The business case for creative thinking


By Huw Evans, originally published in the Financial Post, 11/9/2010

The business case for creative thinking

In business, being successful requires staying ahead of the game. And, amid the global recession, it's become even more important as many countries struggle with ballooning unemployment and reduced demand for goods and services. Businesses, both large and small, grapple not only with these issues but with limited access to investment capital and greater government regulations.

Navigating a successful path through such choppy waters requires a creative approach to both problems and opportunities, something Darren Dahl is only too aware of.

Prof. Dahl's focus is on how to better meet customers' needs, and what he's learned from market research he applies in the classroom. As the Fred H. Siller Professor in Applied Marketing Research at UBC's Sauder School of Business, Prof. Dahl helps foster innovative methods in teaching, including Creativity, a new course in Sauder's Robert H. Lee Graduate School's MBA program.

"There's always been a debate on whether you're born with creativity or you can actually teach it," he says. "From my perspective, all of us have a creative streak and the purpose of the course is to nurture it from within."

As a result, students in the course find no set syllabus, website or exam.

"It's self-reflected learning," says Prof. Dahl. "The students are given a journal at the start of the year to document what they learn during the course, so by the end of it they have a ton of useful information that they've gathered from their own personal experiences."

Out-of-the-box thinking is encouraged, as is discussion and debate. Prof. Dahl finds one of the best methods for fostering creativity is being pushed outside a perceived comfort zone.

"It's often when we find ourselves in unfamiliar circumstances that the need to think creatively and make decisions becomes most apparent," he says.

"It's something we encourage with our students. Disruption is a healthy thing and if we can teach them to become 'disruptive innovators' that challenge conventional business thinking, so much the better."

When teaching the program, Prof. Dahl cites a Harvard case study that goes against the mantra that business should always be purely for profit. "elBulli was a famous restaurant in Barcelona, Spain. Head chef Ferran Adria was always seeking new ways to come up with innovative dishes, such as a 35-course meal and other one-of-a-kind tasting experiences. From his innovative approach, elBulli became the highest-ranking restaurant in the world for two consecutive years, yet it didn't make money. The notion behind the restaurant was purely creative: to deliver an experience like no other and at that it succeeded. It's a really fun case for the program, because it shows that not everything is about the almighty dollar. elBulli closed last year, simply because the owner had been there, done that and wanted to try something different."

The case underlines how varied companies, and the people who run them, can be.

"People go into business for many different reasons," Prof. Dahl says. "Some want to ascend the corporate ranks and get that corner office, some want to build empires, while others just want to earn a living doing something they're passionate about, from opening a restaurant to performing charity work.

"And it's reflected in our students. Our undergraduates are like sponges; they want to absorb as much as they can before going out into the world and, by fostering their own creativity, it gives them the edge: being able to adapt to rapidly changing situations once they enter the job market."

Prof. Dahl says even MBA students who have been in the corporate world for years find the Cultivating Creativity course gives them a new perspective on running a business, as well as developing skills and problem-solving techniques they weren't aware of before.

"When IBM conducted a survey among top executives not too long ago, it discovered the No. 1 thing leaders need, in order to be successful, is creativity," Prof. Dahl says. And given the gloomy economic climate, Sauder's Cultivating Creativity couldn't be better timed.