Tolerating ambiguity inside the creativity classroom

As you walk into William & Mary’s Mason School of Business, vanilla-cream tiles catch your eye as the sunlight streams down from the third-story atrium and reflects off the lobby floor. The walls, painted the colors of warm beach sand and cool teal water, seem to illuminate as wrought- iron stair railings lead you to the second floor.

At the very end of the hallway, nestled in the back corner, are two locked doors hiding an unknown space from the outside world. What could be behind these walls? Computers, high-tech gadgets, the latest business invention? 

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Students who entered the Miller Design and Innovation Studio for the inaugural “Solving Creative Problems” course this spring – co-listed between graduate business and theatre, speech and dance – were shocked to discover a space they had never seen: an unfinished ceiling; commercial grade concrete flooring; movable tables and chairs; black foam boxes to sit on, shift and manipulate; and rolling whiteboards for brainstorming. The castered design looks and feels more like an art studio than a classroom.

The teaching space is part of a new, design-thinking module that is being infused into the business school curriculum. Design thinking teaches traditional business skills and merges them with creative, divergent thinking skills in an intentionally structured, yet highly flexible and active process. Simply put, it uses best practices for problem defining and problem solving.

Recent research by Professor Kyung-Hee Kim in William & Mary’s School of Education shows that while American IQs are getting higher, creativity scores are declining. She calls it the “creativity crisis.”

To combat this growing trend, Professors Matthew Allar and Jim Olver taught a prototype course using the design studio to help students discover their creative problem-solving capacity.  Allar is an assistant professor/scenographer in the Department of Theatre, Speech and Dance who specializes in design and theatrical space. He also served on the faculty working group to recommend how the space could be creatively used.

Olver, an associate professor of business administration, has taught at William & Mary for 25 years. A decade of his tenure has been spent working in administration, leading the undergraduate and MBA programs.

He said one of the trends he’s noticed over the years is that William & Mary students were getting less and less tolerant of ambiguity and more and more concerned about having the one right answer – or , believing there should be one right answer to solve complex problems.

“I’m looking at that and comparing it to the world that they’re going out into, which is increasingly complex and disruptive, and nobody knows what the right answer is,” said Olver. “And so, there’s this growing disconnect.”

He cited Kim’s creativity research, coupled with conversations held with business colleagues in academia across the country that expressed the same concerns of students lacking flexible, innovative thinking skills. 

“Starting in kindergarten, we teach kids to get good grades because you have to get A’s or you’ll never get into a school like William & Mary,” Olver said. “Then, as they get older, it’s about mastering the SATs and finding a formula that gets you to the right answer… so in essence we’ve taught them not to take any risks and to know exactly what’s expected of them.

“And this serves students well until they get to the university, and they find out actually we don’t know if there is a right answer to a lot of these things … let alone what the right answer is when you start talking about serious problems like global warming or sustainability, or a lot of the things were facing as a society today. And a lot of those things are what businesses are facing.”

Allar and Olver wanted to test their students’ ambiguity tolerance, so they created a non-structured course consisting of weekly lectures from professors across the university in disciplines such as history, information technology, chemistry and art, along with practitioners from widely divergent fields of thought such as advertising and product sales. 

“We were curating the course more than teaching it,” explained Allar. “We were structuring the experience, but allowing the students to make their own experiences and, by default, we were having the same experiences with them.”

On the first day of class, students were handed a loosely scheduled outline with a list of guest speakers and topics. Similar to the theory of experiential learning, the professors wanted students to start thinking about problems not only from the how-to-solve-it or need-the-right-answer perspective, but to embrace uncertainty in order to find a better answer using multiple perspectives through conversations with classmates.

Undergraduates and graduate students enrolled in the course hailed from majors in theatre, government, public policy, religious studies, dance, music, English, marketing, economics, graduate accounting, along with the MBA and combined JD/MBA programs. 

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Trevor Colley, a second-year MBA student, was one of 22 students to take the course.  He signed up because he felt a creativity course would help him develop the critical thinking skills needed to compete in a global economy and job market.

“For me the most impactful part of this class is that it gave me a venue to introspect,” said Colley. “A lot of the projects that we do and assignments we are given by professors are highly structured …the class was a great venue in helping us develop our own thoughts and spark the innovation initiative of the program."

Class activities and projects varied from week to week. One of the first in-class activities students participated in was called the “yes and” conversation. Inspired by a lecture from innovative consultant Barry Saunders, students held a conversation with a classmate on a topic they disagreed about. But, instead of saying “no,” they had to say “yes and” to build on the conversation, acknowledge the other person’s perspective and find common ground.

For their culminating project, students were asked to create a highly distinctive William & Mary “brand” around a dominant selling idea. 

Blogging was another tool used by Allar and Olver to track student development and their understanding of the creative problem-solving process. At first, the students questioned what the class was really about, said Olver, but soon they started to write about how the course was changing them, he said.

“They started to talk about how it was changing their perspective on what they could and couldn’t do,” recalled Olver. “A lot of them talked a lot about risk taking – which seemed to be sort of a taboo kind of thing in the very beginning. One student in particular said, ‘My mantra for the rest of my time here at William & Mary and when I go out of here is to take the risk; take the chance and embrace that as an opportunity.’”

“When I read that, I thought, ‘Wow, she’s got it.’”

Jiaorui Jiang ’17 said the course taught her how to have constructive and creative conversations, helping her to critically think about one’s thoughts and ideas.

“People contribute different insights and have different ways of saying things,” said Jiang. “When you get to see and learn that, and you do you own introspection, you then begin to see how your thoughts are different from someone else’s and how you can build off of each other’s thoughts and how creativity comes out.”

Ultimately, Allar and Olver view the design studio as a physical manifestation of the mindset that they would like to cultivate in William & Mary students.

“The mindset we’re really looking for,” said Olver, “is that I don’t have to be right, but I have to be willing to try.”