Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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Sparks of Invention

Published By: The Independent - 09 Oct 2008

It used to be so simple. You did your MBA and a glittering career in banking or consultancy beckoned. Not any more. All those old financial certainties have suddenly vanished, and today an exciting and successful future is much more likely to depend on your ability to carve out your own path.

But can an MBA help you do this? Is it possible teach creativity and entrepreneurship as easily as you can teach accounting and project management? Or are these qualities simply in a person’s DNA, or not?

Well plenty of imaginative entrepreneurs offer living proof that an MBA can set you off in a different direction. Whether it is Andy Nicklin, of Durham Business School, who has set up an eBay-type business for used heavy mechanical equipment, or Mark Berry, of Cranfield Business School, who has started a company allowing people to commission affordable portraits, or the recent alumna from the London campus of the European School of Management, who has decided to start bio-ethanol production in Africa, not to mention the hundreds graduates who have developed new software and consultancy niches, it is clear that doing an MBA can help you create a whole new future.

And increasingly business schools are working hard at getting their students’ creative juices flowing. At the Lancashire University Management School, for example,
Sabine Junginger, a visiting expert in product design management, has given MBA students a masterclass in creativity and innovation. People make and design things all the time, she points out, whether it is a business plan or a recipe from what is in the fridge. “But people often don’t learn to engage with their creativity, so I try to encourage them to do this by making them see there is value in this, and making them more aware of how they think.” Students in her recent class found themselves facing a huge mound of objects, from kitchen equipment through to staplers and hammers, and were asked to sort it out, looking at how they made category judgments and decisions as they did so.

At Bristol Business School all students are encouraged to develop their indigenous entrepreneurial spirit, reflecting the high level of business creativity in the region. Nicholas O’Regan, professor of strategy, entrepreneurship and innovation, says “A lot more students now want to start their own business rather than work for someone else. You need some innateness regarding entrepreneurial ability, but when you are aware of your mindset you can become much more entrepreneurial and competitive. We teach our students to know how and know who, as well as to know what and know why.” He feels the role of business schools is increasingly to help students to break through the limits of their thinking. Jo Ouston, a management consultant who works with the school on creativity, says “Everyone has creativity in them, but they have often dumbed it down because it is not something they feel they are rewarded for. I try to release them to do what they do naturally.” Her work includes working with all the senses, encouraging students to see the patterns in their thinking, and to think in new non-linear ways.

Jonathan Wareham, director of research at ESADE Business School, is also doing this, using techniques from design thinking and creative play developed in association with the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, a global leader in the field. “This way of thinking is completely different from how we do it in management education. If you do this you open up your boundaries on acceptable behaviour and ideas.” For example, he says, if someone gives you thirty white circles and tells you to make as different designs as possible, “you quickly draw a clock and bike wheel and a smiley face, but then your eyes glaze over and you start worrying about, ‘Are we allowed to combine things? Can I count a happy face and a sad face, as two separate items, or are they in the same category?’ You mind starts raising all sorts of questions about rules and categories and limits.”

But business schools are increasingly having to concentrate on developing creativity, he points out, because today’s most exciting products and services are all to do with new developments in how they are used.

“You can think creatively about everything. How to design a mobile phone. How to donate money to the Red Cross. How to do medicine delivery in sub-Saharan Africa. This is how things happen now. No engineer ever sat around and developed the internet.”

At Manchester Business School, Tudor Rickards, professor of creativity and organisational change, points out that MBA students often arrive with set views about themselves. “A lot of people in finance and accounting don’t see themselves as creative while people in sales and marketing tend to think they are. It’s important that we help people to push out the limits on their thinking. In fact, unless we can do this, we are going to be in trouble as business educators. We can no longer assume that an MBA is about the delivery of professional skills. The soft skills have to come much more to the centre and there has to be an ethical dimension. Also, if creativity has, in the past, been centred on product innovation, now the focus is turning much more towards creative leadership and social innovation.”

“Entrepreneurship and creativity and innovation are killed not born,” says Shailendra Vyakarnam, of Judge Business School, in Cambridge. “We all have it in us – it is just that society, schools, family, institutions and employers gradually kill it off . Everyone has the ability to learn new skills and much of entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation are skills-based – so by providing practice, role models, basic information and inspiration people learn about their own strengths and gain in self-confidence and self-belief. Both of these are essential elements in becoming alert to opportunities.”

A recent student demonstrated how this works, he says, by deciding to commercialize the research he had done for his PhD in engineering and develop a micro-antenna after being exposed both to teaching about entrepreneurship and to inspirational stories from people who had created their own businesses. “His father is a school teacher and he had never been exposed to the ideas of entrepreneurship before, so it was there under the surface and the role of the entrepreneurship education experience was to
open his mind to what is possible. "

Mark Berry, 38
“I had been working in a big advertising agency and then for a small marketing agency when I went to do my MBA at Cranfield School of Management about five years ago. I felt I didn’t have an understanding of business in the round. But while I was there it was the entrepreneurship module that I was most enjoyed, and it dawned on me that I would like to do something for myself.

“So after I finished I went travelling for a few months in South East Asia and came up with my idea. Art For You (www.youareart.co.uk) offers people personalised portraits from their own photographs. They can be in one of 12 styles, mostly pop-arty, and in whatever colour they choose. When I worked in advertising I had been impressed at how the creative people could produce amazing pictures really quickly using computer programmes, and I’d always fancied having an Andy Warhol-style portrait of myself or my girlfriend. I now employ one other person, and use five or six freelancers, and we’re looking to expand into the American market.

“I hadn’t been the least entrepreneurial before I did my MBA. My father had been in the Army, so I hadn’t been steeped in the business culture and didn’t have that mindset at all. But Cranfield has a good bias towards enterprise and listening to speakers coming back and talking about their businesses was what really fired me up. Doing the MBA also gave me confidence, and made me realise there’s no particular mystery to starting your own business.”

Andy Nicklin, 36
“I’m currently taking an MBA at Durham Business School, which is really helping me develop the recycling business I have started with my friend and business partner Andy. I’m a chemical engineer and used to work for ICI and then for Uniqem but left when it was taken over by Croda. That seemed a good time both to do an MBA and develop my idea.

“We want Replanted (www.replanted.net) to be the eBay for disused heavy chemical plant such as distillation columns, storage tanks and heat exchangers, as well as smaller pieces of equipment like pumps.

“There are whole chemical plants shut down and left unused. Replanted started from the environmental point of view that it was better to recycle what you could, but now, because of what I’m learning on the MBA, we are considering all sorts of aspects of developing this.

“For example, we’re thinking about using questions of corporate finance as a way to push this. This wasn’t something we had considered before, but the credit crunch means money isn’t so readily available to build a new chemical plant, so our website can come in and help if you can’t afford a new piece of kit. I’ve also learned more about managing in a global environment, and how to think about what market we’re competing in and what our competitors might be doing.

“Meeting other people from different backgrounds has been really useful, as well. On an MBA it isn’t only the teaching you get from people standing up at the front of the class, it’s all the learning you do from the people around you.”

Jo Morey, 29
“I had a degree in English and French and four and a half years working as a headhunter when I started my MBA -- I wanted to do it to develop my entrepreneurial experience, with a view to starting my own business. Ashridge Business School was attractive because it seemed to focus on developing the whole person, and it gave me great tools to enhance my skills, and bring out what was inside me. I had a rough idea about my business plan, but I used different tools and frameworks, I did market research and used focus groups, and it was a question of making all the pieces fit together.

“My idea is to set up combined chocolate cafés and boutiques, known as Haute Chocolat. I think people are tired of the offerings of coffee shops like Starbucks. These will be aimed at affluent women and be the sort of place you go to for a real treat, like a glass of champagne and something chocolatey, maybe once a month. There will be a boutique area, where you can buy gifts for friends and recipe books, and I expect to set up about three or four in the UK and then go international. My first one will be in Brighton, next year, but I have already got my business plan in place -- and been short-listed in the Girls Make Your Mark award, run by the website handbag.com.”

Sarah Wightman, 32
“I took my MBA at the Judge Business School, in Cambridge. I had done engineering product management for seven years and knew I wanted a change of sector, so after I finished it I went to City Group, joining their MBA graduate programme. Then I realised it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing, I wanted to be doing something for myself. But I thought to start a business you needed a big, new idea and I didn’t have one. Then it started to dawn on me that you didn’t have to have that, you could enter a traditional business and run it more creatively. So my husband and I – we met on the MBA – looked at this great website, businessesforsale.com, and our minds went racing at the possibilities. We now run a cycle shop in Newmarket, called Revel Outdoors, and are developing our website.

“The MBA, more than anything, gave us the confidence to know we were considering all the necessary areas. We had learned about marketing, finance and accounting, and done quite a lot on entrepreneurship and creativity. We had particularly looked at the question of what is entrepreneurship, and how it can be bought into any business. I’m not sure that you can turn someone into an entrepreneur if they not, but you can certainly give them more tools, or a taste of it. You can open their eyes to how they can do it. We’re running a traditional business but we are definitely more creative in the way we are doing things and are looking at new ways of mixing things together, and new methods for stock control and new point-of-sale systems.”