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Learning to manage creatively

  • Story Highlights
  • Business education study takes inspiration from string quartet
  • Professor sees parallels between musical and business inspiration
  • Course aims to teach how to manage creative people
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By Peter Walker for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- One of the most remarked-on difficulties of MBAs and other business education is that while students can be taught subjects like marketing, accounting and finance, one key aspect of commercial success -- creativity and innovation -- simply cannot be learned from a book.

Can the creative urge teach business some lessons?

Business schools have adopted a series of different ways to get round this, for example trying to give students inspiration from areas such as the theatre (see Executive Education story on this here) and galleries or museums (see here)

Now, members of two business schools have collaborated on an innovative exercise to draw business lessons from an even more unusual source -- a leading string quartet.

The Medici String Quartet, one of the best known international ensembles of its type, has been playing together and touring since 1971. Its unique approach is drawn in part from leader Paul Robertson, who is both a violinist and someone passionate about learning how playing and listening to music affects the mind.

His ideas about music and creativity, and how this can influence business, have been compiled in a study co-authored by Robert Austin, visiting professor of management, politics and philosophy at Copenhagen Business School, who met Robertson at a workshop in the Danish capital.

Austin has also brought in Robertson to help teach his MBA students in how to better manage creative people.

"The business researcher in me was looking for parallels with intimate creative collaboration in general," says Austin of his discussions with Robertson.

"One of my favorite research strategies is to find people engaged in activities that I would call near the frontier of human experience," says Austin, who wrote "Paul Robertson and the Medici String Quartet" with Shannon O'Donnell, a research associate at Harvard Business School.

"Ordinarily I'd say near the frontier of business experience, but creative collaboration is very much relevant to business and the field of innovation."

The Medici quartet endeavors to not only master a composition technically, but to go beyond this, in some cases playing it in the wrong tempo or with other restrictions in an attempt to "break down" the music.

This counter-intuitive approach, Austin argues, can help the players gain a new understanding of the music -- something the world of business can learn from.

"In a way it's the opposite of planning that happens in business sometimes, which is all about creating patterns we expect," he says.

Fact Box

FT MBA Rankings
1. Wharton, U.S.
2. Columbia, U.S.
3. Harvard, U.S.
4. Stanford GSB, U.S.
5. London Business School, UK
6. Chicago GSB, U.S.
7. Insead, France/Singapore
8. Stern, NYU, U.S.
9. Tuck, Dartmouth, U.S.
10. Yale, U.S.
Source: Financial Times 2007

"There are certain situations that require that we innovate because we're in the world of the unexpected. Think of crisis management. It's very important in crisis management not to fall into a comfortable pattern because you may be misperceiving the data."

The MBA course in which Austin had help from Robinson, Managing in the Creative Economy, tried to pass on this approach, he says.

"Often in business, 'winning' is what this string quartet would call technical mastery. Technical mastery is good enough in some kinds of business, but probably not in others," he says.

"It's under appreciated when you're trying to create something new that you have to do something different to get it to happen."

The course also attempts to help future managers how to get the best from creative people in their company, which can mean a break from traditional business methods.

"When you really analyze it, you don't want the creative person to be more customer-oriented," Austin says.

"That's not what he does for a company. He's the source of surprises that the customers might love. If you're really searching for novelty, if that's the true path you're taking to business value creation, then asking for your customers' opinions and desires is not the way to go." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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