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George Harrison and Paul McCartney weren't creative. But the Beatles were.
Sir Ken Robinson's keynote address at ICAM 2012 uncovers the secrets to creativity.

May 2012

On a scale of one to 10, how creative are you?

A room of more than 1,200 people at AACSB's International Conference and Annual Meeting in San Diego, California raised their hands at varying points in time, as Sir Ken Robinson called out numbers counting down from 10. A majority of hands were raised when he came to the number six.

Now, on a scale of one to 10, how intelligent are you?

Once again, members of the audience raised their hands at varying points along the scale, most hovering around eight.

According to Sir Ken, everyone was wrong. Why? Because we all define creativity and intelligence differently. Creativity is not just the inherent ability to sculpt, or paint, or play a musical instrument beautifully – but that's typically the default definition. Intelligence is not solely reflected in grade point average, a GMAT score, or how quickly one rises to senior management within a corporation. Sir Ken believes that creativity is simply about bringing to mind things that aren't currently present.

However, for as effortless as that may sound, both creativity and intelligence are still measured in ways that constrict true potential. Sir Ken asked questions about creativity and intelligence to illustrate the point that they are not necessarily correlated to one another, and that creative work is a constant process that requires the ability to cultivate critical judgment. He also emphasized that the most effective teams are modeled after the human mind, each one of us with our role and expertise functioning together as one coordinated unit. Sir Ken illustrated this best with a story about the Beatles, and how in school, both Paul McCartney and George Harrison were told they didn't have much talent. Individually, and within the constraints of a traditional teaching model, they didn't seem to be future rock and roll icons. Yet together, through their own creativity and collaboration (and 275 songs later) they made history.

During a time of revolutionary changes in our culture, technology, financial markets, the economy and higher education, we have a distinct responsibility to not only be creative ourselves, but to encourage, facilitate, acknowledge and challenge the creativity around us. We are all unique sources of creative thinking – it can occur anywhere, anytime, in any context – but all too often we aren't attuned to our own ideas or are provided the platform by which to share these ideas. Sir Ken also noted that academia and corporations alike bear the responsibility of being creative themselves by not only encouraging creativity, but by being open to it, aware of it, and managing it to its fullest potential.

It comes as no surprise that our own academic and professional structures are fostering a creative and managerial shortage in business. With standardized education systems around the world, students and managers commonly demonstrate structured thinking, which invariably constrains economic progression. "Out-of-the-box" ideas are perceived as nonconformist – even threatening to those who don't initially understand or embrace the diverse concepts presented to them.

Now more than ever, there is a tremendous need for management professionals to become strong, sufficient leaders. The world needs people who can think differently – as Sir Ken states, "Life is not linear and everyone is unique, so why is our education system set up as if it were the opposite?" Education is often mistakenly treated as a manufacturing process, where graduates enter the real world with various skills—but not necessarily the right ones we need to thrive. In order to thrive in a rapidly evolving world, students and professionals alike must be dynamic, constantly seeking not only within themselves but from their colleagues, innovative ways of thinking. According to Sir Ken, "Talent is like other natural resources, often buried underground, and you have to search for it."

One of the primary messages that Sir Ken imparted on the audience was that in order for organizations to become, and inherently be creative, is that they must make creativity a habit rather than an accident. It must be encouraged, acknowledged, nurtured and, at times, challenged so the best ideas can flourish in the context of the organization. However, he finds that there is no single model for creating a culture of innovation. One example he brought to light includes Pixar, a company that offers various programs to stimulate employee creativity, allotting them four hours a week out of their existing schedules to spend on various classes that are designed to do just that—remove them from a standardized mentality and open up a world of innovation. Regardless of an employee's role within the organization, they are more than welcome to decline a meeting request in order to attend a session that enhances their professional role within the organization. The Pixar model is much like an academic classroom – diverse students from unique backgrounds coming together to learn and share ideas.

Today's business leaders are faced with unprecedented, unanticipated challenges – often on a daily (if not hourly) basis. No matter how effective their educators were, or what the pedigree of their alma mater, there is no way they could have been taught exactly what to do in a financial crisis or any other challenge. Our changing economic, social, and technological infrastructures require us to think in unexpected ways and provide solutions for the unimagined. There is no textbook, syllabus or case study that can prepare business students for every scenario – but teaching students to be flexible by thinking critically and creatively is the most effective tool for success.

Sir Ken emphasized, in a lighthearted and thoughtful manner, that life is about anticipation rather than prediction. That creative ideas come from everywhere and we have a responsibility to capture and cultivate them. And that imagination is at the root of innovation that drives us forward.

So the next time someone asks, "How creative are you?" rather than think of yourself on a scale of one to 10, acknowledge your unique individual strengths and answer, "I am creative at ______."

Because you are.