Monday, November 17, 2014

Personal Creativity in Business

In my last quarter of business school, I took “Personal Creativity in Business” with Michael Ray.  I loved this course.  We meditated, journaled about our voice of judgment, practiced live-withs like "everything is new", and learned to play the harmonica.  For my final project- constructed around the questions "Who is my Self?" and "What is my Work?" - I cut up the first chapter of my Management in the Nonmarket Environment textbook and made it into a poetry kit, then mounted poems on some scrap foam core I had left over from making toilet seats for the school show.   It was a far cry from doing regression analysis or pulling all-night shifts in the machine shop trying to build a portable tripod we could market test.  I did a lot of mountain biking that spring.  Creativity in business was not a stretch for me.

Many years later, the Stanford GSB magazine ran an article on Michael Ray’s course, featuring graduates who had taken left turns off the traditional MBA career path - becoming sommeliers or artists or answering other callings that stirred in their hearts.  You see, the article seemed to say, getting an MBA doesn’t preclude you from pursuing passionate, creative work.

Damn right, I thought to myself, reflecting on my own career.  Manufacturing management, support team management, product management – all roles that fit nicely along the expected trajectory of your typical MBA.  I had poured creativity and passion into every job I’d had.  How could I not?  It took creativity to get 75 Spanish-speaking machine operators to accept me-- a 28-year-old single white girl-- as the jefa.  It took creativity to make the potential monotony of front-line customer support into a job with variety and opportunity for personal growth.  It takes continuous creativity to find ways to advance the things I care about personally through my professional life.  

So why did this article - in the magazine of a school dedicated to nurturing business leaders- focus on people who had turned away from management jobs?  Perhaps it just made for more entertaining reading.  But I felt cheated.  Stanford was doing what the world at large tends to do for us: stereotype management as passionless and prescribed.  As if creativity were the sole domain of poets, painters and Iron Chefs.  (For the record - Fast Company ran an article in June 2000 on Michael Ray that paints a much broader picture of creativity.) 

I was reminded of this course when I recently attended a workshop on personal artist with executive coach and poet Libby Wagner.  Part of my reaction to the Stanford article came from my fragile self-image as a hybrid.  I want my personal creativity recognized because there are all sorts of nice adjectives that go along with "creative" that the world doesn't associate with "MBA".  Free-thinking, empathic, sensual, inventive, passionate... I'd like to tag myself with those descriptors, even if I am also structured, results-oriented, analytical.  It hurt a little that my own alma mater would, by omission, ostensibly deny me these appealing labels.

But beyond my personal dose of righteous indignation, I wondered whether those who have pursued their passion in leadership subconsciously hold back on tackling big problems because the looking-glass self they see reflected in the world tells them that they don't have the creativity to do it.

Most of the creativity in the world happens outside art studios and writers' garrets.  In Michael Ray's words, "Creativity is a way of life.  It's a productive attitude that thrives at all levels and at all phases of business."  Creativity is the ability to sense the expansive possibility of every moment-- to stop long enough between forays into planning, reminiscing, and judging to see the unique opportunity in this never-to-happen-again instant.

Managers interact and rely on the most complex of textiles every day: humans.  Paying attention to the shades, patterns, textures and temperatures of a team and its customers unveils tremendous potential energy.  Converting that to the kinetic energy of a high-functioning organization, driving not just investor wealth but also joy, and beauty, and justice into the world - now that is creative.

I can't imagine a life without the celebration of human spirit that is art.  But there are problems in the world that we can't dance or paint our way out of.  We need people with a natural aptitude for leadership to see the creativity in their work, because we need a future that transcends what the past would predict for it.  To all the business leaders out there, I hope you never stop asking, "Who is my Self?"  What is my Work?"  Even if your first instinct when you look at a trunk full of Legos is to sort them by color and build square towers, you have more uncelebrated creativity than you get credit for.  And the world needs it.