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Bringing Creative Balance To Business (And Vice Versa)

There was an interesting piece in Fast Company a couple weeks ago that seems to bolster the idea that creativity is an important component of business success. University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management held a design challenge “To help TD Bank foster lifelong customer relationships with students and recent graduates while encouraging healthy financial behaviors.” They invited participants from other MBA and design programs from across North America.

According to the article’s author and competition judge Melissa Quinn,

Both this year and last–the two years that Rotman invited other schools to participate–business school students were slaughtered by the design school students. Of the 12 Rotman teams this year, not one of them made the final round. And while only seven of the 23 competing teams were from design schools (including California College of Arts, Ontario College of Art and Design, and the University of Cincinnati), design teams scooped the top three places in the competition, doing significantly better than their MBA counterparts. So what does this tell us?

It might tell us that MBAs significantly underestimate the skill and expertise a designer brings to the table.

Later in the article Quinn notes that where the design school teams fell short was in providing a sense of the economic value of their plans,

I should point out that only the winning team from the Institute of Design at IIT actually charged a fee for the service they developed (a fact that was not overlooked by my final-round co-judge Ray Chun, the senior vice president of retail banking at TD). Some competitors were able to offer a vague notion that their ideas would generally create economic value, but crisp articulations of a profit model and underlying assumptions were hard to come by.

In talking about how both MBA and MFA training programs need to change, Quinn expressed the idea we in the arts all love to hate: artists need to focus on being more business minded. But you know, when you are pitching an idea to a bank, highlighting economic benefits are pretty much de rigueur.

What really caught my eye in the article was Quinn’s mention that the design school teams’ approach was effective in convincing “a skeptical panel of experienced professionals about a new idea that doesn’t exist in the world today.” When I read that, I had the sudden realization that creative types aren’t going to necessarily do well in a business environment as part of the structure which keeps things running effectively. The value of the creatives would be in bringing those new ideas for products and services to the fore and getting people engaged.

As Quinn mentions, in order to effectively convince people of the value of these ideas, creative types are going to have to possess enough business knowledge to be able to explain how it might be monetized. When I have read about how important creatives will be to businesses in the future, I have mainly thought about how they might influence the culture to be more nimble and responsive, bolster team building and cultivate creative practices.

This is all true, of course. But even more the value will be in, as Steve Jobs has said, creating products and services for which consumers can’t necessarily express a desire.

The process Quinn says the design school teams used was:

“…they shared real user insights to engage us emotionally, used narrative and stories to compel us, drew sketches and visualizations to inspire us, and simplified the complex to focus us. It’s proof positive that numbers and bullet points, while important, aren’t necessarily what drive executive decision making. “

Some commenters to the article, which included members of the MBA school teams suggest that the differences in the presentations were not as clearcut as Quinn depicts them. I wanted to mention this because it appears from the article’s URL that it may have been retitled from “Need To Solve a Tough Business Problem Don’t Hire An MBA.” From the content of the piece, I don’t think that is anywhere near it’s message.

Regardless of who used the techniques, it appears the storytelling and visualizations approach was viewed as more effective at convincing the judges. I think this fact is generally recognized, but perhaps few think of employing it alongside bullet points and numbers. There definitely needs to be a balance between the two because storytelling can easily slip into attempting to use sentimentality to convince and you don’t want to base business decisions entirely on emotion.

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