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Ajay Agrawal, the Peter Munk professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. (Matthew Sherwood for The Globe and Mail)
Ajay Agrawal, the Peter Munk professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. (Matthew Sherwood for The Globe and Mail)

Business Education

Can creativity be taught? B-schools join the debate Add to ...

Not every student who shows up for an undergraduate business degree or an MBA wants to be the next Mark Zuckerberg. But a whole lot of them do.

That’s why business schools are increasingly offering courses and programs that teach innovation – both in an entrepreneurial context and as an approach to business in general.

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They do so in the face of an ongoing debate over whether you can teach people to be outliers in business at all.

“It boils down to a nature-versus-nurture debate,” says Ajay Agrawal, the Peter Munk professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “We take the view that whether or not there is a nature component, there are a set of tools that can make one more effective.”

In many ways, the teachability factor is a debate that business schools feel targets them unfairly.

“If you believe music can be taught, sports can be taught, then the same logic applies to business schools and innovation,” says Ian McCarthy, professor and Canadian Research Chair in technology and operations management at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business.

Debate aside, schools are putting innovation, and innovation through entrepreneurship, on course calendars. As consumers demand constant upgrades and fresh ideas in everything from technology to how companies deliver services, and large organizations are under constant pressure to come up with better ways to do things at every level, innovation is truly in demand.

At some schools, teaching innovation is not just about the curriculum but the attitude.

Barry Cross, professor in operations management at Queen’s School of Business, says his school works hard to make innovation a part of everyday school life.

“We focus on the culture of creativity,” he says.

There’s a lot of group work and a deliberate climate of welcoming new ideas and a playful mindset. “We give them permission to goof around,” Prof. Cross says.

Business schools excel at presenting what’s been written about new ideas. “There’s now a number of best practices in innovation and entrepreneurship,” says Dr. Agrawal.

The writings of successful business people and academics has formed an emerging body of work that suits traditional style teaching.

Theory and case studies provide material for lectures and discussions on where Eastman Kodak went wrong, for instance, as well as personality traits of entrepreneurs, how to make business decisions in the face of uncertainty and tests for the probable success of a startup.

Dr. McCarthy talks to students about how big inventions such as the transistor radio and the car broke the rules.

The new guideline when it comes to creating a so-called disruptive technology: Don’t listen to your customers.

“Henry Ford is often quoted as saying: ‘If I asked my customers what they wanted in the early 1900s, they would have said a faster, more reliable horse.’ ”

Meanwhile, business schools set their theories in context. Companies that devote all their time to innovating tend to become inefficient, while those who strike a balance between newness and getting things done tend to excel. “Innovation in and of itself is not the goal,” Dr. Agrawal says.

Beyond lectures, innovation-centric business schools are increasingly getting students to become hands-on.

At Beedie, one professor gives students $10 each and sees, a few weeks later, who has made the most money or delivered the most value with that tiny investment.

Dr. McCarthy devotes a class to making paper airplanes with shoddy instructions to demonstrate how bad management leads to time wasting – which takes resources away from new ideas.

At Rotman, real-world partnership, such as one with the Royal Canadian Mint, has MBA students working on actual issues and coming up with new ideas.

But schools still struggle with ensuring that classroom work – both theoretical and hands-on – will truly endure the market.

“The classroom provides a safe place to think and speak, but actually doing it and experiencing success and failure, that’s where business school is trying to fit itself in,” Dr. McCarthy says.

To that end, many Canadian schools have launched incubators that offer free office space and mentorship to students from both the business schools and other departments.

The models vary: Rotman’s new incubator, Creative Destruction Lab, asks ventures to leave after six weeks if they don’t measure up – the result is a kind of “elimination round” reality-TV approach.

Looking ahead, Dr. McCarthy and other professors would like to see incubators moved closer to the business school curriculum and offer credit in exchange for equity.

A move toward more experiential learning, and integrating it with the theoretical side of innovation, will mean that business schools will keep changing themselves to keep up. And keeping up with innovation in business and innovation in education are really not that different.

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