Creativity, MBAs, and competitive advantage for modern businesses

An MBA can increase your ability to have impact and open your eyes to the power of creativity within business, and how misconstrued the very idea of creativity is for most businesses, says Tom Gray

When you think what might motivate you to do an MBA, ‘to become more creative’ is probably not top of the list.

There are perhaps two reasons for this, first: the cliched view that creativity and business are of different worlds – the former fuzzy, indulgent and intangible; the latter measurable, target-driven and ‘real’. And second: that the subjects you cover, and the intense pressure you should expect in an MBA are unsuited to creative ‘types’.

And yet the very idea that there is such a thing as a creative ‘type’ probably says all you need to know about the dearth of creative ambition in business today.

I’ve always known that creativity was a motivator for me – not in the ‘draws well, dresses well’ type of way – more in the, ‘doesn’t quite fit, asks obscure questions, isn’t happy with the status quo’ type of way.

That perennial dissatisfaction with the status quo was probably the primary motivator for me to do an MBA while working as a strategy director at a global creative agency.

I had an idea that it might make me more able to understand the world of my clients, perhaps give me a few strings to my bow and to be perfectly honest, I quite fancied the challenge of doing something which most people on both sides of the business/creative divide thought was at best somewhat original, at worst unconscionable.

And yet the impact of my MBA has been far more positive than that: it has increased my ability to have impact, it has taken me to more interesting places – from creative agency, to innovation consulting, to working within a deep tech startup – and most fundamentally, it has opened my eyes to the power of creativity within business, and how misconstrued the very idea of creativity is for most businesses.

Changing the perceptions of creativity

So what did I find? At first, I found that despite coming from the creative industries,  I wasn’t entirely unique in my class at Imperial College Business School – as an innovation-focused university and corresponding innovation-heavy MBA programme, my cohort included a founder of a successful furniture design business, a supply chain manager from a leading luxury brand and a director from a world-leading architectural consultancy. And while we were in the minority, the breadth of sectors and careers represented in the cohort made for a great learning environment – engineers, doctors, commodities traders and folks from tech, media and pharma.

Looking back at what I learnt in formal and informal ways in the MBA, it’s clear how a set of formal skills and frameworks, together with the informal learning that comes from intense group work and having to fit study around a full time career have contributed to giving me a more rounded set of creative tools. Specifically, an understanding of the scope of where and how creative thinking might be applied to real world problems – and the resources, confidence and motivation to be able to effect that change.

Creativity isn’t aesthetics, it’s critical thinking, opportunity-spotting and paradigm-busting

Someone once told me that it takes two career changes to realise what you really learnt on your MBA, so five years and two changes later, here are the critical things that I think I got from my MBA, that I fall back on most often and which contributed to helping me in my career.

First, breadth – a critical input for creative thinking is a breadth of insight – being able to hunt in many different areas for the key to cracking a particular problem (or even spotting the next big opportunity). MBAs are designed for breadth at speed – from the breadth of my cohort, to the breadth of tools and ways of dissecting a problem.

Second, curiosity, perhaps the most vital skill for anyone aspiring to bring more creativity into their work. Curiosity not only helps spot opportunities before others, but also to find more innovative ways of unlocking them. Beyond the breadth of backgrounds and cultures in my cohort, it was the new tools that helped to explain how businesses work – and how they might be made to work differently that was a massive curiosity-booster. Once you’ve understood the Business Model Canvas, the next step is to use it dissect and remix existing businesses. ‘What happens if I do this bit differently’? Why should these established norms be treated as constants? A curiosity for how things work, is helpful – my MBA gave me the tools to be able to look at businesses and organisations in the same way – as dynamic things that can work in different ways, given different inputs, conditions, capabilities or goals.

Next is confidence – not the cliché of freshly-minted tech-bro MBAs who use those three little letters as some kind of signifier that their opinion is somehow more valuable, but rather the confidence that comes from having previously opaque concepts demystified, from understanding how things work. The confidence to challenge the orthodox, the confidence to ask pointed questions, and the confidence to get stuck in, build something, experiment – confident that even if you should fail, you will at least learn faster than others. Confidence in the knowledge that inflexibility is often designed into scaled businesses to help them operate day-to-day, and so by design they must reject new ideas – all the more need for confidence and stamina to keep challenging, keep making things better!

And, yes, the foundational skills. All the above was backed up by the foundational skills of creativity and innovation – the diverging and converging model of design thinking, insight-led strategy and design; theories of innovation that sound dry but ultimately are underpinned by these same principles of curiosity, breadth and confidence. The Business Model Canvas as a way of quickly understanding and interrogating a business, and the many practical assignments that simulated the experience of having to quickly stand up a business case, see how a business mode might work.

Highlights included building up a business case and first version of a platform business to connect buyers and producers of artisan food across Europe, a strategy for how traditional black cabs might differentiate to thrive in a world of Uber, and a social enterprise telemedicine solution for the developing world built on a stunningly simple but sustainable business model – a project that included close collaboration with service designers from the RCA and interviews and fieldwork with primary healthcare workers in Uganda.

In all of the above, I want to stress that only seeing creativity within acknowledged frameworks such as design thinking risks completely underplaying the potential for creative impact. In fact, it’s the application of creative mindset to traditional business skills that is most impactful. An example: I would never have thought that I would find accounting interesting – but there is something beautifully creative about interrogating a balance sheet and using the power of ratios to tell a compelling story about a business, a category, a historical shift.

The future for creativity within business

In terms of the learning I got, the MBA was just the start – it’s clarified simply to me how powerful creative thinking is when positioned and applied in the right way. The ongoing challenge for me since the MBA has been to understand the right way in which to make it valuable and ‘consumable’ by businesses.

The challenge is getting easier as more and more business schools teach design thinking and innovation as core courses. The result: a raft of graduates who understand the basic techniques for creative problem solving, and executives within businesses who grasp the need for fresh thinking and approaches.

So it’s no surprise that creativity as a capability is becoming increasingly sought after – witness how big consultancies are moving so quickly to acquire creative businesses – Fahrenheit 212, Bow & Arrow, !WhatIF?, Fjord, Method, Karmarama… the list goes on.

Why would they want to acquire these businesses? Partly it’s to grow their offer into other services, but I believe it’s much more fundamental. I believe that management consultancies have realised there is only so far you can go in methodology and scale. That the swords of automation and commoditization hang over professional services too.

When we consider the environment for businesses these days, the rapid speed of change in technology, in customer behaviours and expectations – there has never been a more important time for businesses to double down on people with the ability to confront these changes with flexibility, inventiveness, pragmatism – able to imagine what could be, and then pragmatically determine what the right path should be.

And so creativity, in its very fuzziness, its navigation of the uncertain, and its origination of fundamentally new ideas is perhaps the most high value, difficult to replicate, human capability that modern businesses can have.

Tom Gray is an MBA alumnus of Imperial College Business School

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