“How many of you are amazingly, astonishingly, spectacularly
creative?” asked Ray Smilor, Professor of Professional Practice, Innovation
& Entrepreneurship, at the June 6 Preview Luncheon.
Only a few brave souls raised their hands – some were savvy
program alumni. Others were probably being ironic.
“None of you are creative?" he pressed the others in
the room. “What about when you were a kid? What did you do when you got a
“Turned it into a rocket!”, “Pretended it was an airplane!”
we heard from around the room.
We all remembered the vivid imaginations of our younger
selves. So, what happened to us? When we hear “amazingly, astonishingly,
spectacularly creative,” what makes us think “that’s not me”?
“The education system teaches us we’re not creative,” said
Prof. Smilor: “They pound it out of us!” He told us about a visit to his
granddaughter’s kindergarten school, where he discovered a flip chart on “How
to Color.” The directions specified: Stay inside the lines. Use appropriate
colors. Fill in all the white.
“No Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh or Jackson Pollock
there,” Prof. Smilor remarked.
He quoted Albert Einstein: “Imagination is more important
than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand,
while imagination embraces the entire world and all there ever will be to know
So how do we reconnect with that imagination?
Prof. Smilor wrote “13” on an oversized Post-it® board and
asked us, “What’s half of this?”
“Six point five!” a few people shouted from the room. Prof.
Smilor wrote that on the board.
“What else?” he said.
“One … and three,” someone said after a few moments.
Another person said “two” (half the sum of one and three). One
said a little “b” (because 1 and 3 pressed together make a B, and half of that
is b). Someone else said “thir” and then “teen.” Prof. Smilor kept prompting
“What else?” until we had 10 different answers on the board – and we could have
kept on if we tried.
We started to see that embedded in this simple exercise was
the secret to tapping a group for creative solutions to complex problems.
How to Encourage Creativity in Your Team
Push past the
Every time Smilor leads this exercise, 6.5 is always first
answer. Why? It’s what we’re taught. The first response is always going to be
the most familiar, most common, most conventional answer.
Six-point-five also happens to be the “correct” answer. But in
life or in business, is there ever only one answer? No; there are always more
possibilities, often better ones than the first thing to pop into your head.
When you keep asking “What else? What else?”, people have to dig deeper. You
begin to see imagination and diversity creep in. Soon, you’ll find something
you didn’t expect. Something amazing.
Don’t kill ideas.
What keeps someone from speaking up when they do have an
unconventional idea? Fear. They don’t want to look ridiculous. They don’t want
to get shot down. If someone said “One and three? As two halves of thirteen?
That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” the discussion would be over.
Of course, there are plenty of other ways to kill ideas that
are less aggressive, but just as deadly. “Yeah, but …”, “We’ve tried that
before,” “That’s not how we usually do things,” “We don’t have the
time/money/people for that.” We think we’re being helpful when we say these
things, but what we’re really doing is shutting down the discussion and
clamming up the creative mind.
Be willing to be wrong.
This is really the first rule of creativity. You’re bound to
make a few missteps as you veer off the beaten path - but that’s what it takes
to forge a new trail. Detractors may ask,“Don’t you know better?” but you can proudly reply “No!”
Besides, sometimes it’s the worst ideas that lead to the
Sir Ken Robinson, talking about the essence of creativity,
told a story of a little girl in an art class. The teacher asked her what she
“I’m drawing God,” said the girl.
“No one knows what God looks like,” said the teacher.
And the little girl replied, “They will in a minute.”
3 Ways to Tap into Your Own Creativity
The Executive MBA program at Neeley is nothing like the
restrictive education system Prof. Smilor described at the beginning of his
presentation; instead, this EMBA program seeks to unlock the creative abilities
and talents of every student, encouraging them to explore diversity of thought,
and find brand new ways of looking at things.
Prof. Smilor left us with a few tips for getting started.
- Break your
routine. Do something different.
Drive a different way to work. Read different magazines when you go
for your haircut. Investigate something unusual.
Leonardo Da Vinci was a genius, not because he was a hard worker, a great
artist or a brilliant scientist (though he was) – but because he was so curious about everything, down to the tongue of a woodpecker.
He asked questions, and explored, and created from what he learned. (As it
turns out, the woodpecker has a long tongue that
wraps around its brain to protect it while the bird is pecking).
- Be more
childlike. Don’t be afraid to look
silly. Prof. Smilor talked about playing
with his granddaughter at the park. They’d be at the top of the slide, and
he’d say “Natalie, don’t push me.” Of course, then she’d push him, and the
grown man would go flying down the slide. Or, she’d ask him to be her announcer as she navigated the
monkey bars, and he’d cup his hands around his mouth, narrating, “There
she goes, American Ninja Girl!” All the parents would be looking at him
like he was crazy, but, as the professor said, “I’m there for her.”
distracted. Prof. Smilor talked about
getting into fly fishing over the last
five years, and all the fascinating things he’s learned. For instance, if
you catch and release, you can’t simply throw a fish back right away.
They’re exhausted from the fight after being caught, and they can die. You
have to hold them in the water between your thumb and fingers to let them
catch their breath. Then, they’ll eventually flick their tail, and you can
let them swim off.
“You’re holding this live thing between your hands,” Prof.
Smilor said. “And then you let it go – and it’s amazing. Life is like that. Let
go, and amazing things happen.”
He told one final story about a woman who had tried to start
many companies, and lost investor money on every single one. She got yet
another idea, and brought it back to one of the investors.
He said, “You know, there are lots of blemishes in your
She replied, “Yes, but my future is spotless.”
Don’t let the past keep you from taking risks and imagining
new possibilities. If we change the way we think, we can be pretty creative
people and do pretty amazing things.
Take the next
step. Start your Executive MBA application today to
learn more about innovation and other vital business strategies.