Tracy Brandenburg is a university professor and long-time friend of OpenIDEO who's taught our challenges in her innovation courses in the past. This time around, she and her co-instructor Sirietta Simoncini introduced our Creative Confidence Challenge to a class of MBAs at Cornell University. Here's what they shared with us – or, in their own words, "how we came to embrace the mullet."
My co-instructor and I just completed an innovation workshop organized by the Leadership Programs office at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, where we led MBA students through the current OpenIDEO Creative Confidence Challenge. I suspect that we might have first been drawn to the challenge for personal reasons. When IDEO founder David Kelley gave a 2012 TED talk and shared the story of a little boy who was told that the art he was making was terrible, well… it hit a nerve with us. Haven’t we all at sometime had something taken away from us? Like when we discovered that we aren’t going to be a professional ballerina, or that maybe we aren’t cut out for a career in geology because, well, there always seems to be someone who lets us know that we just aren’t good enough. But really we chose to offer the Creative Confidence Challenge because each semester in our Innovation class, as well as in workshops, we are constantly approached by students who feel compelled to come to us and say, “I’m just not creative.” And sometimes they continue to remind us of this throughout the semester with the hope, we suspect, that maybe we’ll take their “lack of creativity” into consideration at grading time.
While the current OpenIDEO challenge asks us to look at what we can do for young people, we took a few liberties and decided to ask what could be done to help graduate students gain creative confidence. They are, after all, young; and since we have them for a few years before we send them out into the world, we used this opportunity to brainstorm on ideas for helping to instill within them the courage associated with taking creative risks.
We started by sending out teams of MBA students to interview the campus population on the topic of creative confidence using the Interview Toolkit that OpenIDEO provides. Students came back with both inspirational and heartbreaking stories. One that sticks in our memory is from an undergraduate interviewee who said that she painted every day but then kept those paintings in a closet so that no one would discover her secret passion.
Before brainstorming solutions, we asked students to think about how they might redesign a college that was not only committed to making sure students graduated with an academic degree, but also with the confidence to take creative action. We asked, “What would that look like?” Our students developed concepts that taught us – the professors – much about what elements could be added to college life that would instill courage. Here are just a few of the amazing ideas that were prototyped, performed, and tested to passersby right in the middle of campus:
A LOVE Business Incubator
This start-up space does so much more than simply help you with your business idea. It nourishes the soul! A student symbolically threw hearts at participants as they entered this prototyped “incubator” and inside they were greeted with a caring staff that treated them with respect, positivity, and lots of love. And of course there were professionals on hand to mentor, but they did this with a “yes and…” approach. In other words, this is a safe space for creativity.
The Worst Business-Pitch Class
In this class people were asked to develop the absolute worst business idea that they could think of, and then pitch it to their peers. The demo consisted of a student presenting her “terrible” idea to turn the plethora of unread business cases into useful rolls of toilet paper. The “professor” in the skit promptly gave her a grade of a F-, but then quickly turned around that grade as he reminded her that in this class, that is the equivalent of an A+. A similar concept was developed by another team, which went so far to conceive a “successful failure award” (see picture of the “art major” student proudly showing her certificate).
This idea was so exciting to the team and to their professors that I don’t wish to give too much away as it will be posted to the Ideas phase later; suffice it to say, the mullet – a crazy 80s hairstyle – serves as both metaphor and joke as students in this class learn about the concept of “business in the front, party in the back.” They will learn how to represent themselves professionally in such a way that both sides of their personality will be revealed.
So how did we – the class professors – become the students? Because our “teachers” gave some insightful lessons that we hadn’t considered as educators. For example, one notion is to consider not just celebrating failure, but insisting on it! When asked to fail, something magical happens – students design without fear. Another element is the importance of humor. For whatever reason, mullets are just plain funny. And sometimes funny is just what it takes to help you stick your neck out in an often judgmental and scary world. And last but not least, we were reminded that love, kindness, and respect can be powerful motivators in instilling creative confidence.
A final prediction: the mullet just might make a comeback. At least in our class!
We hope that you and your students have as much fun as we did with this awesome challenge!
Tracy Brandenburg and Sirietta Simoncini
Systems Engineering, Cornell University