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Getting Into the Swing of Creativity

Getting Into the Swing of Creativity
David A. Berman MBA '10 takes his turn on the trapeze as part of USC Marshall's "Fostering Creativity" course.

As the sun sets over Santa Monica Pier, nervous USC Marshall School of Business students get ready to make the biggest leap of their lives.

Craning their necks into the sky, they contemplate the elevated platform where they will soon be standing, a final moment of security before jumping off while holding onto a swinging trapeze suspended 25 feet in the air.

An instructor assures them they have nothing to worry about: They will be tethered to a safety line. And he urges them not to feel intimidated; success on the trapeze, he says, is a matter of momentum and timing, not strength. The important thing to remember, he announces, is that “you need to land on your butt, not your feet.”

It’s an apt metaphor for business – and for life, according to associate professor of marketing Joseph Priester, whose popular “Fostering Creativity” course encourages students to step outside their comfort zone and realize that the key to success is often learning how to fail.

All of us, Priester said, are held back in our endeavors by fear. And that, he asserted, is the value of the course: “By the end of the year, students begin to understand that, no matter what happens, they’re going to be OK, which frees them to respond to their situations in all manner of creative ways.”

Now in its fourth year, the course continues to pioneer innovative approaches to traditional business curriculum. Priester, who launched the course shortly after arriving at USC Marshall, leads his students on a journey of self-discovery that includes yoga, drawing and meditation, in addition to trapeze flying. “What we do [in the course],” he said, “is put people in situations they’ve never been in before. Suddenly, they are able to recognize patterns they never see in day-to-day life and to overcome the limitations they impose on themselves.” And that, Priester said, is critical to emerging business leaders’ ability to face future challenges.

If developing the next generation of global business leaders through activities such as Tai Chi and improvisational theatre seems unorthodox and even revolutionary, that, Priester said, is precisely the point.

“So many business schools are still teaching ‘the script,’ ” he noted. “But the script no longer maps on contemporary business,” particularly in light of unprecedented shifts in the global economy. “It’s a lot easier to teach the same class you’ve been teaching for 20 years, but that can be a real disservice to your students. Unfortunately, too many schools are afraid to break out of the limitations of what they’re used to.”

That fear, he pointed out, is nowhere in evidence at USC Marshall, a fact he attributed to the vision of dean James G. Ellis, who “really gets that creativity is the fundamental thing in life and in business.”

Since taking the helm in 2007, Ellis has made out-of-the-box thinking a serious priority, setting a new standard for innovation and leadership in business education. As Priester sees it, the dean’s emphasis on redefining what works – and what doesn’t – demonstrates Ellis’ personal commitment to ensuring that USC Marshall students are prepared for an increasingly competitive marketplace.

Said Priester, “At the end of the semester, students give a final presentation that can last several hours, and Jim [along with vice dean Shantanu Dutta and assistant Dean Pete Giulioni] comes for the whole thing. What other business school can claim that kind of involvement by people at the highest level?”

Consistently high student enrollment in courses such as “Fostering Creativity” (which, Priester said, has been filled every time it’s been offered) is a testament to Ellis’ success, as well as to Priester’s unique way of exploring what it takes to make it in today’s business environment. This month, Priester will continue that exploration at his annual “Fostering Creativity” retreat, an event that brings current students and alumni together for a day of goal setting and skills building, giving them a much-needed chance to slow down. “It’s powerful to be there and see what happens,” Priester said.

The power of the course is also on display at the trapeze activity, said Tom Zilch, a sales engineer in his third year of USC Marshall’s part-time MBA program. Participating in these types of class events “forces you to take a leap in life. You’re up there for the first time, freaking out; but when they tell you to let go and you do it, you realize you’re fine.”

Connie Hsu and Stephanie Bunting, both second-year students in the full-time MBA program, agreed. “Our last session,” Bunting said, “was on surrendering. Sometimes in business you don’t have control, and you just have to go with it.” What it comes down to, Hsu said, eyeing the trapeze platform and contemplating the distance to the ground, is that “there are times when you just have to jump.”

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