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THE CREATIVITY ISSUE: Outside your comfort zone

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Executive Summary
School. Ringling College of Art and Design Industry. Higher education Key. Fostering and maintaining creativity can happen in any business.

Larry Thompson cooks up what he calls a lot of “crazy ass ideas” at the helm of one of the most prominent arts and design colleges in the country.

“I'm one of the biggest challengers of my staff,” says Thompson, president of Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota. “I keep finding ways to break the rules.”

One crazy idea: Thompson wants to see every board of directors of every company nationwide have at least one artist or designer.

That's not merely a self-serving move from an art and design college president. Thompson's wacky idea machine is actually part of a larger mission: To restore creativity in school curriculums, businesses and just about every other walk of life.

Says Thompson: “I see creativity as the oil that fuels everything.”

At Ringling, with 1,200 students, creativity is a cinch. Students can major in disciplines from the business of art and design to digital filmmaking to sculpture.

But creativity is a different task off campus. That's the genesis behind the Ringling College Center for Creativity, what Thompson calls RC3.

The center is specifically for business executives, with a curriculum focused on how to get creativity out of yourself and your firm's employees.

It costs about $12,000 for up to 12 people to attend a two-and-a-half day session. The program has undergone a few iterations, says Thompson.

It's also hosted executives from several prominent companies, including Venice drinkware firm Tervis, Lakewood Ranch-based FCCI Insurance Group and Florida Blue.

“It has not taken off yet,” says Thompson. “But if we can sustain it, it will be an incredible thing for businesses.”

Push it
Incredible is one of many words FCCI executives use to describe the program, two years later. “When we say they pushed us out of our comfort zone, we mean it,” FCCI Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer Lisa Krouse says. “It was an extraordinary experience for all of us.”

The program, then the Center for Creativity and Innovation, was a two-day seminar, held during the workweek at Ringling's Longboat Key Center for the Arts. About 15 senior and mid-level FCCI executives attended the retreat in June 2013, including Krouse and FCCI President and CEO Craig Johnson. Departments represented ranged from technology to underwriting to claims.

The goal, says Krouse, wasn't creativity in the abstract.

FCCI, instead, sought to address a major issue at the firm, one of the largest private employers in the Sarasota-Bradenton region. The dilemma: How to make the company's process of training, orientation and mentoring new hires both functional and fun. They wanted something younger employees could identify with — a particularly salient point given hiring trends.

FCCI, both in the region and nationally in the insurance industry, has a stellar workplace reputation. It has about 730 employees. But Krouse says the success, in a way, became an obstacle to looking at the hiring process from a what-can-we-do-better approach.

“We needed to create a whole new mindset,” says Krouse. “You can't assume someone will walk into FCCI and just get it. We looked at the whole program, as opposed to saying here's your chair, here's your desk, here's the people you will work with.”

From there the team got to work. Executives broke into small groups and molded sculptures out of clay. (Krouse's group laughed when they realized they forgot to mold the back of the head of their statue.) They looked at pictures of a variety of life settings to see how different people place different meanings on the same images. They laughed, and they also had serious chats.

While FCCI executives played, a group of Ringling students drew posters that represented the main points of the discussions. One poster, for example, was a stop sign with a second sign underneath that stated: “And recognize your assumptions.”

Mini versions of the posters, some of which now hang in FCCI's corporate offices, became art for a book the company published for employees. The book is called “Left Brain or Right...We are all Creative: Inspiring Creativity in the Workplace.”

Beyond books and clay, the Ringling program has had a lasting impact on FCCI, says Krouse. The company, for one, overhauled its orientation program. It now has roundtable sessions for all new employees designed to eliminate confusion over who does what in a big company.

The firm also set up small meetings with senior executives and new employees. The agenda there varies, from the history of the firm to a new policy.

Add an A
Thompson is hopeful other executives will get to have the FCCI experience.

Thompson also realizes creativity can sometimes be a tough sell in the business community. He says that's partly because society has focused on science, technology, engineering and math, STEM, at the expense of arts. He suggests adding an A, for arts, to STEM so that it's STEAM. “We do our best as a society to try and beat creativity out of people,” he says. “We educate people to get rid of their creative elements. STEM is critical, but no longer sufficient.”

Another challenge: Creativity, to Thompson, goes with method, not being right — an anathema to many executives. “It's not about the result,” he says. “It's about the process.”
Finally, says Thompson, it's OK to get a little nutty with the ideas.

“You've got to embrace failure,” Thompson says. “Some of the crazy ideas won't work. But if you penalize the ideas, the process will never work.”

Speaking of creativity
The Business of Art & Design department at the Ringling College of Art and Design hosts a speaker series called Creativity @ Work. Recent speakers include:
Steve Hickner, director, DreamWorks Animation/SKG
Dean Hoff, director, computer-generated imagery at Nickelodeon Animation
Max Howard, president, Exodus Film Group
Bob Allen, former vice president of Disney Production Services
Matt Stinchcomb, vice president of community at Etsy and Vanessa Bertozzi, director of community at Etsy
David Grad, executive producer, MTV
Sylvie Geneau, vice president, casting and performance, Cirque du Soleil

Source: Ringling College of Art and Design, Perspectives magazine

A piece of advice: be different
Ringling College President Larry Thompson says anyone could be creative in any field. The key is to think differently. “Try not to see things as you see them,” he says, “but see them in other ways.”
This goes all the way down to magazine selection. “If you read Sports Illustrated,” he says, “try Ebony.”

You can be creative
Ringling College of Art & Design President Larry Thompson has given multiple presentations about how anyone can be more creative, from college students to CEOs. To test your creativity, print out the PDF below. You'll find three tests taken from the Ringling campus. Do you have what it takes to think outside the box?



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