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The value of failure: creativity in business

Thomas Edison was famous for saying “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” It’s the lightbulb moment that many individuals seek, but how can creativity help business practice and why should good creatives seek out good failures?

Business strategy concept.
Dr Allègre Hadida
Dr Allègre Hadida

Following feedback and experiences from a number of Cambridge MBA students who completed a creativity workshop jointly delivered by Andrzej Moyseowicz (Cambridge MBA, 2006), an entrepreneur and former Media Innovations Director for Saatchi and Saatchi, and Cambridge Judge Business School faculty member Dr Allègre Hadida, Senior Lecturer in Strategy came the development of the Cambridge Creativity Lab programme for Executive Education. This two-day creativity workshop aims to provide a perspective on management that lies outside the traditional Executive Education curriculums – but one that is crucial to business, especially in a time of such global uncertainty. As Dr Hadida points out, the University of Cambridge is a hotbed of creativity, having been home to over 100 Nobel Prize winners.

The programme aims to debunk the myths surrounding creativity such as “you are born creative”, “you can’t teach creativity” and “it’s not useful to business”. There is deliberately no compulsory reading list associated with the workshop. Instead, a list of “suggested creative stimuli” is provided, and includes TED Talks, feature films, documentaries, television episodes, music albums, visual arts, and physical activities. Not many programmes would recommend watching “Die Hard” as preparation, but Dr Hadida and Moyseowicz believe the film is an excellent example of the necessity to use creativity and innovation in certain situations.

The participants taking part in the programme are expected to be a mixture of former consultants, financiers, musicians, lawyers as well as the possibility of a psychologist – in short, a group of people who would describe themselves with varying degrees of creativity, with most feeling that they are generally lacking or could improve on this particular skill.

It’s a mind-set that course co-facilitator Andrzej Moyseowicz is familiar with, having started his career as a chemical engineer, with the common goal of a consultancy career when he started his MBA in Cambridge.

However, after taking part in such a creativity workshop, and through other CJBS courses in management, he undertook a process of self-analysis, and ended up taking a completely unexpected path. He took a job working as Media Innovations Director for Saatchi and Saatchi. He now runs an insights and creative advocacy company called Freemavens, which specialises in using creativity to help businesses build stronger brands and products.

Moyseowicz invites students to go through a similar process of self-examination, and the Cambridge Creativity Lab takes participants through exercises designed to take them out of their comfort zone, such as meditation and ‘Lego Serious Play’ sessions. While these are not typical business classes, they allow participants the space to think freely and less judgementally, giving them concepts, frameworks and methods to manage business endeavours creatively.

Former CJBS student Michael Schaefer, a hydro scientist by training, says “Creativity is fundamental to business, but being in energy and the sciences, I felt I’d lost my creative spark. Work kind of beats it out of you. The exercises we’ve learnt are great tools.”

Dr Hadida points out that there is a misconception around what people think creativity is. “People think that it’s about producing things, they think of plays, films, paintings, but actually creativity is more about the process. It is about questioning, disrupting and improving on what has come before.”

Dr Hadida asks the students to give examples of great creative companies, and something they have created which is unique. Most students suggest Apple and the iPhone. But as she points out, Steve Jobs wasn’t an original thinker. The iPhone was made up of existing ideas. He adapted, connected and unpicked what was already there.

One of the biggest things to learn, say Dr Hadida and Moyseowicz, is that you can’t be creative if you are afraid to fail. After all, Edison tried thousands of things before he invented the lightbulb. Hadida uses the phrase “benign failure”, the idea that creativity is about coming up with ideas and acknowledging that some of them might not work, but understanding that eventually one of those will spark. Moyseowicz suggests that one of the hardest things for those in business to develop “is an appetite for helpful failure” because they’ve spent a long time developing an “addiction to success”.

This tolerance for failure is also essential for entrepreneurs, and for former CJBS student Yaa Kwateng, “it confirms what I’ve learnt in digital business and entrepreneurship courses – that working creatively, as well as analytically, is essential as an entrepreneur. There are structured ways of using creativity to generate ideas.”

Through the Cambridge Creativity Lab programme participants will have had the opportunity to re-engage with different ways of thinking, giving them new problem-solving options and ways to develop ideas. And who knows, perhaps there is the next Edison about to emerge in 2019.