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Challenging business – and business schools – to innovate

New research from Henley Business School Africa highlights the role that creative problem solving methodologies can play in business and business school education to unlock new value.

Henley Executive Fellow Dr Puleng Makhoalibe has posed a challenge to business education: overcome the resistance to creative approaches such as design thinking and project artistry, and harness the powerful creative problem-solving potential of these proven methodologies to push the boundaries of imagination and unlock new value both in the classroom and the boardroom.

In a new white paper published by Henley Business School Africa, titled, ‘Using the project artistry framework to optimise executive education’, Dr Makhoalibe argues: “If business schools hope to continue delivering impactful executive education in a fast-changing and unpredictable world, they must embrace the world of design thinking and creative problem-solving embodied in the project artistry framework.”

Although design thinking and creative problem-solving have both been around since the 1950s, the former emerging out of Stanford University as a cross-disciplinary process that combines creativity and logic, their popularity and uptake has since risen and fallen in successive waves. But today, amidst unparalleled global change and uncertainty, companies from all sectors and across all divisions are scrambling for human-centred priority skills, such as critical thinking, co-creation, and problem-solving.

“We are realising in today’s world, we cannot rely solely on logic to solve problems. A balance between logic and imagination is required, coupled with a rigorous process to extract fresh thinking to navigate a world of unknowns. And this is where project artistry has a significant role to play,” says Dr Makhoalibe.

Summed up through four key pillars – contextualisation, ideation, prototyping and conceptualisation – project artistry could be viewed as the love child of design thinking and creative-problem solving. While design thinking enables participants to apply creativity logically, creative problem-solving methodologies push the boundaries of the imagination to reach beyond the realm of logic.

It is a match well made, but project artistry has had somewhat of a difficult upbringing, however.

In her white paper, Dr Makhoalibe points out that “when project artistry was initially envisaged in 2011, it was a hard sell. This was not only because of the scepticism around design thinking from the world of business, but also because the word ‘artistry’ proved a distraction for corporates for whom the notion of creativity evoked concerns of wayward thinking, irrationality, and implausibility. Over the past few years, there has been a notable softening of this stance.”

With a background in IT and a degree in computer science and statistics, Dr Makhoalibe herself took time to warm up to the concept. “Being boxed into the software development mould for so long, I started playing with the project artistry framework to lead teams tasked with solving complex problems, empowering them to harness creativity and imagination in their thinking.”

Keen to document the effectiveness of this approach, she presented her first paper on the topic at the INTED conference in Spain in 2012 and went on to complete a PhD around the same concept. Now, teaching at Henley Business School Africa and as the CEO of her startup Alchemy Inspiration, she is taking the work even further.

“I hope to play a key role in further shifting perspectives in business and in business schools to embrace creative solutions like project artistry,” she says.

The approach has already been effectively integrated into several Henley executive development programmes, including a programme developed in partnership the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) for Standard Bank that won the EFMD accreditation body’s 2020 Excellence in Practice Gold Award for Executive Education.

“The brief from Standard Bank Group’s Head of Leadership Effectiveness, Shayne Weideman, to Henley’s director of Executive Education, Linda Buckley, was to ‘co-create and make magic happen’. So, we created a programme that introduced delegates to design thinking principles in a practical and unique way, incorporating unique immersions, focusing on passion projects, adding peer-to-peer and delegate-to-natural-support team linkages, and injecting storytelling and visual thinking into the process. The team also decided to bring creatives into the room, weaving in a series of disruptive experiences using unusual facilitators such as a comedian and a musician, to shake up the programme design and the participant’s mindsets.

The impact was measured carefully by Standard Bank, which concluded that 99% of participants applied what they had learned at work and 98% in their personal lives. A further 69% applied their insights in their communities. As one participant commented: “The programme was delivered in a way that I never imagined. It made me feel like a child again where I felt anything is possible through the power of imagination.”

Professor Danie Petzer, Head of Research and Henley Business School Africa, says it is exactly these impacts that the research team hopes to amplify through its thought leadership agenda.

“At Henley Africa we are committed to building the people, who build the businesses, that build Africa. This research makes a solid contribution to the body of knowledge around how best to ignite in business leaders that spark of creativity, curiosity and courage they need to grow as individuals, reach their full potential and unlock new value in the work, their families and their communities.”

Instead of leaving academic research to those residing in ivory towers, Henley Business School Africa is democratising thought leadership by involving more practitioners like Dr Makhoalibe in its generation, adds Prof Petzer.

“If business schools are able to play a meaningful role in unlocking human potential, we need to challenge ourselves to change, innovate, and create in exactly the same way that we encourage our students and clients to shift. If not, how can we hope to remain relevant?”

Useful resources:
Henley Business School
At the core of Henley’s philosophy is the belief that we need to develop managers and leaders for the future. We believe the challenge facing future leaders is the need to solve dilemmas through making choices. We work with both individuals and organisations to create the appropriate learning environment to facilitate the critical thinking skills to prepare for the future.
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