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Archive for the ‘Henley MBA’ Category

Road to Singapore poster

Along with some colleagues from Henley Business School in the UK, I’ve been in Malaysia – just across the water from the island of Singapore – for five days now. The picture above shows us greeting the new Executive MBA students here on the University of Reading’s Malaysia campus. OK, no it doesn’t.

Coming to the end of my first visit to this region, I just wanted to share some photos of the facility here, which is pretty stunning. We’re close to the rapidly growing Malaysian city of Johor, in a district called Iskandar. The campus location is called “Educity” and is a purpose-built collection of buildings and grounds dedicated to various universities. Reading is joined by the universities of Newcastle and Southampton, as well as various Malaysian schools. The territory around Educity is a building zone, with many apartment blocks, and luxury estates going up. “Watch this space” is the sub-text. It’s also a pretty amazing building, with plenty of space and lots of designed-in facilities for study. Eventually it is hoped that 3,000 students will be studying here, with Henley Business School leading the way…

Below is a short gallery showing the huge Learning Resource Centre, the atrium, coffee shop, MBA group and various other aspects.

 

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Henley winter Jan 2016 1

The photo is Henley in winter, but I’m now down here in Johannesburg for a couple of PD workshops. It’s a pleasure to visit somewhere in the middle of its summer when you’ve escaped somewhere else in the middle of its winter. I missed the local heatwave experienced by Henley South Africa before this trip, and I find the big Jo’burg sky mainly warm – invaded from time to time by giant, warm storm clouds which bring downpours that drench the city. A welcome change to the drought conditions of last year.

Time for a short catch-up, in no order and with no order, here are some recent thoughts:

  • Art             I was recently listening to a programme on Radio 4 in which Phil Jupitus (a well-known comedian and TV personality in the UK), who was revisiting various texts and books that have influenced him during his life. One of the recordings featured (an honorary degree acceptance speech by artist Richard Demarco)  included this line:

“Using the art, the language of your art, each one of you, you can make society… well. You can make the life of every single individual you meet, better. you can give us hope in the future.”

  • “Make society well.”      Demarco was addressing artists, but there is no reason why this sentiment does not apply to management and managers. Very few organisations are concerned first and foremost with this question of societal wellness, except obliquely and usually disastrously in terms of material growth.
  •  Speaking of artists and their art, Bowie has left the building         One of the world’s truly influential creators has died. It turns out, based on reading even a localised view on social media, that everyone has their relationship with the music of Bowie over the years and in what is being presented as a series of reinventions of persona. I admire him because I don’t think these were contrived re-inventions but just new inventions. He used the world around him, behind him, ahead of him, to invent – which is what artists do. We will also be discovering new sides and aspect and meanings in his work for many years to come, which is another sign of a great artist.
  • Are you being served?                   When I come to Johannesburg I usually stay in a decent business hotel in a place called Rosebank. One reason I like it is because it’s just a two-block walk (Jo’burg is not set up for the visitor to explore on foot) from the hotel to a large shopping and eating area, resplendent with several shopping malls, food courts and outdoor cafes and restaurant zones. I happened to have some time so I walked around the large, modern mall and wandered into a pharmacy (drug store, actually) like Boots called Dis-chem. A large, well laid-out shop with many aisles and some pretty interesting products on sale (crutches?). I bought some travel ear-plugs for the air journey home (cost, 24.95 rand, about £1) and took it to the check-out. This is where is gets surreal. The store, not busy with customers, had one of those low corridors that lead to (tempting products on racks all the way along) down to a series of check-out cashiers in a line. A long corridor, and a long line of cashier positions. 24 in fact. But the odd this was that there was no queue, but there were 12 people sitting, waiting to take the non-existent queue.  12 staff doing nothing (except chatting to each other). Cashier numbers 1 or 2 must be the only ones ever to see any action, but whoever is down at position 10, 11 or 12 must have NOTHING to do all day…! What’s more, there was also a supervisor. Supervising the 11 people not having to deal with the customer. What’s even more, the unsmiling assistant to rang up my purchase looked angrily at my 100 rand note. “Haven’t you got something smaller?” “No, sorry.”  Pause. Calls to the supervisor. Some serious talk. Supervisor asks the other 11, in general. Glum looks. One person, reluctantly, offers to break my incredibly large note (it’s about £4). I look around the store to see whether these people couldn’t be gainfully employed elsewhere in the store. But no, almost every aisle has another staff member packing, stacking or walking around. I estimate about 22 staff visible in the store, and about 6 customers.

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Last Friday was MBA graduation day at Henley; the best day of the whole programme for every particpant.  These days it’s also become one of the best days of my Henley year, too, as I now recognise so many of the names and faces of those at the ceremony (my early years at Henley were spent seeing a previous generation get to the end). Plus, there was the bonus of meeting, even if only briefly, their family and friends.

This year’s event even had perfect English autumn sunshine to add to the procession of gowns and mortar boards (gloriously and hat-hazardly thrown in the air afterwards). As in previous years, Frempong Acheampong won the best-dressed academic competition and the Dean deserves praise for having done some sincere and detailed homework on the pronunciation of graduand names. No small feat, given their geographic diversity. 

It was generous of those who, on the day, also took the effort and trouble to come and say hello, and affirm that the Personal Development elements of the programme had made such a difference to what they were getting out of the degree. 🙂

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the unpunctuated flow of events

How well do you know your own mind as you apply it to the world around you? You might think that would be pretty easy to answer. Knowing what a mindset is, however, is one of those things that you know if no-one asks you, but will struggle to define if you are asked to explain it.

Last week I was lucky enough to be able to close a day-long meeting organised by the Henley Forum (… for Organisational Learning and Knowledge Strategies, to give it its full name). The audience of about 60 was diverse and practical, drawn from member organisations. The theme of the whole day was “Changing mindsets and behaviours” and my segment was the last hour. I had the title “So why would anyone want to change their mindset?”

Good question, but I realised that I wasn’t going to get far in answering it without knowing what a mindset is. Not just ‘my’ mindset, but ‘a’ mindset.

Let’s start with a dictionary definition:

“Mindset, (n)… the ideas and attitudes with which a person approaches a situation, especially when these are seen as being difficult to alter.”

– Collins English dictionary online

This says first that a mindset is personal, and knowingly or unknowingly it affects how you see, notice and react to the events in the world around you. But notice, too, the tantalising confusion in this definition. Is it your ideas and attitudes that are difficult to alter, or the situation you bring these to? Were it the situation that doesn’t easily budge, a change in your approach would indeed be called for. As such, a change in mindset would be no more than a change in tactics, amounting to pragmatism.

Yet I doubt this is what is meant. I suspect they are saying that it is our ideas and attitudes that are immobile. And that the main reason this is so is because we invest a huge amount of our own individual identity in our outlook. A shift in mindset ought to be a big deal, not tailoring.

In the Henley Forum session I wanted to explore this territory. I started by wondering, aloud, whether there aren’t actually three orientations to the whole question of mindset:

1. Your mindset is a question of perception, interpretation and intent.

I think this covers just about everything people write and read on this topic, and is the closest to the dictionary definition above. In fact, it’s a common sense description of how we characterise and categorise. A modern and very popular case in point is Carol Dweck’s ‘fixed’ versus ‘growth’ mindset (the idea being that these are the choices – either you believe your worldview is the result of fixed traits (perhaps ones you are born with, or ones that don’t change because you believe they don’t), or you think that things can and do change through hard work and belief (faith?). Compare this with the famous  saying attributed somewhat erroneously attributed to Henry Ford in 1947 –  “Whether you think you can, or whether you think you can’t… you’re probably right.” Actually, this sentiment or a variation of it has been in circulation since Virgil’s the Aenid (or even tucked away in Plato’s cave), and has been a resource for poets, scholars and politicians ever since.

So your mindset is part of you and how you meet the world, and you can choose to slice this in any way you please – that part of it is arbitrary. But does this help? Does getting only into detail of the gubbins in your mindset mean much unless you know what sort of a world enables you to have a mindset in the first place?

2. A mindset is possible through aspects of the world that are not dependent (only) on an individual’s perception. A mindset requires time, biology and a system that can form meaning (i.e. a coherent definition of mind). Without the combination of these three elements there would simply be no possibility for a mindset to mean anything. If there can be no differentiation between worldview at point A to worldview at point B, then there is no system of learning. This is a pre-requisite to the imposition of choices as to typology of mindset (the stuff of popular psychology).

As Gregory Bateson (1973) wrote, “The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think”. The wrong mindset could be toxic.

3. Therefore, mindset change must be a matter of a broader and more abstract awareness of the factors that give mindset stability. This third orientation is what draws the first two together. What might such an awareness be of? With awareness at both of the levels mentioned above, and with some input here from Siegel (2007), I think we might find the following useful:

a. Non-reaction to inner thoughts. Entering the world of your thoughts is one thing – standing back and observing one’s own internal language as if hearing them as another person might is another matter

b. Acuity of our observation of sensations available to us, plus the absence of pre-judgement of that experience

c. Aware action, preferably spontaneous action (by spontaneous I mean the paradox of managing to surprise even yourself, as the master archer who releases the arrow without saying ‘now’)

d. Our own eloquence and literacy in both 1 and 2 above.  This is one of the functions, I believe, of personal development and the reason I think it important that it is the job of education to be rigorous and precise rather than clear and simple.

My own starting point for this is a presupposition: that the world/universe/life etc. is going on all around (and consciousness that this is so) of its own accord and in and of itself it contains no punctuation. For humans, this presents a problem – we cannot make sense this way, so we punctuate this flow. More about this in a future post…

References:

Bateson, G., (1972) Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Chicago University Press

Siegel, D., (2007), The Mindful Brain in Human Development: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-being (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology, Norton

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A leader at work? I photographed this dung beetle working hard at recycling on an earlier trip to South Africa

A leader at work? I photographed this dung beetle working hard at recycling on an earlier trip to South Africa

Well, I’ve just returned from delivering two, three-day MBA Starter Workshops in Johannesburg, alongside a couple of Henley colleagues. Exhausting, but also what fun! I am – as always – amazed at the diversity of the group, and the range of reasons for being at Henley. Many have stories of adversity early in life, or in recent generations, and this is even more of a tribute to their belief in themselves and their determination to learn and grow. And the spirit to make a better country and continent.

The Starter workshop kind of divides in four areas, or themes. There is the “getting-to-know-you” element, and the faster this is done, the easier it is to get the intake to tune into how that diversity will be the key to the other three. Second comes the topic of Personal Development – discussed in one way or another elsewhere in this blog. There is always too much to say, too little time to say it and too few opportunities to check what impressions are, but we will return to the topic of awareness and reflection in later PD workshops with both the new Intakes, so I hope to follow this thread with them. Third comes the input on study skills and all the know-how needed actually to complete an MBA. The vehicle, or excuse, for talking about those things is (broadly) the topic of Leadership.  It’s not too much of a stretch to see how a discussion of the models, concepts and theories of leadership make for engaging interaction at the start of an MBA, but I’m keenly aware that I shy away from using the L-word in the Personal Development part of the Starter.

So, do I know what leadership is? Not really. I have an opinion, which is summed up most eloquently for me in the words of Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching:

“The great Tao flows everywhere, both to the left and to the right. It loves and nourishes all things, but does not lord it over them. And when good things are accomplished, it lays no claim to them.”

Leadership, if it is anything at all, arises from followership (and vice versa), and ought to be a spontaneous act. Hubris is not real leadership, though nearly all those we hold up as examples will find that this is what the stage they are standing on is constructed of.

(By the way, “Anganomkhankanyo” is Zulu for “I have no idea!”)

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William Blake: Illustrations to Milton's "Paradise Lost"

William Blake: Illustrations to Milton’s “Paradise Lost”

“Harmless”.

This was the original entry for planet Earth in Douglas Adams’ the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which was later expanded by the book’s sub-editors in a subsequent edition to… “Mostly harmless”.

It’s great to revise a definition, and a nice way to begin a meandering blog entry.

Every now and again I like to try to rekindle my thoughts regarding the aim of education. I have rather got into the habit of saying only that ‘the aim of education is emancipation’. I’m not sure this is enough. After all, emancipation implies someone else (or someone else’s ideas) from which one has been given freedom. Though I know in many parts of the world that is a real issue, this wasn’t quite what I meant. I had in mind an internally generated aim, not a “release by” but a “release in”, achieved without external reference to anyone (or any thing) else.

So far, the best I’ve managed to come up with is: ‘the aim of education is freedom from comparison’.

This expresses more what I want for the Henley MBAs; that they should make informed choices not restrained by alignment to the notions defined by past experience or by prediction of future event alone (or, perhaps, at all). For personal development, the aim is freedom from validation, and from uncritical judgement of the opinion of others. It is an act of becoming completely at ease and at one with the world as it actually is. In its unspoken assumption of control over the world, our current pedagogy is very poor at this. For me, “freedom from comparison” is significant because it demands that you know under what system of restraints (i.e. being governed by what you cannot do) your awareness level is being limited. Awareness, actually, is the word I’m looking for.

In fact, I think “awareness” could stand as the real aim of education. Awareness subsumes comparison.

How do you get to awareness? (Easy when you know how, huh?) I think awareness is, in some way, being in tune with all forms of living system that demonstrate mental process in their function (Bateson, 1979), but explaining it is not easy with our current mental maps. The greatest barrier to awareness in education is whether or not we are aware of what a context is. Without context, education has no meaning, but meaning is not a thing, it is a pattern (i.e. it has no physical properties or dimensions, so is not to be quantified, objectified or reified in the manner that modern science has envisaged). Meaning carries weight (metaphorically) when it contains coded forms of information of what we can exclude (not what we must include) as alternative possibilities in each case. A red stop-light “tells us” nothing in and of itself. Its meaning is a very complex systemic property of interconnected levels of information (knowledge and structure of the legal system, social conventions on behaviours that align with the legal system, regulated processes of driver instruction and licensing, moral imperatives on behaviours that do not endanger others, etc.). The more such information it carries, the higher the probability of it not occurring just by chance.

All the possible restraints exist for us in nested levels of categories that each contain redundancies (i.e. information of the whole from a part) that mean we can navigate this complex social world without needing to exhaust ourselves with mental processing of every alternative. Systems of restraints are what keep dynamic systems stable over time. Including ‘you’ (as a circuit).  Your breathing, for example, works in a comparable way because your ability (for short periods only) to make this process a conscious one is merely an illustration of this whole nesting principle.

Managers carry with them maps of how their organisations work, and these maps contain many taken-for-granteds. We don’t understand this ‘gut feeling’ very well, but it is redundancy that allows educated guesswork on the part of the manager. Redundancy gives that person a better than random chance of ‘filling in the gaps’. The freedom inherent in management education is observed in how leaders conduct themselves and their work, and I think uncovering how these systems of restraints are universal could free their thinking and learning potential. To do this, education must seek news of difference (i.e. where are the limits?). The internal territory contains homogeneity or redundancy of information and there is nothing to be learned here. The individual is involved in the task of locating the boundaries where mistakes may be made in order to learn.

Reference

Bateson, G (1979), Mind and Nature: a necessary unity, E P Dutton

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Ken-Bull

It is with great sadness that we learnt this week of the death of the wonderful Ken Bull, known to many on the Henley Flexible MBA from his comprehensive and supportive marker feedback in the PD assignments. Ken was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer last year, and died peacefully on February 6th with family around him in Brighton.

Ken was an incredible person – full of optimism, warmth and humour. He had a long association with Henley as a tutor and worked both as an internal and external member of staff. He was latterly also a personal tutor on the Executive MBA also.  His funeral will be on Friday February 20th.

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IMAG0513

Personal Development workshops on the MBA run throughout the year, and across several locations, but they also tend to cluster; the same title seems to run several times in close succession. We have seasons of Starter Workshops, and one has just finished.  Now it’s all about the second in a sequence of four workshops – Development Plans. I’ve been thinking about values in the past couple of weeks, as this is one of the subjects featured in this workshop.

Trying to move my own thinking on, I’ve been reflecting on how to say something new about this.  When I joined Henley, I think (like most Business Schools) discussion of values was restricted and narrow. The view – albeit the dominant one in management education – defined values as enduring beliefs rooted in reason and represented in lists of nouns. This is, in fact, now the discourse used by corporations as well as individuals, and is what most of us think when we think about what our own values are.

I wanted, when I took over, to expand on this so I first tried to provide an alternative interpretation of values by proposing that you could equally regard them as pre-linguistic and not arrived at through reason (just “there”, which really puts the cat among the pigeons when you realise that on an MBA doing anything without resorting to words is difficult). By asserting that our values are somehow pre-existing, and collectively generated ideas rather than just concepts, it becomes possible to see the limits of a strictly linguistic basis. More recently I’ve been trying to take that one step further.

What are the base assumptions behind our working definition of values?

When asked, most post-experience MBA students will volunteer phrases such as “personal beliefs”, “guides to ethical behaviour”, “collective goals”, “codes of conduct to guide decisions and choices”, and “statements of fundamental purpose”, to describe what they mean. Values are seen as expressions of drive, as motivation and as a sort of enabler of choice (or limiter to choice) – rather like a set of rules. But people are often confused as to whether values are ‘things’ inside individuals, or ‘things’ owned in groups and societies. It feels like both, a bit. Discussion sometimes stretches to whether values change (either for individuals, or in societies) over time.

But my wonder is whether we need to step back and look at the assumptions behind these impressions and beliefs about values. For example, have we always interpreted values in the same way or this is a recent phenomenon? Can our definition of history help explain why we tend to invoke values in the way we do (that is, purposeful, definable, rational and concrete)?

Here are a few assumptions that I think our culture makes:

1. Human society is essentially moving in a direction of ever-increasing sophistication and refinement. Change is directional, and there are desirable ends to which we, as a species, are moving. This view seems to underpin not just the theistic religions of the west but the trajectory of science as well. Business, by extension, is purposeful in its own purpose (i.e. we are in our nature drawn to grow and evolve toward something).

2. Human societies are organised in such a way that purpose is growth. Expansion is progress. More.

3. Such growth, development or purposeful activity is a consequence of the examination with (a comparison of) the past. The past is considered real, reconstructed as history.  Events constitute more than a chronicle, they are concrete in time. Further, they are as concrete in the future as they are in the past. Events exhibit trends.

4. Therefore, our societal goals and the values that explain them are purposeful, time-bound and linear. Our goals are growth oriented and are powered by the scientific understanding of resource usage.

5. Values are seen as being made of the same ‘stuff’ as other forms of knowledge.

What would be an alternative view, one that could help us surface these assumptions and thereby clarify our thinking? It could, presumably, include the following elements (that emerge under the tutelage of my favourite philosopher Alan Watts):

1. Human society is seen as what it is in the present, not the future or the past. There is no temporal progression toward a more complete or sophisticated future.

2. Events are recorded, but as chronicles, not stories. Other than a sort of cyclical and poetic meaning, this narrative has no particular pattern of meaning.

3. Societies are aimed at maintaining a balance with or in nature, not a conquest of it, as the key to sustainable community.

4. Societal goals that are valued are those that celebrate this relational world and our relationship with it.

These are just some thoughts. They do need further development, but I wanted to get them down.

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birds

I’m taking a few days, belatedly, in catching up on missing work. One of the things I’ve been putting off is the up-dating and house-keeping necessary for the course materials we use in our MBA Starter workshops.

This three-day event is divided between the PD stuff – which I tend to improvise on as I go – and seven Study Skills sessions. These sessions have been authored, co-authored, delivered and developed by many experienced hands over the last year or two, so we need to learn from the repeated delivery. As luck would have it, I’m the Module Convenor, so it’s my job to tidy things up while still giving colleagues the freedom to deliver the aims of the sessions in their own voice.

I’ve noticed that when you revisit some details they can reveal connections to you that are somehow overlooked the first time round. One such example is the relationship between “concept” (or construct), “framework”, “model” and “theory”. These form an important part of the language of study and assessment at master’s level, so we have always had a session to introduce them.

It occurs to me that there is a sequence in the four:

  • Concept                     Individual items that represent abstract ideas, or mental objects. Our ability to conceptualise is almost limitless. Concepts are sometimes seen as the building blocks of theory.  Concepts are driven by our epistemology (way of knowing).

 

  • Framework             The arrangement of concepts in a taxonomy or typology (i.e. a classification of parts) where the order does not affect the nature of the taxonomy (PESTLE is a good example). Frameworks have a fairly loose relationship with theory but can be very effective in narrowing down the mass of data and possibilities to manageable chunks. Frameworks are driven by the same epistemology as concepts (after all, a framework is also a concept), but are always at one level of abstraction away from the concepts they contain.

 

  • Model                        The arrangement of concepts where the order or position does make a difference. Models can show cause and effect, as well as before and after, relationships. The aim of a model is to achieve accurate description of those relationships. Models may be generated by theory, or may be a step on the road (a guess, in other words) to the establishment of theory. MBAs are attracted to models in order to apply other people’s thinking to a given problem in hand (short cuts). Models are driven by expediency.

 

  • Theory                       The aim of theory is to explain. Theory tries to map data to underlying tautology in such a way that the steps between them could not be in doubt. Most work in science is the search by various means of inference of more complete theory. A better theory is one that explains more than its predecessor. MBAs are not attracted to theory usually until it’s too late! Theory is driven by curiosity.

 

 

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For various reasons, one of which is a hole in a PD workshop that I’m currently trying to fill, I’ve been puzzling for a few weeks over the difference between creativity and innovation, and whether in fact there is one, and whether that matters.

I have come to the conclusion that there is and it does, at least as far as management practice is concerned.

Despite our modern management mantra of the only constant being change, what actually happens in most organisations is that despite things changing from time to time, on the whole they rather tend to remain unchanged. Radical change is the exception, not the rule. When there is radical change, in healthy environments its function is help to reach an agreed-upon new period of not-change.  It follows from this that periods of stability are necessary for change to mean anything. And vice versa, of course.

Change created internally just for the sake of stirring things up a bit is never a very satisfying experience and leaders who propose this are never very effective leaders. People, even if they don’t see through the leader-babble, will generally be more content in a status quo than in a time of renewal or upheaval (which is not quite the same as a period of growth). So senior management, leaders, must take responsibility for  the results of proliferating a cult of change and the stress it brings to employees and customers etc.

That said, every organisation does need to respond appropriately to what is happening in its internal and external environment. To do this, it must adapt or at least react to changes in either context. This is a slightly different view of managing change because it suggests that trying to do things differently  (or do new things) is necessary at one level in order to retain equilibrium at another.

Let’s stick with that second, healthy sort of change. Managers sometimes talk about “innovation” and “creativity” in the same breath, as if they were the same thing. At first glance there doesn’t seem to be much difference between them. Both terms refer to something new, some different result, and something other than what exists now. On closer inspection, I’d now like to suggest a few differences, however.

Innovation

Innovation is, by definition, purposive. That is, innovation is judged to be innovation by an observer.  Innovation starts with a reason and proceeds to a plan. What counts as innovation may not be a matter of creativity at all. More like an answer to a question set by and within the boundaries of the organisational system. A fairly well-controlled experiment, in fact.  Innovation is all about the product, and the relationship between the new thing and what exists now.

Innovation is undoubtedly very important, but will ultimately be counter-productive if what it generates is more rigid than what it replaces. And downright dangerous in the hands of someone who innovates for the sake of innovation.

Creativity

Creativity is not really purposive, but you can make the argument that it is purposeful. Purposeful means that it is deliberate but is  concerned (during the process) only with what is happening in the process, not with what it is for (the product). Creativity is chaotic, disruptive and unpredictable. It needs some element of the random invited in, otherwise it is not creative. Creativity doesn’t care too much where it is going while it is going there. It can’t, because caring about the end result would be a kind of mediation that would, by default, negate what was creative about the process in the first place.

Creativity is an attitude. The attitude required is that of complete acceptance of whatever happens, and bringing that into the mix to play with it. Creativity might be fun (but not necessarily so – the creative process is a very painful one for many), but must be playful. Innovation can be fun, but is not playful (too much is at stake to be that carefree).

Above all, creativity requires the accepting thinking of “yes, and…”, and not the diversionary thinking of “yes, but…”.

These are just some initial thoughts. The relevance to the Personal Development agenda is a little clearer, though I still haven’t worked out how to unleash creativity in the classroom on the MBA.

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