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ON THE SCENE: Creating a creative environment

April 12, 2013
NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

Have you every wondered what it means to be creative? What it takes to foster creativity in yourself? In others?

I am in Israel. One of the reasons I've been brought here is to lead a course on fostering creativity in a group, be it to address problems or to conduct business. All my students are mid-career or in a career shift. All participants but one are women. A third are Arabs, the largest percentage of Arabs my fellow teacher Avil Hadari has had in a class in his nearly 30 years of teaching.

My flight was delayed by a heavy, wet snowstorm hitting the Mid-Atlantic states so that I landed at Ben Gurion airport at 9:30 a.m. Sunday, already 30 minutes late for class. I cleared customs, caught a cab straight to the college in Netanya. dropped my bags in an office, and stepped into the classroom.

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Avi and I had never taught together, nor had either of us taught this course. Avi normally teaches Expressive Therapy, drama therapy if you wish. Asked by him to take the lead, I had looked over the course outline and core text, The Hothouse Effect, before deciding with Avi on a different approach. Before hopping on the plane, I suggested he engage students in some creative activities, which he did; they were discussing the results when I arrived.

Steve Jobs is perhaps a person often held up to illustrate leadership fostering creativity in our generation. In past generations, Walt Disney stood out and before him, perhaps Bauhaus leader Walter Gropius and inventor Thomas Edison. I'm sure you can think of others. Locally Godfrey Dewey stands out for having created a new future for our village of Lake Placid that resonates to this day.

Apple under Jobs revolutionized the music industry, bringing to near-end the use and purchase of CDs. It revolutionized traditional cell phones, other modes of communication, and other products as well. Such was Apple's impact that Dell, then world leader in the manufacture of excellent computers at affordable prices way below those of Macs, seems headed for bankruptcy while Blackberry is struggling hard for survival.

Jobs had a different vision: "I want to make a dent in the universe," he said. Apple's tag-line became "Think different" as Jobs challenged his staff to create products "that would became invisible." Apple products are known for being minimally intrusive: when you read on an i-pad, the device seems to disappear leaving instead the image it projects. Apple tried to make its products intuitive: there was a time when anyone buying an electronic device hoped for "a teenager to help set it up"; instead, Apple's instructions were: "Plug and play."

Jobs' method for making a dent in the universe was to think about new ways to create, deliver, and use electronic devices, then how these in turn interfaced with the Web and each other. In a sense, these products - i-pad, i-phone, i-mac - were means for Apple to deliver its vision using great design in all aspects of the process. Jobs believed in thinking big and acting simple.

Nurturing a creative environment takes more than having a big vision. It takes being open to and inviting a variety of voices, experiences, and ideas to contribute equally to the thinking process. This approach goes against corporate drive for efficiency, reduced risk, and sustainability. To develop creative process, business consultants such as Dan Pink encourage inviting stakeholders into strategic planning sessions. Too often we involve only like-minded people - the board, the lead staff - but don't involve the people who construct the product, the end users, and anyone else who stands to benefit from the service provided.

Creative people tend to look towards external stimulation. Jobs reached beyond his company to the design firm IDEO for ideas. In turn, their lead designer David Kelley drew on an underarm deodorant roller-ball applicator for inspiration for the original Mac mouse roller ball.

Nurturing creativity also involves creating an environment for failure - for risk taking - an environment safe enough for participants to remain unconcerned about embarrassment. For example, when testing their gliders the Wright brothers often took along at least five sets of spare parts; they expected to crash and knew they would have to make adjustments in the field to achieve a final solution. They also knew no amount of planning could replace testing prototypes under real conditions. To paraphrase World Heavyweight champion boxer Leon Spinks, who beat Mohammed Ali for the title, "You can plan all you want, but you can never win a fight until you get hit."

Avi and I challenged our students to determine what impact they wanted to have, what their three priorities were, what outside voices they needed to hear, and what overall plan would take into account their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. They could work individually or in teams, on a personal scale, an international scale, or anything in between.

We stimulated their thinking by screening, for example, Itay Talgam's TED Talk showing how different conductors lead their orchestras. We enhanced listening skills, told stories, reviewed readings, and engaging in a series of creative exercises for thinking out of the box.

Some students' impressed me deciding to address their social situations and cultural influences as did others by taking on methods for creating spaces that foster reconciliation. While I cannot share their ideas with you given we agreed to respect their right to intellectual property, I can say our students brought forward inspiring ideas and many committed themselves to implement them if possible. Challenging though Israel's social climate is, many young people have not given up on finding ways to chart a better future.



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