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At McColl’s Innovation Institute, 9-to-5ers master the art of business

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    The Innovation Institute was started nine years ago and is funded in part by grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Windgate Charitable Foundation.

    Each day of the two-day program is led by a different artist. Participants listen to the artist’s personal experiences with creativity and innovation, take part in exercises and apply what they learn in group reflections. The institute lasts from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and is located at the McColl Center at 721 N. Tryon St. Tuition is $1,200.

    The next institute will be Sept. 18 and 19, with another Nov. 7 and 8. Registration is available via the McColl Center’s website at mccollcenter.org/innovation-institute/open-enrollment.



“Let go.”

That’s what artist Shaun Cassidy tells business professionals.

That’s not easy for most CEOs. In fact, it’s pretty difficult after investing time and money to build a company. But encouraging business people to bring a new mentality to their work is the goal of the Innovation Institute, an ongoing, two-day program through the McColl Center for Art + Innovation.

The workshop is aimed at 9-to-5ers – mostly executives – who want to develop their creativity.

“The goal here is to help people learn their creative capacities,” said McColl Center President and CEO Suzanne Fetscher. That’s why the center tapped Cassidy, a sculptor and professor of fine arts at Winthrop University, to be one of the discussion and workshop leaders.

Bringing creativity to the workplace is not a new concept. At Queens University of Charlotte’s McColl School of Business, professor Cathy Anderson has been teaching her students how to find inspiration anywhere – from movies, nature or conversations – and jotting down these connections in a “creative notebook.” It’s all part of her class on developing the creative process.

“It’s a competitive advantage as a nation,” Anderson said. “For the companies that have figured it out, they’re leading the way.”

She gives the example of Charlotte-based Nucor, a Fortune 500 company. There, the steelmaker uses a bonus plan that recognizes innovative thinking, according to Donovan Marks, Nucor’s general manager of human resources.

“If you give teammates an avenue to make suggestions,” Marks said, “they’ll do it, and they’re damn good suggestions.”

So how do left-minded folks tap into that second, more artistic side of themselves? Here are five ways the innovation institute teaches participants to foster free thinking back at the office:

Embrace disruption

The last thing any professional wants to hear in the middle of a project is that there is going to be a budget cut. Or a staff shortage. Or a tighter deadline. But Cassidy argues that these inconveniences are crucial in encouraging innovation. “It allows us to come up with a different solution,” he says.

For Fabi Preslar, a two-time Institute participant and president of Spark Publications, which does magazine, marketing and website design, Cassidy’s lesson on disruption was “phenomenal.”

There was a time when Preslar wouldn’t dream of handing off a magazine design project mid-flow. Now, she sees how another person’s perspective on the project could produce a better publication.

“It taps into this thing – this rigidity,” she said, adding that many business people “fall in love” with their own ideas and have trouble being flexible.

Back off

We all make mistakes.

Unfortunately, mistakes can have weighty consequences when money is involved. And that can be especially tough for executives who founded their own companies.

That’s why the Innovation Institute targets CEOs. They have the ability to implement the concepts they learn – such as accepting failure – when they return to work.

That’s what participant Jennifer Appleby did at Wray Ward, the creative marketing agency where she serves as president and CEO.

Like many companies, Wray Ward has restructured its operations over the years. During one attempt, Appleby and her staff poured hours and dollars into streamlining their workflow. But instead of becoming more efficient, they wound up making things more complicated, Appleby said.

“We thought we were brilliant,” she says. “We get everything into place and … we failed.”

“You have to have the authority to (allow) space for failure,” she said. Of employees, she adds, “It can’t just be, ‘Off with their heads.’ 

And that falls in line with Cassidy’s point about nothing being a waste of time. “When you find out a project or idea is not working, that’s useful information.”

Trust your gut

You know that feeling in the pit of your stomach that says not to run that yellow light? That’s your gut, and while Cassidy says that artists are typically in tune with their intuitions, he says the business sector often has a harder time trusting these whims.

Participant Jason Fararooei, who is a principal at multimedia firm Yellow Cape Communications, coined his own term for this idea – “Trust your do.”

“What I learned from this process is that I suffer from analysis paralysis,” says Fararooei, whose work includes producing marketing videos for companies. He says he has since learned that over-thinking can hinder his creativity.

Sheila Kilbane also learned a lesson in listening to her gut. Kilbane works as an integrative pediatrician who uses natural remedies and dietary changes to help children with chronic health issues.

Almost two years ago, “I stepped out of my traditional practice. Part of my vision was to do medicine a different way,” said Kilbane. She eventually hopes to see her patients on a horse farm, which she says will encourage healing.

“It really helped affirm a lot of the things I’ve been doing and to follow my intuition,” she said of the Institute.

So just what does following your intuition look like? Cassidy has this advice:

“If somehow these gut feelings keep popping up, there’s something going on,” Cassidy says. “I don’t have this empirical data that says I am going to succeed. What I do have is a hunch.”

Open up

Tears are not unusual for day two of the Institute, which focuses on self-reflection.

“I’m almost certain that everyone had a moment at some point,” says Preslar. “Even the big guys.”

“I did get a little bit emotional,” said Fararooei. For him, an exercise in self-reflection prompted a desire to change what he saw as personal shortcomings.

And this was not something they were used to. “In business, we don’t allow vulnerability to be a part of our everyday process,” Preslar says.

Since the institute, she says she has changed the way she manages her company. Preslar says she sat down with her team to discuss how they could apply the same lessons she learned to their workplace – such as using more “disruptive” techniques to shake up their workflow.

Says Preslar: “I lead with authenticity and vulnerability now.”

Let it go

We all hear it, but it’s an idea that’s easier said than done.

In Kilbane’s line of work, relinquishing control means listening to patients.

“A lot of what I’ve been doing is what I thought people wanted,” she says. “I’ve been asking a lot more what the moms want.”

Cassidy teaches that listening is a vital part of collaboration. For starters, he says, “you have to relinquish your ego.”

Anderson teaches her Queens students a similar lesson on leadership.

“How many CEOs walk into a room and say, ‘I want new and great ideas’ and then proceed to stomp the living daylight out of people who are brave enough to say something?” she asks. “It really has to come out of the organic nature of a company.”

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