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How do you teach creativity? I’ve had to work through this issue for over 25 years. In 1990, I returned to being a professor after taking five years off to be a senior executive in what was an entrepreneurial company when I started and multibillion dollar multinational corporation when I left a short time later.

Though I never attended business school, I quickly learned to develop my creative abilities under the tutelage of that most enlightened taskmaster: experience. My education continues to this very day thanks to the companies and organizations around the world that provide me with unique challenges and opportunities to create innovation solutions with their best and brightest leaders. The secret to teaching creativity is that you really can’t teach it. Rather it is something integral to our experiences that is either assimilated or accommodated. You never master creativity. Instead, you have to let creativity master you.

According to a recent IBM CEO study of over 1,500 senior executives in dozens of countries, creativity is now the most valued quality in a leader. Business schools are rushing to fill the void in their curriculum with a wide array of courses and minor adjustments to their pedagogy. While many are doing their best to meet this unmeant need, business schools are designed to encourage quantitative critical thinking: pricing options, building brand maps, optimizing supply chains, and the like.

Creativity is by definition a form of positive deviance: qualitative, divergent, and nonconformist. This presents significant problems. For example, business school faculty members typically lack the real world experience with creativity at work to teach the subject with any credibility. More so, student admissions rely heavily on standardized tests that are not equipped to evaluate the creative potential of applicants. Finally, grading on an objective criteria or curve has little bearing on the relative merits of a student’s creative work. In short, the very institutions that now need to teach creativity are historically designed to eliminate it.

Here are four ways that the creativity revolution is changing the structure and function of business education:

1. The Move from Corporate to Entrepreneurial: More and more students are coming into their MBAs with the goal of self-actualization, the desire to create their own businesses, products, and services. These projects demand an alternative set of proficiencies and tools, a curriculum that encourages students not merely to conform to an existing regime of standards but to question those very assumptions.

2. The Move from Functional to Cross-Functional: Business programs are becoming increasingly horizontal. That is, they bring together disciplines that have previously remained separate. Engineering and business, natural sciences and business, arts and business: these are the kinds of cross-functional programs arising today. These programs signify something more than mere inter-disciplinarity. As they grow and develop alongside each other, they are trans-disciplinary.

3. The Move from Theoretical to Experimental: With this shift away from theory and toward practice, business schools are embracing the experiential aspects of MBA education. Underlying this change is a “see one, do one, teach one” philosophy of pedagogy. Like medical schools and law schools, business education is a vocational endeavor. The ultimate aim is to be able to practice what we learn. As we resist the abstractness of theory, new models of apprenticeship, coaching, and mentoring will abound.

4. The Move from Singular to Perpetual: Look around and you’ll find certifications that need to be kept up and renewed and ongoing opportunities to be involved with and stay connected to schools. With the rise of MOOCs (massive online open courses) and alternative forms of knowledge production and dissemination, the boundaries between the classroom and the real world are gradually breaking down. Business education will no longer be just a single event with an end date but an ongoing–even life-long–experience.

The future of business education is already here and has been for years. Innovation pervades everything we teach and do as our shared goal is to make our world better and new. Creativity cannot be contained by a course or a department–it is an all-encompassing worldview that necessarily informs all aspects of our work and lives.

For decades there has been a clarion call that business schools would soon be something consigned to the past. In its place we are told will be a mlange of online offerings, action learning projects and peer to peer social networks of all kinds. But the same things were said in the 1930’s when it was paperback books that were going to replace higher education. In 1940’s it was radio. In the 1950’s it was television. Let’s consider the possibility that the value of higher education, including business education, is not so much in what is taught or how it is taught but rather the collective creativity that is generated by collaborative communities of deep and diverse domain experts and practitioners.

The secret to teaching creativity is simply to surround students with people who are creating.

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An all-purpose solution is never the answer to your innovation challenge. Creativity initiatives come in all different sizes–and so should the tools we apply to achieve them. Be wary of innovation techniques or frameworks that claim to solve everything. The team that comes up with next miracle drug needs a radically different set of tools than the designers looking to improve an already-great app.

In the 1980s, I worked for a think tank that helped launch an extremely popular innovation technique. The creators co-wrote a best-selling book and the technique quickly became a lucrative franchise. I was disturbed to see what other people wanted to do with this method. Facilitators and consultants made grand, ungrounded claims that this technique could be applied to anything. In reality, it didn’t do half the things that people claimed it did. And many of the things that it did actually do quite well, outsiders simply didn’t see.

When people discover a great tool, they suddenly want to use it everywhere. If you give a child a hammer, everything needs a pounding. A tool kit is, after all, not unlike the set of techniques available to innovators: a hammer, a saw, and a wrench are all indispensible when you’re building or repairing something, but they’re not interchangeable. You can’t use a wrench when you’re supposed to be using a saw.

The same is true of innovation practices. The strategies you use to market a breakthrough new product will not help you re-conceptualize the way you build an old one. So how do you decide which tool to use when it comes to your innovation project? Here are three factors to consider.

What is the intended use of the innovation? First, consider the domain of innovation that this tool is targeted toward. Is it meant for engineering? Artistic creation? Medicine? Then, consider the stage of innovation that this tool is meant to facilitate. Is it ideal for the early stage of brainstorming, the middle stage of implementing ideas, or the late stage of marketing? For example, analogical group creativity techniques are likely to help you create and connect ideas but won’t help you implement them.

Who is the intended user of this innovation tool? Some innovation techniques require extensive training–possibly even mastery of a specific set of skills–while others are accessible to novices. Can you rely on your own intuitions to use this tool or do you need specialized knowledge? Inventive problem-solving techniques based on physical attributes, functions, and constraints can help you develop a better engine but won’t help you design a fashionable new restaurant.

Where is the outcome of this innovation tool most valuable? Determine which kinds of settings this innovation technique thrives in. Is it conducive to the conversational spirit of informal get-togethers, the rigid schedule of strategy meetings, or the chaotic energy of design labs? The other crucial factor is timeline. Is this tool meant for long-horizon projects, quick wins–or is it contingent upon other departments and procedures? For example, 12-step continuous improvement processes are effective as part of a structure regime of review and revision but certainly not for a 30-minute executive meeting where a crisis needs to be resolved immediately.

Be discerning when choosing the right tool for your innovation project. But also keep in mind that your favorite technique may say more about you and your own biases and worldview than it does about its most effective use. So be open to using an approach you might not normally use. The perfect tool for your challenge might just be the one you forgot was is in the box.

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The opportunity to innovate may be right in front of your eyes, but turn around or blink and you’ll miss it. Seizing on a moment of potential growth or creativity is about having the right field of vision. Think of watching a spectacular sunrise. People often miss out on sunrises because they’re not looking in the right place. They can’t see the horizon. They can only see the light of the sun when it’s high in the sky, and by then it’s too late–the sun has already risen.

The same thing is true of entrepreneurs, who often look in the wrong places at the wrong time. Many seek out the so-called next big thing when they want to innovate, searching for medical breakthroughs or new technologies. But in reality, anticipation of these major developments and discoveries requires a very high level of expertise and access to research databases and universities. These are things that entrepreneurs simply don’t have at their disposal. (more…)

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