A Wharton professor encourages us to think ‘inside’ the box.
First, a definition.
“So my definition would be, in order for a certain idea to be creative, it must possess two major components. One, it has to be new, novel, something we haven’t seen before,” says Rom Schrift, a marketing professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
“But it also has to be useful. So, if it is just something new, but doesn’t offer any benefit, it is not necessarily a creative idea.”
This semester, nearly 300 students are learning how to crank out more creative ideas in Schrift’s class titled “Creativity: Idea Generation & the Systematic Approach for Creativity.” It’s part of a growing field that treats problem solving as an academic discipline, complete with competing theories for what approaches produce the best results.
A page from Dr. Seuss
During lectures, Schrift bounces around the classroom, white sleeves rolled, preaching the gospel of creative thought. But if you think his mantra is as simple as ‘think outside the box,’ it turns out it is the exact opposite.
“The problem with this phrase is that, in most situations, we don’t know what the box is,” says Schrift. “What is the box? If we cannot define the box, how can we think outside of the box?”
According to Schrift, the core of learning to be creative is recognizing what the box actually is. What are the components and structures that make up the problem you are trying to solve, and what tools or attributes are at your disposal? Knowing what these constraints are, he argues, makes it easier to produce creative solutions.
“Actually inside the box, there are a lot of opportunities, and most of the creative ideas, if anything, they come from inside the box.”
Schrift uses an example from none other than Dr. Seuss to make his point.
“Dr. Seuss and a friend had a discussion about the shortcomings of using books to teach first graders how to read. And so his friend gave him a bet,” he says.
The challenge was simple: there were 350 unique words that first graders were expected to understand, and Seuss was to write a book using just 225 of them, and nothing more. Those, says Schrift, are his constraints.
“He used these constraints, right? He could not use any words, but there was a specific bank of words, and he came up with The Cat in a Hat.
“His publishers saw this, they said, interesting…let’s have another bet, another challenge, and he challenged Dr. Seuss to write another book using only 50 words, and he wrote Green Eggs and Ham.”
“You could argue, sure, Dr. Seuss is an extremely creative individual, and I agree, but there is something about imposing these constraints that maybe helped him be more creative. And this is kind of the approach we are teaching.”
Creativity on demand
Schrift’s class isn’t exactly Wharton’s version of “Rocks for Jocks.” During the semester, students learn different methods for approaching creativity with head scratching titles such as “The Attribute Dependency Template” and the “Task Unification and Closure Principle.” There’s a hefty reading list, as well as a major group project where students take on a real-world problem in partnership with a major company.
“I think I’m definitely more creative than I was before because I just can just think about it in a different way,” says Nicole Granet, a senior majoring in management. “I don’t feel like I need to just close my eyes, listen to some relaxing music, maybe something will come to me. I feel like I’m much more in control of being able to produce these ideas that can really make a big change…sort of be ‘creative on demand.'”
Granet is starting a job in consulting after she graduates, where, ideally, she’ll help companies be more productive, and creativity ‘on demand’ will definitely be an asset.
Gerard Puccio hears from employers all the time about how much they value that type of skillset. Puccio directs Buffalo State’s International Center for Studies in Creativity, which, in the late 1960s, became the first school in the country to offer classes on the subject.
He says the discipline has evolved over the years as the challenges we face have become more complex.
“Life has become much more complicated, and as a result, we need to enhance the level of complexity of our own thinking, to be able to deal better with complex problems…problems that don’t have easy answers,” says Puccio.
He adds that many of these creative skills are actually innate, and perhaps just need a little coaxing.
“It is a human characteristic. It is the reason why we’ve survived through the millennia. It is because…our competitive advantage is creative thinking. We are not the fastest, we can’t fly, we don’t naturally camouflage ourselves, we can only exist in certain climates. So, the human species has evolved to be creative, and in fact, that’s what has helped us to sustain ourselves over time,” says Puccio.
Design it out
Some of us, of course, are still going to be more creative than others.
Example #1: David Ludwig.
He’s a celebrated classical composer and a member of the composition faculty at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, one of the nation’s top schools. He’s the type of guy who gets inspiration for melodies walking around the grocery store. But even with all of his innate ability, Ludwig is completely on board with the idea that creativity can be thought of as a skill to hone, and that understanding constraints and attributes is crucial to creating something new and useful.
“We start out very often with a commission,” he says, “and what I do is, I start making my own constraints. What is the piece about? What motivates it? Why is it meaningful? Then we go from there. We start with the biggest questions first, and go to the smallest.”
Ludwig says he often gets his students thinking about how best to approach creation of a new work by using a simple exercise.
“If I gave you an assignment and said draw a house…on a piece of paper. The first thing you would do, the first thing anyone has ever done when I’ve asked them to do that, is they start with the box and the roof. The frame. Always the frame. No one starts with the window and the TV in the living room in the background. No one starts with the little chimney with the smoke coming out of it.
“That is [an] unhindered, creative act. An unconscious creative act and we naturally put limitations on ourselves.”
Or, put another way, “We can’t order everything on the menu when we really create something. We have to really design it out.”
But what about just letting your mind wonder? Everyone can point to those random Eureka! moments, either in their work or personal life, when greatness strikes without any effort.
Professor Schrift says he does occasionally get pushback from people who argue the best ideas come when they aren’t pressing for one.
“If for some people, jumping on the trampoline and listening to strange music works? Keep doing that,” he says with a laugh. “But having said that, we offer another tool. We can’t always take a passive approach and wait for us to get this ‘aha moment’ in the shower.”