Turning creativity on its head

creativityProfessor Tracy Suter has always dared to think differently (long before it was a popular advertising slogan for Apple), though he didn’t label himself as creative until a discerning student pointed it out.

Early in his career, a wise student handed Suter a book — Gordon Mackenzie’s Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace — and said, “Embrace this philosophy. This is you.” The giant hairball illustrates the tangled mass of rules, processes and systems that can hinder creativity in an organization. “Orbiting the hairball means striving for creative outcomes in spite of those conventions,” said Suter. “I never thought of what I was doing as being unique; it’s just what I did.”

That was in 1997. Twenty years later, Suter still embraces creative outcomes and encourages his students to do the same.

Suter was appointed in 2016 to the newly established David and Leslie Lawson Endowed Chair in Entrepreneurial Studies in the Collins College of Business. He will build on efforts to expand the college’s current programs, which include Studio Blue, the NOVA Fellowship program and a recently launched minor in innovation and entrepreneurship, all open to students from any major. In due time, he will also propose new programs to connect different areas of campus and advance the university’s partnership with the community.

His first task: Teach applied creativity and innovation to undergraduate students from across campus. “Skeptics might say that creativity cannot be taught; a person is either born creative, born innovative, or they’re not,” Suter said. “I disagree. All of us are born creative, and if we are not encouraged to use it, we often lose it.”

His approach, then, is to rekindle more than instruct, illustrate more than tell and demonstrate as much as he asks. In the end, Suter said his goal is for his students to have a renewed confidence in their creative abilities and the courage to orbit the giant hairballs they will eventually encounter.

On the decision to call TU his new home, Suter said, “What better time than now to move TU’s current successes and future opportunities forward into new territories, especially with Tulsa’s entrepreneurial community continuing to grow? Fab Lab, Kitchen 66, 36 Degrees North, the Forge, BetaBlox, One Million Cups — these are not only shining examples of what local entrepreneurs have built, but also an entire ecosystem created to help people grow up within it. This kind of natural engagement allows TU to match its efforts with those of the surrounding community. My hope is that we can all work together for a greater benefit.”

Suter explains that innovation serves as an economic driver. “For the first time in recorded history, more businesses have closed their doors than have opened them – the deficit is around 70,000 firms nationally,” he said. “In terms of increasing the number of independent business owners, we really need to catch up as a nation.”

Adopting a mindset of innovation and entrepreneurship doesn’t solely apply to those interested in hanging their own shingle. “Some of the coolest ideas with long-term appeal come from employees working within an existing structure or framework. Gmail is a great example; it was a pet project developed a Google employee. We need to empower employees to innovate within their areas to bring that same level of originality to existing firms.”

Empowerment is a cornerstone of Suter’s classes. Not content to assign work with answers easily verified by a Google search or Siri query, he instead asks students to think independently about issues in an effort to build their confidence beyond classical academic contexts. “Often, one of the most challenging questions I hear is, ‘What do you want regarding this assignment?’ My reaction is to turn the question back to them and ask, ‘What do you want to give me?’ I like to give students opportunities to voice their perspectives and to decide how ideas are best presented.”

Suter even turns the concept of failure on its head, impressing upon his students that missteps mark the route to success. He presented Blake Landon, a freshman in his applied creativity and innovation course, with the Fail Harder Award in recognition of a project failure that became an ultimate success. Landon’s failure formed the basis of that day’s lecture, offering students a different take on what they would typically perceive as a negative experience. The overarching message: Failing does not make one a failure. Quitting, giving up — or worse, not trying at all — are the truest markers of failure. Failing can be a great source of learning if persistence and tenacity follow.

It’s not all creativity all of the time, though. Suter grounds his enterprising side with a firm foundation in analytics and statistics. He likens the dichotomy to the popular Mac versus PC commercials: “When I’m in my creativity and innovation classes, I’m the Mac guy. In my research classes, I’m the PC. We see them painted across that ad campaign as being different and distinct, but in reality, you have to do both. Data is everywhere, and those people who can look at that data in a slightly different way are the people who can innovate. I hope to be able to do that as I join the faculty here at TU.”