Can MBA Students Learn to be Creative

Can MBA students learn to be creative during their MBA program? More importantly, if they do learn to be creative during this time, will they be creative throughout their careers? On the other hand, is creativity something that MBA students can cultivate through rigorous training during their graduate programs and continue developing by deliberately practicing certain core abilities and skills over an extended period? The simple answer is yes. However, research suggests that increasing one’s creativity requires rigorous training and practice. If this is the case, then many, if not most MBA students, will find the answer is no because their MBA program’s design seldom provides the appropriate course content  and practice time necessary for developing lifelong creativity.

In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, Steven J. Tepper and George D. Kuh argue that current approaches to creativity development will not work. They begin from the point of view that today’s creativity gurus believe unleashing creative capacity only requires the establishment of “informal workspaces, nonhierarchical organizations, flexible jobs, opportunities for cross-fertilization, and diverse and hip urban spaces.” In other words, the current belief is that if these conditions are present, they will “encourage lateral thinking, brainstorming, and risk taking, all of which set the stage for innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Not true, Tepper and Kuh say, “Existing research suggests otherwise. Creativity is not a mysterious quality, nor can one simply try on one of [Dr.] Edward de Bono’s six thinking hats to start the creative juices flowing. Rather, creativity is cultivated through rigorous training and by deliberately practicing certain core abilities and skills over an extended period of time.”

The core abilities and skills they identify include:

  1. The ability to approach problems in non-routine ways, using analogy and metaphor.
  2. Conditional or abductive reasoning (posing “what if” propositions and reframing problems).
  3. Keen observation and the ability to see new and unexpected patterns.
  4. The ability to risk failure by taking initiative in the face of ambiguity and uncertainty.
  5. The ability to heed critical feedback to revise and improve an idea.
  6. A capacity to bring people, power and resources together to implement novel ideas.
  7. The expressive agility required to draw on multiple means (visual, oral, written, and media-related) to communicate novel ideas to others.

Therefore, the implication is that individuals who demonstrate mastery of these core abilities and skills are likely to be more creative than individuals who do not.

What does all of this mean for MBA students? For a majority of MBA students, it means they have to assume responsibility for rigorous training and maintenance of the core abilities and skills they need to be creative. I say this because most MBA programs do not provide what Tepper and Kuh describe as the rigorous training that develops the core abilities and skills that stimulate creativity. Furthermore, MBA graduates will need to assume responsibility for the deliberate practice of these core abilities and skills or else they will see them degrade, resulting in a loss of creativity in the workplace. Unfortunately, MBA programs teach models which students blindly apply, often without considering the core abilities and skills referenced above. Following this trend may reduce creativity, rather than developing it.

Do you agree that creativity is cultivated through rigorous training and by deliberately practicing certain core abilities and skills over an extended period? If not, how should MBA students learn to become creative? Please add your comments in the section below.


Rodney G. Alsup, D.B.A., CPA, CITP
Professor of Accounting
Founder of

[Image by FreeDigitalPhotos.Net member Sujin Jetkasettakorn /In accordance with terms of use]

3 comments for “Can MBA Students Learn to be Creative

  1. Claire Gumus
    September 30, 2011 at 8:05 pm

    Hi Rodney,

    Thanks for this wonderful blog post. I work for the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto. At the Rotman School, we are trying to do exactly what you described above. Our MBA curriculum is based on Integrative Thinking. We teach our students the thought process, not necessarily what is trendy out there. We encourage them to maintain an open mind to challenge eachother and more importantly themself. We teach them to be independent thinkers, not to rely on existing models but to use them to learn from them. While solving problems, our students stay away from silos. In a way, they act like the integrators to find the optimum solution to the problem. They look at past examples and use them as a reference to build their own because we believe every business problem is unique. We look at problems as a whole not as finance problem, operations problem because if there is a flaw in the business model, all functions are impacted. Our school of Business Design is the practice of Integrative Thinking. Business Design aims to create a business model that meets the needs of people; the human factor is very important. It is quite abstract, I encourage you to check our website;, you will see our Dean Roger Martin has very good publications on business design, creativity and innovation. On my admissions blog, I also have some posts on Integrative Thinking and what makes the Rotman MBA different from other programs. Thanks again for this thought provoking blog post.

    • October 4, 2011 at 7:26 am

      Thank you for your kind words and especially for sharing what the Rotman School of Management is doing to cultivate creativity in MBA students. Programs like Rotman’s and the Stanford Design School provide good examples of what Tepper and Kuh are suggesting as more effective alternatives to the current approaches to creativity development in MBA programs. Disruptive as it may be, MBA programs need major curricular revisions if they want to graduate creative and innovative leaders. A special lecture or two or a class on creativity will not achieve anything close to what Rotman and Stanford are accomplishing with their MBA students. Not all MBA programs are placing as much emphasis on creativity as Rotman and Stanford. Therefore, graduates of other MBA programs must assume responsibility for their own development in the area of creativity if they want to be competitive in their chosen career.

      Thank you,

  2. October 18, 2011 at 9:22 am

    More support that it is possible for MBA students to learn how to be innovative and creative. From yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, “The best way to unleash creativity, Mr. Kelley says, is to give students an “experience,” or in speak, a design challenge. Under his teaching model, however, students aren’t just handed a problem to solve—they must define the problem themselves through research and direct observation.

    One group of students, for example, was tasked with designing an incubator for the developing world, where infant mortality is high and expensive incubators are scarce. But when the students were dispatched to Nepal to spend time with mothers and doctors, they found that most births take place in rural areas far from hospitals, so flooding hospitals with cheaper incubators would be of no use to most premature and low-birth-weight babies.”

    Read more:

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