I love being creative.  When I was young we had an entire room for art, called the craft room.  It was filled to the brim with supplies, glue, construction paper; we could at any moment create something on a whim.  I don’t have space for a craft room for my family, but two years ago when we were renovating the house our contractor asked what our dream “must haves” were for the new kitchen   I asked to design an entire organized drawer completely focused on organizing art supplies.  I couldn’t have a room, but I could have art close at hand.

This December in WiBE Deans we will be running a creative problem solving workshop, looking at our greatest challenges in new and different ways. Being a creative in the higher education world sometimes isn’t the most natural fit.  Creativity is about busting barriers, doing the unexpected and breaking rules.  Academia on the other hand is generally entrenched in serious tradition, logical reasoning, theory and well, rules. 

 Here are four ways that I light my creative spark in an academic environment:

1. Creativity in academia is remembering how to be playful (with serious topics)

The best ideas I get from 8 year olds.  Last year I was tasked with running an opening session at a large conference of business academics.  I wanted it to be a lively and engaging session that also tackled tough questions.   After the session I received incredible feedback.  A professor informed me she had taken notes and planned to run a similar session for her MBA students.  Another Professor lamented that he wished my session had double the amount of time.

 The irony is that the activity I ran, for all of those prestigious academics, was the same activity I run for a Girl Scout troop of 8 year olds.  The basics I pulled from a game called “four corners”, but I adjusted for slightly less movement and replaced the questions with tough academic ones.  The idea for the session came to me while I was working with my daughter’s troop a few weeks prior.

 Of course I didn’t tell any of the participants this!  There is so much we can learn from remembering how to be playful and joyful while doing academic work.  Next time you are grappling with a tough topic, I challenge you to view it from the eyes of a child.   

 How can you add more play to your area of expertise?

2.   Creativity comes from your body as much as your mind

My best work comes to me when I am in the “creative zone” both mentally and physically.  I have discovered that new ideas don’t come to me in staff meetings, conference tables, on white boards or Zoom calls.   But rather finding my special place helps encourage the creative process to naturally come to me.

 My best ideas typically come while I am out on a run.   For those that have ever worked with me they know if trying to solve a problem or need advice they will generally receive the response, “let me think about it on my run this evening and get back to you.”  The best brainstorming session I ever had was when a co-worker and I were traveling in Singapore and we landed up at the hotel gym on the treadmill next to each other.  We had some great outcomes from that hour, even while completely jet lagged.

 Alternatively, I find my creative zone for writing out at the farm with my daughter while she is horseback riding.   Many blog posts have been written out in the fresh air.  There is nowhere to plug in a laptop out in the viewing area, so I use a pen and notebook.

 Although the mood to write, create or problem solve can sometimes come from out of nowhere, it does help to recognize where it comes to you more easily, and then go to that special place often to let the creative juices flow to you.

 Where is your special space that allows for you to create?  

3.   Creativity is a muscle that you have to warm up, flex and consistently use

 Like all good athletes, creativity is built over time and practiced.  We all innately have the ability to be a creative person, we just need to warm up and practice. You don’t have to be a master at it.  Doubtful if any of my projects will ever be Instagram or Pinterest worthy.  The point is not to be a professional, but rather to not give up. It is not about giant leaps, but rather small daily steps of increasing your creativity each day. 

For example,  When I find an electric image, idea or interesting article that I know might be useful but I don’t have the time to focus on it at the moment, I have a special place I immediately save it to and then come back to it.  (You could use Pinterest but I prefer capturing my ideas in the note taking tool Evernote.) I make sure that I don’t let these sparks of inspiration pass by.  When I have a moment or need an infusion of motivation I then check my “ideas folder.”

 How can you more consistently flex your creative muscles? 

 4.  You can be a creative rebel even in the most conservative of environments

 Prior to launching WiBE I worked at an international business council.  I wore a suit everyday and worked with many C-Suite executives at multinationals.  We hosted a majority of our activities in the Middle East.   This was an exceptionally conservative office culture, and I was a Director of an important unit.

 However, what I found is that those devoid of all creative outlets can also be the hungriest for it.  So when I was tasked with running a full-day strategic planning session across all three offices at an exceptionally difficult time of heightened tensions in the region, I knew another suited up boardroom discussion was not what we needed.

 So I brought out the Play-Doh and came up with an activity for the staff to design a solution to visually.  At first the senior executives were not into it.    They rolled their eyes and complained.  Our Economist initially outright refused.  It was a touch and go as to whether I would have any professional integrity left after this day.  But then an executive finally leaped into the foray and the others followed suit.  Finally, they laughed and took pictures and got quite into it at the end. 

 Then we put away the activity and I brought out the hard questions we had to tackle.  The day felt lighter, even if the topics got heavier.

 We came up with some incredible outcomes.  Oh, and remember that Economist?  Well he was rather proud when he was voted first place with his own original creation!

 Where can you bring a creative process to a group that may not welcome the idea?

 I am very much looking forward to diving into Creative Problem solving with Margaret Andrews with the WiBE Deans at our upcoming workshop on Wednesday, December 2 (11am EST).  A Zoom session isn’t exactly my preferred creative zone, but I know it will inspire me once I am in my special space.

 In the meantime, I’m off to restock the art drawer.  Best be prepared.

 You can follow me @leanderlisa on Twitter or Lisa Leander on Linked In, and let me know how you are a creative rebel AND an academic.  

Lisa Leander is Founder & CEO of Women in Business Education, a global community championing women’s leadership in business academia.  She is an international development and management expert with eighteen years experience managing higher education initiatives in 22 different countries. During the day you might find her advising U.S. multinational companies navigating complex market opportunities, creating complex art creations with her two daughters or attempting to train a high energy German Shepherd.

Follow along the newly launched Women in Business Education, or WiBE (pronounced We-Be) an international community to champion women’s leadership in business academia. Subscribe here to receive new inspiring blog posts and virtual events.