How ‘The Thinker’ teaches business students to think creatively

How ‘The Thinker’ teaches business students to think creatively

Last month, Virginia Commonwealth University students independently visited the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts for an assignment in Joseph Coombs’ class to view the “Rodin: Evolution of a Genius” exhibition.

Joseph Coombs, Ph.D.
Joseph Coombs, Ph.D.

Contrary to what one might assume, Coombs does not teach Art History or Foundation of Art or any class in the VCU School of the Arts for that matter. Coombs teaches Creativity and Ideation in the VCU School of Business. For this assignment, he wanted his students to apply ideas from the exhibition to business, specifically to being creative in a business context.

Creativity and Ideation is not a light or frivolous elective. As of this semester it’s a required course for all sophomores, as part of the School of Business’ new strategic plan, EPIC, that encourages faculty, students and staff to “drive the future of business through the power of creativity.” In addition to Coombs, Joseph Ruiz teaches two classes.

The research-based course is built on knowledge, curiosity and creativity, said Coombs, academic director for entrepreneurship programs and associate professor of management. He uses art as a framework for thinking about creativity that he then applies to business and innovations. He will teach a similar course for faculty interested in incorporating creativity into their classrooms and research.

Creativity and Ideation students Jasmin Hurt, Danielle Williams and Alex Kaldmaa work on an in-class assignment — listing 100 things they could be doing other than sitting in class — that demonstrates divergent thinking.
Creativity and Ideation students Jasmin Hurt, Danielle Williams and Alex Kaldmaa work on an in-class assignment — listing 100 things they could be doing other than sitting in class — that demonstrates divergent thinking.

“Here’s our problem as managers,” Coombs said. “We find there’s something new that’s similar to what we already have or already do. As managers, we don’t see the value of this new thing.” Organizations don’t readily adopt new ideas or products. For instance, when the first cell phone came to market, it was just a phone. No one foresaw how it would affect watches. Or handheld gaming. Or the pay phone industry. Yet, asking an organization to provide resources for something uncertain is risky. No one knows what will be the next iPhone and what will be the next Apple Newton. 

Assignments such as studying Auguste Rodin — or taking their inner artists out on a date — show our future business leaders how to see the potential value in a new product or service, Coombs said.

Companies are coming to recognize that growth is going to be obtained through innovation.

By the end of a recent class following the museum visits, Coombs had brought it all back around, explaining what businesspeople can learn from Rodin, the turn-of-the-20th-century sculptor noted for fragments and assemblages. Rodin collected ancient statue fragments — particularly of the human body — which he used as inspiration for his own work. The fragments helped him look at the human form in a different way. He would then mix and match his fragments to reassemble figures differently from their original forms.

Fragmenting is taking something and looking at it in a different way, Coombs said. Instead of looking at the whole, you look at different pieces. This also happens to be the definition of divergent thinking, a process used to trigger creative ideas. On the flip side, convergent thinking requires one to combine elements from more than one idea or object — paralleling Rodin’s assemblages.

“Companies are coming to recognize that growth is going to be obtained through innovation,” Coombs said. “And innovation is simply commercializing new ideas, new products, new services. The first step in commercializing is coming up with something new. So you have to have a new idea. New ideas come from new ways of looking at things.”

 

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