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From idea to innovation – Learning entrepreneurial creativity

by Prof. Dr. Christine K. Volkmann and Dr. Holger Berg
volkmann@wiwi.uni-wuppertal.de / berg@wiwi.uni-wuppertal.de

Rapid market developments conditioned by technological progress, changing product life cycles, and growing communication requirements are forcing players at all levels to think creatively with regard to both products and problem solving competencies. Entrepreneurs in particular, seeking to launch innovative products, face continuous new challenges. Hence creativity is beginning to play a central role in business training. However, there is a big gap in the field of economics between academic knowledge and practical know-how. To fill this gap, a UW team is working on creativity with researchers and experts in an EU project to develop research-based instruments and methods of entrepreneurial training that will enhance creative competencies. The present article gives a survey of this work-in-progress.

Coupled with demographic change in contemporary society, today’s fast moving, globally networked economies are putting a new and crucial focus on lifelong learning. This is also –and indeed especially – the case with entrepreneurial activity, which faces the continuous challenge of grasping and propagating new and innovative phenomena. The unpredictability of the problems and opportunities associated with innovation and change puts high demands on the problem-solving competency and creativity of business people. Against this background, the EU’s Lifelong Learning Program 'Sense of Initiative and Entrepreneurship’ acknowledges the need for educational support in this area.

Fig. 1: Participants in a creative learning event. Fig. 1: Participants in a creative learning event.Photo: Alistair Fee

Creativity is understood as the ability to develop a new product, idea, or solution that is of value either to the individual or to larger groups (Hennessey/Amabile 2010, 57). Value in this sense cannot be measured purely with an economic or monetary yardstick. It means something broader: applicability to specific problems, effectiveness in a particular context.

Creativity consists of two interconnected ways of thinking: the divergent and the convergent. While divergent thinking concerns the ability to abstract and freely develop new ideas, convergent thinking denotes above all the ability to evaluate the results of those divergent processes with regard to their applicability – in other words to structure and secure the steps leading to realization. It is important to see convergent thinking as an integral part of creativity, because without evaluation and its focus on practical implementation, creativity will have no solution, and hence no real conclusion.

Divergent and convergent thinking are not necessarily two separate or consecutive steps. They can accompany each other at every stage. This is especially true for the entrepreneur, whose activities must always be result-driven. And for future entrepreneurs, creativity and problem solving must, therefore, be an integral part of university and business school training. To meet these requirements, UW’s UNESCO Chair of Entrepreneurship and Intercultural Management and the university’s Institute of Entrepreneurship and Innovation Research have joined forces with other European partners, under the aegis of the EU’s Lifelong Learning Program, in a research project devoted to the development and validation of learning models and their transfer into concrete activities and curricula.

A particular challenge lies in the considerable gap between the scientific findings of creativity research and the techniques currently used in practice to develop creative solutions. A classic example of this discrepancy is brainstorming, a term that has become almost synonymous with creativity techniques in general. Recent research has shown that certain basic structures of conventional brainstorming, for example the development of ideas from the beginning in a team setting, along with the embargo on criticism during this process, are less than ideal. An alternative form of brainstorming in which team members initially develop creative ideas on their own before submitting them to group critique has been shown to yield more – and measurably more effective – results.

Fig. 2: Model of iterative creativity and innovation process. Fig. 2: Model of iterative creativity and innovation process.

The definition given above goes hand in hand with an understanding of creativity as a systemic phenomenon and of the creative process as an aggregate involving various interdependent levels of activity (see Suomala et al. 2006). The typical (idealized) process will begin with the perception of a problem of some kind that can only be solved creatively. A goal in the form of a projected solution will be implicitly or explicitly formulated, relevant information sought, and possible patterns leading to the solution scrutinized. A preliminary concept will gradually take shape, and this will be duly scrutinized for its effective contribution to solving the problem (Does it do so in whole or in part? How large a part? etc.), and its feasibility in light of available resources, time factors and so on. Finally the decision will be made to realize, reject or improve the concept.

In reality this is much more likely to be a repeated process than a single smooth flow. In fact, multiple repetition of the entire sequence is to be expected before a valid and feasible alternative is found. In the complex and largely unpredictable contexts of real life the innovation process tends to take the form of reiterated creative problem-solving activities (see Fig. 2) in which the entrepreneurial project is taken forward from solution to solution in the manner described above.

A systemic, interdisciplinary understanding of creativity that sees it as a phenomenon of interlinked and interdependent levels of activity makes a number of demands on effective entrepreneurial training that can be briefly illustrated here with reference to brain research, cognition, and the social environment.

Brain research has established that certain areas and activities in the brain are concerned with allowing and/or preventing creative thinking. From an evolutionary point of view the human brain is preconditioned to seek its goals in already familiar terrain rather than to explore the unfamiliar; so new, creative thought tends to be initially suppressed and only admitted in special circumstances. Any attempt to effectively boost creativity must take such findings into account. Some very simple exercises based on imagination, appropriate activities, and spatial change have been shown to have positive results in this context. Cognitive research has, moreover, found that belief in one’s own creativity on the one hand and personal knowledge of the mechanisms of the creative process on the other hand enhance real creative competence. In other words, if you know how creativity functions, you will be in a better position to work creatively. This suggests that the mere training of creative techniques will be less successful than an approach that sets out to instill a conscious grasp of creativity both as process and as personal ability. Only this latter course can communicate real mastery of the process, and with it the awareness, whether in the group or the individual, of creative self-efficacy.

As far as the social environment is concerned, the most important factor for the entrepreneur is creative team ability. Research does not point clearly in one direction here, so one cannot say in principle whether teams are better or less good at developing creative solutions. On the other hand a number of investigations have shown that the composition of the team plays a significant role. However, in an increasingly complex, rapidly changing and innovative working environment, where – also in the entrepreneurial world – knowledge is characteristically both shared and dependent on experts, teams and teamwork are indispensable. Creativity training must, therefore, include methods for the explicit development of creative teams and the enhancement of team performance.

A dual approach is taken to this task. On the one hand European experts on corporate creative education are invited to scrutinize existing training programs they regard as successful, and to integrate these, along with relevant research findings, into the knowledge base and knowing process centered on creativity. On the other hand specific exercises are developed and classified against a background of accepted theory, taking into account the steps already mentioned in the creative innovation process and the various dimensions or aspects in which creativity plays a role: i.e. the persons concerned, the projected product, the creative process, and the ambience of the training program (see Rhodes 1961). This provides a matrix which, when completed with the appropriate results from creativity research, yields a catalogue of elements and exercises that should form part of any creativity and innovation training program (an example is given in Table 1). The insights gained from this matrix are then tested in the field and their effectiveness is evaluated – above all with regard to creative self-efficacy.

Tab. 1: Selected criteria for training sessions and programs. Tab. 1: Selected criteria for training sessions and programs.

From these structures, with close reference to current knowledge in the area of creativity and innovation performance, a four-stage model for training programs and practical exercises can be derived. Stage one is the communication of knowledge about creativity at an intellectually and emotionally preparatory level, with a view to sensitizing participants for creative thinking and generating interest in the topic. Stage two seeks to draw out and heighten their creative abilities, focusing, still in a preparatory way, on creative work, and motivating participants accordingly. A constitutive element here is the ability to look critically – under the aspect of effectiveness – at one’s own concepts, to subject those of others to constructive critique, and to accept such critique in return. Stage three comprises subject and issue-related activities and exercises designed to stimulate creativity, including real-life tasks and case studies that call for a creative approach. Stage four consists of extensive phases of reflection to stabilize and consolidate what has been learnt.

The project runs until September 2013. Our direct project partners are the University of Cambridge, Queen’s University Belfast, the Scottish Institute of Enterprise, the University of Piraeus, RISEBA (Latvia), COTEC (Portugal), Laurea University of Applied Sciences (Finland), and Emerald Academic Publishing.


Further reading

[1] Runco, Marc A. (2003): “Education for Creative Potential”, Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, Vol. 47, No. 3, 317-324.

[2] Sternberg, Robert J. (2006a): “The Nature of Creativity”, Creativity Research Journal, 2006, Vol. 18, No. 1, 87-98.

[3] Suomala, J., Taatila, V., Siltala, R. & Keskinen (2006): “Chance Discovery as a First Step to Economic Innovation.” Proceedings of the 28th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, 2204-2209.

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