Forget the GMAT! Why Aren't Business Schools Seeking Out Creativity?

Every summer, Redfin hires interns from Stanford, Yale, Berkeley and the University of Washington. And at least once a summer, an intern posts an essay on our blog. Last year, Edward Chang, who will be rejoining Redfin for a permanent position this fall, explained why college students can’t be bothered with Twitter.

Today, we’re publishing the first essay of this summer. It was adapted from an email that one of our Stanford interns, Michael Brandt, sent me last Thursday about his thinking on creativity and attending business school.  The topic had come up because when Michael first approached Harvard Business School about the possibility of applying for the class of 2013, he was told he seemed more creative, rather than business-oriented.

Well, Michael is a very creative person, having in his first couple of weeks at Redfin made a proposal for building a Roomba-style iPhone app, which would allow someone to create a floor plan for a home just by walking the perimeter of each room with the phone in her hand.

Here Michael argues that creativity isn’t incompatible with business, only with business schools. I love the essay, and hope you do, too. Best, Glenn

When I spoke to the Harvard Business School admissions dean last week, she invited me to come to this info session last night to learn about the school and see if I really would fit in.

At the info session, she went through about a dozen adjectives for what she’s looking for — able to lead, self-starting, giving, business-literate, etc. One quality that was not on her list was creativity, or anything like it.
Interesting. I read a Newsweek article recently about the creativity crisis we’re facing in the US.

Interesting quote: “A recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the No. 1 ‘leadership competency’ of the future.” A telling anecdote from the article is of an American professor who observed a Chinese university where the students were doing all sorts of creative projects, while US education is becoming more and more standardized and rote. Said the Chinese prof, “You [Americans] are racing toward our old model. But we’re racing toward your model, as fast as we can.”

We can race too. But we need to realize that being creative is not the same as being a self-starter, a leader, a quick learner, or any other management skill. Creativity is its own quality, taught in its own way. Management aptitude comes with experience managing; creativity comes with, well, being 7 years old.

Some of the most in-demand classes at the Stanford Business School are across campus at the Design School. There’s a tough application process for each class. Business-school students are competing to spend their precious elective units drawing, sawing, going on field trips, brainstorming, filming, thinking, interviewing, building, and destroying. They play all day and leave with more questions than answers.

All adults were creative at one point, and to get it back we just need to be shown how to awaken our inner 7-year old in a useful way.


  • JanelleS

    I love reading something that crystallizes thoughts I've had swirling around in my head, but been unable to articulate. Thank you, and I couldn't agree more.

    • Michael Brandt

      Glad to hear it, thank you!

  • Sean OConnell

    Don't worry Michael. The person that gave you a robotic interview will have her position outsourced to a call center in India soon anyway.

    Entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Walt Disney, Henry Ford, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Richard Branson either didn't finish college or didn't go at all. I wonder how your interview would have gone with them?

    College has many useful functions. However, in the US, many schools are way to top heavy with people that couldn't create a job in the real world much less teach future business owners how to.

    Keep asking questions and you will soon be doing the interviewing.

    • Michael Brandt

      Maybe we are wrong in looking to business schools to be teachers of creativity and wellsprings of new thought. After all, that’s not how I look at med school or law school.

      But then again, business schools claim to be training leaders. They consistently make that claim. While a leader should certainly know the ins and the outs of the status quo, what keeps him awake at night is how he’s going to shake it up. How many inspiring leaders are going to be attracted to, or borne of, 2 years of business school? And is that number going to go up or down over the next decade? I don’t really know the answers.

      You gave several good examples of leaders who steered clear, and it's worth nothing that few Fortune 50 companies are led by people with MBA's, and only a third of NYSE-listed companies are. That being said, I’ve been inspired and impressed by many who have gone the b-school route.

  • Evan Meagher

    Among the current zeitgiest of MBA-bashing, it's good to read the opinion of a potential student, as opposed to some tech blog pundit. As always, the words of those in the trenches are much more persuasive than commentary from afar.

    It'll be interesting to see how B-schools react to these sentiments over the next decade. Rather than simply expanding the breadth of their programs to include more creativity-centric courses, it seems to me that an effort should be made to make the core business courses more imaginative. Students' yearning for creativity in their elective choices represents a clear direction that B-schools themselves should address.

    • Michael Brandt

      Evan, I totally agree, if business programs want to be pillars of innovation, they should prioritize creativity in the curriculum.

      If they don't want to do that, but simply want to teach administration (after all, that's what the A stands for in MBA), that's their call. There's always D-School (or no school).

  • cameronplommer

    Great job Michael. Your experience with business school is the exact reason why I would never go. I'd rather use my own creativity to design my own curriculum by finding mentors/advisors, reading lots of books and building my own products.

    I think school should teach, or maybe a better word is develop/leverage creativity. Creativity can be used to take on new challenges, learn new things and basically doing anything. I'll be writing more about this in a post of my own.

    • Michael Brandt

      Cameron, I like what you said about treating the world as a classroom and building your own curriculum. It takes discipline, but it's definitely the best way to be sure you're learning things that are meaningful to you. Sometimes, however, when you don't even know what book you need to pickup or who to go talk to,

      I'm looking forward to reading your post about creativity. Post a link and I'll check it out.

      • Michael Brandt

        sorry about that – here's what I meant to say:

        Cameron, I like what you said about treating the world as a classroom and building your own curriculum. It takes discipline, but it's definitely the best way to be sure you're learning things that are meaningful to you. Sometimes, however, when you don't even know what book you need to pickup or who to go talk to, nothing beats having a teacher opening your eyes to things you didn't even know you didn't know.

        I'm looking forward to reading your post about creativity. Post a link and I'll check it out.

  • Real Estate Hanoi

    Maybe the schools or teachers doesn't really enhance their students to have creativity, since we know that schools today are very systematic and very rigid. If only teachers knows what to do to bring out the creativity in their students then it will never be a problem.

    • Michael Brandt

      I agree that teachers should bring out creativity in their students, though that's easier said than done. It's tough to do as a teacher in elementary school or high school because of how standardized-test driven the curriculum is. As a student of 12 years of public education in Chicago, taking standardized tests feels as routine to me as a doctor's visit. Only the very best teachers were able to teach to the curriculum and still inspire creative thought.

  • Tom Leung

    As a b-school grad who fancies himself kind of creative, I must take exception with the notion that creative thinking and b-schools are incompatible. While I'm not surprised creativity wasn't called out in admissions criteria, I don't think that means it's not valued at all. Perhaps it just means that the admissions criteria of leadership, intellect, and collaboration were higher in the stack ranked list.

    I'd also suggest the bigger need isn't necessarily creativity in and of itself, but innovation, which I think captures the design thinking approaches you referred to in your post and has been present in most b-school curricula for some time now but probably needs even more emphasis going forward.

    Obviously, a thought provoking post. Keep it up :-)

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