creative enough to get hold of a new Harry Potter book before it is even published. Refusing to quit requires having faith in ourselves. Transformation, like giving birth, is always a painful process. But anyone who has successfully gone through the fiery furnace of Mobley’s executive school, Marine boot camp, or AA’s Twelve Step Program is left with the same reaction: abject gratitude. It is not stupidly assuming that my colleague’s numerical problem must have a numerical solution that still embarrasses me. It is giving up on the problem so quickly. It is this magnificent gift that I took away from eating humble crow from my colleague’s hand, and for this I am deeply grateful.