Can you teach creativity? Lessons learned from the 2016 VCU Innovation Summit

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"Orange Paper Skull" by Noah Scalin.
"Orange Paper Skull" by Noah Scalin.

When Noah Scalin, a nationally renowned mixed-media artist, asked a roomful of local business professionals to create a piece of art within a two-minute timeframe, and to make it from materials that were available to them at that moment, there was slight panic in the room. But that was exactly the point of the exercise. Participants grabbed sticky notes, summit agendas, empty coffee cups and anything else they could find and got to work quickly — with interesting and surprising results.

Why facilitate this instant art challenge in a room full of high achievers and number crunchers? Because Scalin believes aspiring to make great art can lead to great achievements in the business world. “When you practice something, you get better at it, right?” Scalin said. “It’s the same with creativity. Creativity is teachable. It’s more about the work of applying it daily.”

Scalin was one of four speakers at the 2016 VCU Innovation Summit, organized by the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business and the VCU Da Vinci Center. Now in its fourth year, the summit brought together a diverse group of professionals from Richmond-based corporations alongside VCU faculty, staff and students for an interactive seminar about using creativity to solve problems that businesses face every day.

Creativity is teachable. It’s more about the work of applying it daily.

Practicing creativity was a lesson Scalin learned when he faced a creative roadblock back in 2007. He felt uninspired and found that if he forced himself to be creative every day that he might remember his motivation. So, he took a piece of orange paper that was lying around the house and cut it into the shape of a human skull. From that moment, he decided to create a skull from available materials every day for a year and post the results on social media. It was a crazy 365-day experiment, and at times he thought he’d put too much pressure on himself, but the results were thousands of social media followers as well as books, T-shirts and art installations about the Skull-a-Day project.  

“I think a lot of people think that creativity is a well within themselves and that some people have a lot more water in that well and others don’t have much,” Scalin said. “Creativity is about taking action. It’s about doing things, generating momentum. And then ideas come from it.”

Disrupting the normal course of business operations by infusing creative innovation into a workspace is not an easy task. But employing creative people and placing them in more creative environments was a tactic that Chip Trout, manager of interaction design at Carmax, learned from working with an Internet startup company. Trout spoke about how designing an open workspace with no offices and low cubicle walls proved to be the catalyst for unlocking his team’s creative potential.

“Collaboration went through the roof,” Trout said. “We started to see an immediate productivity increase.”

Eric Harrigan, Carmax's director of product management, and Chip Trout, manager of interaction design at Carmax, speak to attendees about igniting creativity in the workplace at the 2016 VCU Innovation Summit.
Eric Harrigan, Carmax's director of product management, and Chip Trout, manager of interaction design at Carmax, speak to attendees about igniting creativity in the workplace at the 2016 VCU Innovation Summit.

Eric Harrigan, Carmax’s director of product management, agreed. “There was a shift that needed to happen,” he said. “Now, no one on the team has a monopoly on the ideas. Everyone is more vested in what we needed to do [to be successful].”

As vice president of brand, marketing and digital at Marriott International, Kieran Marinucci believes innovation is simply looking at a service or product you already offer your customers and thinking about how to apply it to something new. She understands that Marriott’s customer is not the same today as it was yesterday, so continuing to innovate creative ways to serve the customer better is vital to successful worldwide operations of their hospitality services.

“Companies are successful because they believe success is never final,” said Marinucci, who is also a VCU alumna. “Innovation can happen in big ways like Apple, but it can also happen in everyday ways.”

Many of the participants agreed that times are shifting so fast in terms of customer wants and needs that all businesses need to not only allow their employees to be more creative on a regular basis, but actively engage employees in innovative brainstorming throughout all levels of the business.

“It’s about inclusion in the process and making sure that everyone feels they have a role to play,” said Jennifer Kirby, regional applications consultant at Steelcase Inc.

The VCU School of Business and the Da Vinci Center promote creativity in the classroom regularly so having VCU serve as a hub for business professionals to share ideas in a neutral space is important to those who were at the event.

“We want to tap into what is happening in Richmond right now and there’s a creative spirit,” said Ken Kahn, Ph.D., senior associate dean of the VCU School of Business. “Creativity is not [just] about what’s different, it’s about creative problem-solving.”

“You can read books and that’s helpful, you can have a consultant come in, but actually listening to people who are in the middle of it across different industries? It’s just a great way to learn,” said Nate Salatin, corporate development manager at Luck Cos.

Now an owner of Another Limited Rebellion, an art and innovation consulting company in Richmond that inspires businesses to practice their creativity, Scalin believes that there are many reasons for success in innovation but the most important for business professionals to realize is that you can’t accomplish it alone.

“Everybody can make snowballs,” Scalin said. “But no one cares if it’s a perfectly spherical snowball. If you’re at the top of a mountain and you want an avalanche to happen, do you want to throw down one perfectly formed snowball? Or do you want to throw down hundreds of mediocre snowballs? Because it’s those mediocre snowballs that’s going to make the avalanche happen. That avalanche is creative transformation, it’s innovation.”


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