Samantha Huffman was skeptical. The 30-year-old M.B.A. student, a quality assurance supervisor at Consolidated Metal Products in Cincinnati, signed up for Melissa Baucus’ creativity and innovation class. But she wasn’t convinced creativity could be taught, let alone transferred to the day-to-day realities of her job. So she adopted a wait-and-see attitude, remaining open to—but not necessarily expecting—something special that might change her way of thinking.
Skepticism like Huffman’s is common among pragmatic business students, says Baucus, an associate professor in the University’s entrepreneurial center. But changing the way people think is what creativity and innovation are all about.
“Part of my job is to get students to understand that most of them are creative,” Baucus says. “But a lot of what we’ve done in the education process has taught them not to use that.”
Now, however, the burgeoning global economy and increased competition have made creative thinking a prized commodity, and educational approaches are changing.
“Corporations need people who can come up with creative solutions,” says Baucus. “They’ve got to have continuous innovation, and so we’ve got to go back and try to teach people to do that.”
And any skepticism aside, students have been quick to embrace the idea. Ed VonderBrink, director for the entrepreneurial center, credits the class with helping ignite interest in the new entrepreneurship minor. In fact, a second section recently was added to accommodate 13 newly declared minors.
“It’s very different, particularly for business majors,” he says. “It’s not a disciplined, left-side-of-the-brain class. There are no rules.”
To help students make that leap beyond the comforts of the known, Baucus focuses on both individual creativity and creativity within organizations, teaching students to think in creative ways and providing them with a number of tools and techniques to help them carry their ideas further. She’s developed an expanding series of exercises, some of which are geared toward making students more observant, while others, like improvisational theater or freeze tag, make students stretch themselves into new areas.
Huffman’s personal breakthrough came midway through the course during an exercise called “tiny truths.”
“It’s an exercise where you stare at a picture for 10 minutes,” she says. “You try to clear your mind of everything else and focus on what you’re looking at. I have a puzzle that I put together of van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night,’ so I used that. Anyway, I’m about six or seven minutes into it, and just when I’m about to say ‘Forget this,’ the whole painting shifted. What had formerly been in the background came to the foreground. It was the most bizarre experience. All the little white spots that aren’t normally visible in the painting were in the very forefront. It amazed me so much I called Melissa immediately. Honestly, it just blew my mind. And I think it was because of all the skepticism I had built up.”
In the final analysis, Baucus says, students need to understand that creativity goes beyond good ideas—it’s an actual process that can be used.
“The class should get people thinking, ‘How would I actually use this?’ ” she says. “I’ve had students develop the concept for a business. I’ve had students develop products they want to try to patent. And some of the best projects have been by students who work and did projects within their organizations.”
Huffman falls into this last group. Faced with convincing Consolidated Metal’s employees to buy into a series of new, tougher quality and safety regulations, she created an incentive program based on accumulating points that can be turned into gift certificates.
“We’ve given away over $12,000 worth of merchandise,” she says. “People are enthusiastic, and they’re believing in their company. It’s been very exciting. And I can largely credit Melissa. Through the class, she really helped me to re-evaluate what was important and focus on that. It certainly put a new spin on things.”