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The Secret to Teaching Creativity at Business School

04/27/2015 12:53 pm ET | Updated Jun 27, 2015

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 1940s, it was radio. In the 1950s, 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.