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Welcome to the Financial Times live web chat with Char March, who features in our Ten Questions Q&A.

Char March, writer-in-residence at Hull University Business School in the UK, and published playwright and poet, will answer your questions on Thursday 24th November, 2011 between 13.00-14.00 GMT.

Post your questions to ask@ft.com and they will be answered on the day on this page.


Hi Char, what made you decide to work with business schools?

Char: I was approached by Dr Barbara Allen of Hull University Business School after she’d seen me on television doing some teaching in an entirely different setting. She clearly saw something in the way I was inspiring the participants to write creatively that chimed with her view that creativity in business is an absolute essential – not a luxury. It is brilliant to work with Barbara, and HUBS – an organisation that is genuinely open to new ideas. It’s so refreshing to be pushing against an open door!

The business world and the financial markets are in chaos and there’s no sign of anything ‘getting back to normal’ anytime soon, so it is particularly important that business schools are thinking ‘outside the box.’ I equate it to global warming – with more and more extreme weather events happening and being predicted to happen, we can’t just sit back and do what we’ve always done, it just won’t work. We’ve got to get together and think in entirely new ways. That’s where creativity – and having a wacky writer like me! – comes in.

You say that if you were dean for the day you would kick out the daft way that academics write. Are you doing anything to help academics at Hull to write for a general managerial audience? And if so, what have been their reactions?

Char: I’ve only done a few days work for HUBS so far and mainly that’s been with students to help them find their own voice, to write from their passions and to find creative ways to use elements like story-telling, metaphor and analogies from other aspects of their lives to light up their business and academic writing.

However, I did get the chance to work with the communications team at HUBS, to find new ways of engaging prospective students (a doubly hard task for HUBS, given the huge increase in student fees and the fact that HUBS has a very high proportion of overseas students who will be facing the new border controls). I also worked with them to rethink how they might address busy business people through their brochures, website and other publications.

Academics and professionals are all so busy trying to appear everso professional and glossy and together, that they forget that every other business school is trying to look exactly like that too – and they underestimate (and in fact dismiss) the importance of getting through to their audiences in new ways, by appealing to their emotions, their sense of humour, their other senses. Hence getting the team to have fun designing their brochure as if it was for four-year-olds. This meant they thought about having voice buttons on different pages; textured pages; a scratch and sniff section for the HUBS cafe that is at the very centre of the business school – and where so much of the actual business of the school is conducted; glow-in-the-dark writing; pull-tabs for different levels of information (and for fun!); pop-up models of the business school.

Astonishingly, after doing this sort of (seemingly) mad work with them, they would like me to go back to not only do more work with students and the communications’s team, but also with more of the academic staff to explore new ways of integrating creative techniques and ways to stimulate divergent thinking into their teaching methods and their assessment criteria. I have been very clear with HUBS that I am not into doing window-dressing. There is no point me encouraging students to take more risks and be more creative in the way they tackle their academic writing if they are going to get marked down for it!

How important is creativity when it comes to making good leaders?

Char: I think we are seeing that right now, with the paucity of good, creative ideas coming from political leaders on what on earth to do in the current chaos!

We have our creativity systematically bashed out of us throughout our lives – check out Professor Ken Robinson on this very subject at Ted Converstaions. He shows very clearly (as masses of other education experts have) that kindergarten children are the most creative people in society. Young children don’t mind being wrong – they’ll have a go and, if that doesn’t work, they’ll have another go. They haven’t had it drummed into them that there is a big stigma to ‘being wrong’ and – very importantly – they don’t agree that there is only one right answer. And they are absolutely right – there are multiple answers and there’s nothing wrong with making mistakes on the way to finding out new stuff.

One of my favourite quotes about creativity (and I’ve got lots because there are so many different, inspiring and fun ways to look at creativity) is by Anne Dickson: “It is impossible to be creative with your life and to worry about what people think of you – so the choice is which one to give up.”

Maybe this is why our politicians (in particular) are not (currently) capable of thinking creatively enough, because they are so worried about how they will come across in the media.

This sort of hide-bound mentality is, I think, why academic writing has become so straitjacketed. Our current education system encourages us to specialise at a very early age and then, if you are to get anywhere in the hierarchy of higher education, “you just carry on ramming yourself further and further down the funnel of specialisation and cease to have any perspective on the real – wider – world”.

These aren’t my words, though I fully agree with them, they are the words of a frustrated PhD student at HUBS who I was working with last week. She very much wants to reflect the complexity of the business situation she is working on – as it really is – with multiple paradigms moving against each other. But she is being told to cut it down to one single paradigm and to even narrow down further on that one. I think this is dishonest and lazy of the education system and I believe it is also dangerous.

Of course it’s a lot easier for the lecturer to mark something simpler and for the student to get a good mark is easier too. But how does this actually serve the world – in all its complexities and contradictions, its negative and positive feedbacks, its fast-changing unpredictability? This is, after all, the business world that we all have to live in, so shouldn’t our allegedly brightest minds be tackling this – rather than a rarified, simplified and entirely artificial partial model of it?

And, to do this, our leaders (and ALL of us) will have to take more risks, will have to think differently – and wider – and will have to work together to try to dance on the fast-shifting carpet of the current times, rather than feeling that we’ve constantly had the rug pulled out from under our feet!

When you teach business students about creativity, do you find there is a gender divide? Do men react differently to women?

Char: I certainly haven’t noticed one thus far – which is very refreshing! Both genders seem to be able – and willing – to throw themselves into whatever crazy task I give them to do! Of course, I have had some participants question why we are doing a particular task, or how it will go down with the establishment at the business school if they start incorporating a particular creative technique into their work, but that is entirely understandable.

One thing I have noticed is that women – particularly the students whose first language isn’t English and who are therefore often quieter in class than the men – have been freed up to express themselves in new ways through the various creative techniques I’ve been getting them to use. This is great to see and great for them to experience. By using lots of different techniques that key into different parts of their brains and their senses, they find alternative ways to get their voices out there – through movement, through story-telling with leaves, through making paper sculptures of their lives...

Barbara Allen (deputy dean at HUBS) is particularly keen for the overseas students to be given opportunities to express their creativity because she feels (and I agree with her) that this is the part of themselves that they most suppress during their time at the business school. They do, after all, have a HUGE amount on their plates: they’ve travelled thousands of miles to an entirely different culture with an entirely different education system; they are learning difficult concepts in a language that isn’t their mother tongue; they often owe their families everything for getting together the money to send them to school; they are having to find accommodation, food, transport, friends, et al in very foreign surroundings; and they’ve got the same academic deadlines as everyone else. Personally, I think they should be given a degree for coping with all that! However despite (or quite likely because of) this, they are positively fizzing with ideas and creativity and HUBS is determined to find ways that they can express this in their academic work – and bring it out into the business world.

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