CEOs crave creativity ... and it can be taught

24 October 2017

The call to think outside of the box and to be creative and innovative has become a roar lately in business, education and so many other contexts.

The demands of 21st century life mean that creativity has moved from being a 'nice to have' to an essential with a study of1700 CEOsidentifying creativity as critical for employee's future success. The problem of course is that creativity is an 'aerosol concept' that is often sprayed about, smells good but vanishes when you try and get hold of it.

To make the case for creativity worse there seems to be a widespread myth that creativity can only exist in certain narrow roles such as advertising or marketing and as such is only for the 'gifted few'. Of course, creativity is an inherency like our ability to relate to each other but like other inherencies it must be strengthened like any capacity.

Given these calls you might think that places of learning; schools, universities and workplaces would be offering structured learning experiences in creativity to strengthen the ‘muscle’. Unfortunately, while there are some organisations who see and understand the challenges and the opportunities, creativity as a standard expectation of learning does not yet exist.

While creativity is not ignored it is in large part thought of as being a little bit mystical and unstructured and therefore not teachable or useful in organisations. The problem with thinking about creativity as some mysterious and unknowable capacity is that it becomes unteachable and unattainable.

So, if you were going to teach creativity how might you do it?

Firstly, you need to debunk the myths that some of us are creative and some are not. The next step is to devise situations where workplaces, schools and universities can learn the structures or frameworks that enable creativity and then apply them.

This work is happening in schools increasingly but in the higher education space getting creativity into the mainstream has been more of a struggle but there are some exciting models emerging is some unlikely places.

The University of Sydney MBA has taken this challenge up recently creating a course that immerses students in a creative project. The brief they attempted was to build an installation art project for a public exhibition. After exploring the various frameworks, theories and structures of creativity they learnt about Installation Art by seeing them at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney.

As they developed their own installation projects they met, conceptualised, argued, iterated, struggled with execution and then finally produced 10 unique installation works in a Sydney town hall around the theme of 'the seven deadly sins'. The installations were funny, physically engaging, ironic and visually arresting and the buzz in the room was not a quiet art gallery but of a party-the power of creativity in action.

The works were open to a public audience for two hours on a Sunday afternoon and then they were gone. What remained however was an understanding of a knowable process in a previously unknown field: installation art. I will be astonished if these MBA students now throw in their rewarding jobs in banking or HR or community development but what they now understand by living the experience is that creativity can be understood, structured and delivered through a disciplined knowable process.

Understanding of creativity will be critical the next time they face a complex and unknown problem and they are asked to 'innovate', 'be creative'; or 'think outside the box'. If Oxford University researchers, Osborne and Frey are right creativity will be critical in workers winning the employment race of the future.

There is risk in this kind of change but perhaps the bigger risk is to ignore creativity as a way to understand and imagine a future in uncertain times.

Dr Michael Anderson is Professor of Education (Arts and Creativity) at The University of Sydney. He is author with Dr Miranda Jefferson of Transforming Schools: Creativity, Critical Reflection, Communication, Collaboration and the forthcoming Transforming Organisations.