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December 2015
Dean Andy Boynton

Leading with ideas

 

STEERING CLEAR OF THE RUTS, THE WEST SIDE STORY WAY

By Andy Boynton, John and Linda Powers Family Dean

 

For me, as the leader of a school of management, there are few things more unsettling than the prospect of falling into a rut. I’m speaking of the kind that breeds complacency and keeps you from going after new ideas. How do you get out of that uncreative ditch? How do you avoid tumbling into it in the first place?

Many great minds have grappled with these questions, with varying results. The composer Igor Stravinsky was known to stand on his head to make the creative juices flow again, as Rachel Gillett has noted in Fast Company. The French novelist and playwright Honore de Balzac would drink what he called a “brutal” amount of coffee on an empty stomach, presumably as a form of shock treatment.

Although I’ve been known to drink brutal amounts of Diet Mountain Dew, I have no plans to try either of these particular techniques. In theory I’d give more credence to advice offered by the artist and designer Bob Faust: “Get out of the studio ... far away from the computer.” At the moment, however, I am reflecting on this matter at my desk, in front of a desktop computer, on the fifth floor of our main building at the Carroll School of Management. And, my answer to the rut question involves taking no more than a few steps around the office.

Over the years, I have found that one way of steering clear of the ruts is to be very mindful of the space I inhabit. That includes, inevitably, my office space.

For one thing, I try to put time into thinking about what books I want to be gazing at on my shelves, and which ones could be relegated to the storage room. Are the volumes in my bookcases stimulating new ideas and pushing me to try new things?

One book that has remained close at hand for me is The University: An Owner’s Manual (Norton, 1990) by Henry Rosovsky, former arts-and-sciences dean of Harvard University. The author relates a piece of advice given to him by an older professor at the beginning of his deanship—“listen to the gossip, that is what all deans do.” I wouldn’t put it exactly that way, but Rosovsky elaborates that this dose of wisdom motivated him to “keep my finger on the pulse of a complex organism by listening” [my emphasis]. Just glancing at the book reminds me to do the same.

Another such book is The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering by Frederick P. Brooks Jr. (Addison-Wesley, 1975). The so-called Brooks’ Law states that at a certain point, adding someone to a software project makes it take more, not less, time. Doing so makes the project worse, partly because people are getting in each other’s way. That’s something to consider when setting up a curriculum review panel or any kind of team.

As fond as we academics are of books, there are other items and artifacts worth filling your space with for guidance and inspiration.

An “East Side” Story?

West Side Story poster

For example, on a wall near my desk is a framed reproduction of the poster for the original Broadway production of West Side Story, starring Natalie Wood. I draw inspiration from the thought of three creative geniuses—composer Leonard Bernstein, choreographer Jerome Robbins, and writer Arthur Laurents—teaming up to create this iconic story.

It was not a smooth ride for these three. Aside from their colliding egos, the team had to contend with what was frankly a bad idea. The original title of the production was going to be “East Side Story,” with the drama centering on hostilities between Catholics and Jews on the Lower East Side. Not a winning concept: the days of Catholic-Jewish rumbling on the streets of New York were already numbered by the time this illustrious team came together in 1949.

Still, the three artists let the idea float and then set aside the project. A few years later, Bernstein and Laurents ran into each other at a hotel pool in Beverly Hills. They were chatting when both happened to glance at a newspaper someone was holding, with a headline about gang fights between California residents and Mexican immigrants. Instantly, the two looked at each other: they knew they now had their story, about the clash between white gangs and Puerto Ricans who had just begun migrating to New York.

The West Side Story collaboration (which came to include a fourth virtuoso, lyricist Steven Sondheim) is a lesson in what I call “idea flow.” The poster in my office is a constant reminder of the need to always keep ideas, at times even bad ones, in motion. And it dramatizes the value of being sharply aware of your space—whether sitting at your desk or by the pool.

Recently while on a trip to the West Coast, I acquired some vintage photographs for the purpose of rut prevention. These include cast shots of classic movies and TV shows ranging from Singing in the Rain and The Wizard of Oz to The Honeymooners and The Addams Family. I do not look upon these portraits as art for art’s sake. For me, they are all about stimuli. Everyone in them is a creative thinker. The pictures remind me that I need to stay connected to fresh ideas—and not take myself too seriously.

At the Carroll School, we are ever-watchful of the ruts and always mindful of the need for a brisk idea flow.

Over the past decade, much has changed at our school. We’ve revised the school’s core curriculum. We’ve contributed to a revision of the University’s core curriculum. We’ve created our Portico experience for all first-semester students, who are introduced to business from an interdisciplinary and ethical perspective. We’ve enlivened our academic research culture. We’ve launched new research centers. We’ve created a summer management program for liberal arts majors. We’ve spearheaded these and many other innovations by letting ideas incubate and engaging in no small amount of trial and error.

I wouldn’t try to draw an easy link between these innovations and changes in my office space. But whenever I enter my office, I’m reminded of what matters most—creative breakthroughs. I’m reminded that even at a business school, it should never be business as usual, and that the search for great ideas should always be fun.