Are we really teaching people out of creativity?

(Update: I’ve updated this blogpost with further reflections)

Today my International marketing students had their first of four exams this spring. Today’s case: Moods of Norway.

Today I got to see some great thinking and good presentations from both the consultants and the board around Moods of Norway. But I’m left with one nagging feeling. Are teaching our future leaders out of creativity?

“I believe this passionately: that we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out if it.”
– Sir Ken Robinson

This idea has long been the hallmark of Professor Sir Ken Robinson, whose excellent TED talk on the subject has drawn over 10 million views.

What I saw today was highly engaged, highly creative students (outside the classroom), who, during their learning experience, and their exam requirements, gradually conform (too much) to the current academic standard. Students who slowly adapt the academic models and theories; but losing their own creative ideas along the way. What I saw was rational analysis and a struggle to “use the right models right”. But as a consequence, creativity, ideation and dreaming suffers. What was left was boring, staid, lacking ambitions, lacking boldness and simply put, not very good. Yes, they were using the right models right, but doing so at the cost of their ability to dream, marvel and be fantastic. (note: these reflections do not affect the grades, as the students are working within the proper paradigm. Rather, these reflections are part of an constant, evolving development of our teaching).

We know all theories and models are only valid untill a better theory comes along. By putting too much emphasis on ‘the right models’, are we killing the natural creative skills? Should we rather be teaching students to make up their own models? To adapt the models to their needs? To play with, break up and take apart, to mix and match the models as they see fit? To be courageous and adventurous in their play with theories?

Peter Drucker once said “Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision”. Today I did not see any courage. Instead I saw mere repetition of the academic requirements.

Walt Disney supposedly said “If you can dream it, you can do it. Always remember that this whole thing was started with a dream and a mouse.”….and he was 24 years old when he and his brother founded Disney.

Emerging research around the Innovator’s DNA tells us the most important traits for future innovators are the courage to innovate; a desire to challenge the status quo and a willigness to take risks. Yet, our students are not rewarded for courage and innovation, they are rewarded for using the existing paradigm of models and theories.

Harvard Professor Tony Wagner, author of Creating Innovators, says today’s educational paradigm needs fundemental rethinking; “schools educate to fill children with knowledge — instead they should be focusing on developing students’ innovation skills and motivation to succeed”. What is needed, says Wagner in a recent Forbes interview, is “reinventing” our educational system for a global, creative economy.

If we look back at some pretty fantastic companies, Apple, Microsoft, Google, Disney, Moods of Norway (a true pirate), Virgin Galactic, Facebook, you would be hard pressed to build a perfectly rational argument for founding each of these firms. Instead, they all had founders who dared to drem big and live out that dream.

In our most recent book, “Dream Bigger: Your Personal Innovation Sketchbook” we open with the lines:

“What if you could change the future of your company?
Where would you begin?
What would be your radically ambitious dreams?
What would be your mind-numbingly awesome first steps?

Through our teaching and consulting we meet thousands of people.
Too few are truly recklessly ambitious.
Too few are truly trying to achieve the impossible.
We want to change that.

Our goal is to help you and your company Dream Bigger – and execute successfully.
Because we fundamentally believe, “if you can dream it, you can do it”.

So let us.”

What I have seen today tells me there’s tons of work to be done. Starting today.

So, I’m testing an hypothesis: are today’s students naturally creative and innovative? Will putting them into a naturally creative state of mind yield radically different strategies then a fixed exam situation will?

Tomorrow I’m teaching a full day of Innovation and Entreprenurship. Taking on the consulting roles for Moods of Norway’s future strategy, what will the students come up with? How will they apply their innovation thiking tools, their stratgic innovation tools, to re:think strategy for this pirate company? Because few companies would ever publish such a company description. Yet, these do. And remain highly profitable, highly succesful.
Moods of Norway is one of the firms that break the rules rather than follow them. This is the courage to innovate. This is Pirate thinking. This is what we should be teaching the next generation of leaders.

Today’s class in Innovation and Entreprenurship was a blast. Fun and powerful learning for everyone involved.
Today I got to test several of my hypothesis. Would the students be more strategically innovative if they didn’t have to follow a given set of theories and models? Would the students be even more innovative and creative if I introduced Lego and other physical ‘toys’ from our extensive teaching toolkit?

Answer: Yes, in a big, big way!

Starting out, I divided the students in four groups. Two groups working on Coolburst, two working on Moods of Norway. Their task; craft and present a new company strategy to the board.

Over the next two hours the groups worked individually and gradually recieved further information and guidance. All groups started working on either the Business Model Canvas or the Innovation Pyramid. Their creative ideas were sprinning up. Said one partipipants, “early on, we actually had too many (crazy) ideas”.

Then I decided to test the second hypothesis; “Would the students be even more innovative and creative if I introduced Lego and other physical ‘toys’?”. Answer: absolutely!

Today we have plenty of research and literature on how play, fun and creativity drives strategic imagination and enhances ideation. “Playing seriously with strategy” (Roos, Victor, Statler, 2004) was one of the key papers, laying out the research on the topic. Their work led to the co-creation, together with Lego, of “Serious Play“. “Serious Play: A powerful tool designed to enhance innovation and business performance” is today owned and run by the Lego Foundation, but increasingly used as a strategy tool around the world.

Rasmussen and Associates has a great little booklet titled “The Science of Serious Play“.

Today the method is described as a “a passionate and practical process for building confidence, commitment and insight” (Wiki).

So, we know from both research and practice, that bringing these tools into the strategy work can have a positive effect on both innovation and strategic imagination (just the items I was so sorely missing from my marketing students). So I asked my students what they experienced:

“Lego helped us generate radical ideas for product development. Up untill ‘legotime’, we were mostly thinking incremental ideas.”

“Creating with lego provokes creativity”

“Innovation is easier in theory than in practice. Out-dated thinking modes creates mental limitations. Colorful surroundings and tools increases our creative thinking”

“With Lego, our limitations disappeared by playing”

‘’With Lego, creativity blossomed and new ideas sprung forward”

“Play makes us more creative!”

“Playing stimulates ideas and creativity”


Friday I had the second of four marketing exams. The same thing happened. The students were using the right models correctly. They applied classical tools and classical thinking models to their cases. By and large they solved and debated the cases right. They rightfully got good grades. They solved the cases…. but, again, they were following the models into a logic, linear, careful strategic choice. Not wrong. But not great either. What I’m increasingly seeing is that the models we are using here are too timid and rational vs. the strategic imagination possible using other tools and methods.

I’m looking forward to two more days of marketing exams for this upcoming week.

But I think the big questions remains, to quote Wagner; “how do we develop students’ innovation skills and motivation to succeed”, rather than teaching them the correct academic models….?


2 thoughts on “Are we really teaching people out of creativity?

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