Creativity isn’t reserved for the arts.
We tend to think of an artistic pursuit as only happening in an artistic medium, but I no longer think that. I spent 17 years dancing professionally and became an executive and entrepreneur in the arts; since then I’ve been working as a management consultant. Over time, a lot of my preconceived notions about how to apply creativity have evolved.
The creative process is developed on an individual level, but there is a role that an artist or someone employing the creative process can play in team building and corporate leadership. I see that there’s a need for this creative process when I’m helping companies through team-building exercises or when I’m coaching executives on decision making. We are all constantly wading into the unknown and making sense of stimuli, data sets, and intuitions. We use different words and metaphors in the business and art worlds, but we are essentially getting at the same thing: how to find maximum presence and value.
The creative process involves finding the balance between objective and subjective in order to get work done in a way that’s both efficient and innovative. You can spend too much time overthinking problems or not enough time coming up with solutions.
Some job skills are truly universal.
Some specialty skills, such as those acquired by dancers, apply to one domain and are not transferable. But that’s not to say that the sweat, rigor, and artistry required of a professional dancer go to waste. The ability to adapt, remain agile, innovate, empathize with colleagues, and create new systems is transferable.
Dancers are very aware of the physical spaces in which they work. They are highly adept at reading the room. Dancers hone their muscle memory to store great amounts of detail and data. They read nonverbal body language and help facilitate a more cohesive environment through their behaviors. In the business world, people would call this expert level of nonverbal awareness a “high emotional intelligence,” and the ability to follow and lead simultaneously “emergent leadership.”
During a Booth presentation in London last December, Harry L. Davis mentioned that perhaps the leaders of the future need more breadth in addition to depth. I believe he is right. We need to train more generalists alongside the plethora of specialists coming out of business schools. Someone who has achieved great mastery in her field—whether it is finance or ballet—has potentially honed a set of adaptive skills that will serve her well in a variety of contexts. The ability to achieve this type of mastery over and over again can make it easier for executives, or anyone, to confidently move from one role to the next. You have to explain transferable skills to an executive differently than you would explain them to a dancer, but the idea of transferring skills is common to both.
Past experiences gave me mastery and purpose, but not the free passage to create new ideas and work with a variety of colleagues across multiple sectors. I developed that independence in thought by choosing to follow disparate fields of study and audit a number of courses at Booth. I also developed that independence in time by creating a personal scheduling system better attuned to my organizational rhythms and work flow.
I spend weekends and Mondays researching ideas, reading, and writing. I spend Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays lecturing, presenting, and holding meetings or workshops. I spend evenings and Fridays primarily reconnecting with my artistic self and having roundtable discussions about the creative process with all kinds of people. Doing this has allowed me to reinvent how I work, spend my time, focus and organize my thoughts, and open myself up to new ideas and influences.
Leaders often feel pressure to focus on the short run, and they end up ignoring their intuitions. Autonomy is a growing trend, but it does not necessitate distancing yourself from others—rather the trend seems propelled by the discovery that we can sometimes be most present and collaborative with others when we license ourselves to act autonomously and entrepreneurially, to make our own decisions about how to act and react. Autonomy is about intuition, and about finding a place where you have a lot more freedom. Ultimately, we need to bring into the corporate environment the permission to tap into this kind of independence. It’s part of the role that the qualitative and artistic approach plays in the business world.
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
A big part of creativity is tapping into what you don’t know. It’s looking into that white space that’s not yet explored and organizing kernels of information to be examined and burnished by the stores of information you do possess. I’ve learned how to better understand the creative process through that kind of uncertainty. Most systems teach how to maximize efficiency when going from Point A to Point B. When endeavoring in a creative process, you are going from Point A to Point B while creating Point B along the way. That idea is from Amy Whitaker, author of Art Thinking, a book that takes on the importance of finding the time to explore without the pressure of success. There is no manual or best-practices playbook to deploy, which can feel risky.
This so-called sitting with discomfort allows someone to stay in an unformed state for a longer period and to learn to disregard any preconceived notions. At Booth, I was able to mine larger amounts of data from colleagues, students, staff, and alumni by exploring ideas and having challenging conversations. Sitting with discomfort means remaining open to what is possible, instead of deploying a set methodology where, because of biases, one can miss bigger truths.
Rigid frameworks don’t work.
Frameworks are essential for communicating ideas. But frameworks are not universal and need to be adapted depending on the audience. I became more adept at learning about my audience and translating frameworks, but the content and integrity of the message remained consistent through evolutions.
There are differences, but also similarities, between the scientific method and the creative process. Learning about the scientific method from Chicago Booth’s Heather M. Caruso was instrumental to my understanding the benefit of a framework. Like the artist’s creative process, the scientific method allows you to combine form and feeling at the same time. I would propose blending the two into the “creative method,” to create a comprehensive, robust, transparent, and recognized process that captures the creative approach.
Creative thinking can lead to purpose.
Executives and managers have long been perfectionists when it comes to their strengths and abilities, but many are now looking for something more to feel successful. Essentially, they are looking for a sense of purpose alongside the more traditional markers of success. Many professionals are becoming interested in how to have a sense of purpose, within what entrepreneur Aaron Hurst has called “the purpose economy.” Both are impossible to find without deploying creative thinking and uncertainty, or without locating intrinsic motivation and filtering it through extrinsic demands. The creative process that is used to make a work of art has great utility, but people are using the creative process all the time, regardless of their pursuit. Learning how to implement creative choice making is essential.
When it comes to finding purpose within day-to-day work, there’s greater possibility than before to maneuver in order to find real influence. Executives have more capacity to be agile and fluid, and to deal with uncertainty. There’s now a critical mass of people for whom the ability to deal with the unexpected is crucial to succeeding. The creative process can enable a large portion of the workforce to derive a sense of purpose.
The creative process can happen on an individual, internal level; but to scale and reach broader networks, teams and entire organizations need to work and create cohesively. In order for that to happen, members of teams, multiple teams, and even multiple organizations need to collaborate by merging their shared interests and equally partaking in the risks. The creative process requires willingly stepping into the unknown, the adjacent possible—but you don’t have to do it alone.
John Michael Schert danced for New York’s American Ballet Theatre and San Francisco’s Alonzo King LINES Ballet and cofounded the Trey McIntyre Project, an international touring dance company based in Boise, Idaho. For the past three years, he has been the inaugural visiting artist and social entrepreneur at Chicago Booth. Schert now works with companies including Google and McKinsey to help them approach problem solving creatively.