Can you learn to be creative?

Spring 2019



Everyone is creative. 

That’s the assumption that Dr. Michael Luthy begins with when he steps into 608-Innovation, an immersive course taught over two weekends in all three Bellarmine MBA tracks—weeknight, weekend and executive.

Not every student agrees. “In the first class, I ask for a show of hands: ‘How many of you think you’re creative?’ Inevitably, it’s not everybody. In fact, a lot are hesitant,” says Dr. Luthy, a professor of marketing. “And I say, ‘Well, you’re wrong. You just may not label it that way.’”

Creativity isn’t just about being able to play the violin, or paint a landscape, he says. A friend of his who worked for state government expressed creativity in her wonderfully elaborate Excel spreadsheets, for example.

“Some people see things that other people don’t see,” he says. “And if you want a definition of creativity that we use in business, it’s the ability to produce something different that is valuable.” In other words, to innovate.

Innovation is at the heart of more and more MBA programs, because more and more students want to start their own companies, Dr. Luthy says. In addition to entrepreneurship, students in Bellarmine’s Innovation course explore intrapreneurship (innovation in how an existing company does business) and franchising. 

But first, they need an idea. And sometimes, that means getting out of their own way. 

“The most daunting thing you can do is to give someone a blank sheet of paper and say, ‘OK, create something,’” Dr. Luthy says. “It’s not that people aren’t creative. It’s just that a blank sheet of paper could be literally anything, and we’re overwhelmed. But there are models of creativity. There are techniques where you start people out.”

One example is the “truck stuck under the overpass problem.” A tractor-trailer whose driver ignored a low clearance sign is wedged under a bridge. How can he get it out? Look at the variables you can control, Dr. Luthy says. The optimal solution is to let some air out of the tires. But if money were no object, you could also destroy the back of the truck, raise the bridge, or jackhammer the road. 

Then there’s the nine-dot problem. Draw nine dots in a 3 x 3 grid. Without lifting your pen, connect nine dots with just four lines. It’s possible—but it’s tough for most people because they want to “keep things nice and neat,” Dr. Luthy says.

Now: Can you connect the dots with fewer than four lines? “Again, what do you have control over?” Dr. Luthy asks. “I just made those dots. I didn’t say how big they had to be. If you make larger dots, all of a sudden I can do it in three lines. Or if you make the dots big enough, in one. What if I change the thickness of the lines, if I use a highlighter, a marker, or a paint roller? What if you tear the paper into strips and line the dots up? One line!

“We tend to constrain ourselves to a conservative solution, or we say, ‘How did we used to do it?’ But sometimes something radically different is available to us. And the more people do this, all of a sudden they’re not afraid of the blank sheet of paper anymore because they have tools.”

Similarly, the students talk about innovation in terms of spotting problems. “Entrepreneurship is not limited to having $50 million for a high-tech startup in California,” Dr. Luthy says. “It can be as simple as seeing something that other people don’t see—those ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ ideas. Like Goldfish crackers. They’ve been around my whole life. And then not too many years ago, someone said, ‘Why do they have to be cheddar cheese? Why not pretzel?’ And all of a sudden there were all these different fish out there.

“Sometimes it’s noticing a problem in your life and thinking, ‘Could I do something about that?’ Once you get people started down that road it tends to pick up speed, and all of a sudden people realize, ‘Yeah, I am creative, I just hadn’t really put my mind to it yet.’”


Written by Carla Carlton



Dr. Luthy also uses the SCAMPER Technique with his students. SCAMPER helps generate new ideas for an existing product or service by asking, Can I...

Substitute something?

Combine it with something else?

Adapt it?

Modify or magnify it?

Put it to other uses?

Eliminate something from it?

Rearrange or reverse it?


Tags: Features