Back to Class: Creativity Workout

This Stanford Executive Program course used virtual reality to help business leaders embrace an “improviser’s mindset.”

June 02, 2022

| by Justine Sombilon
Screenshot of a virtual reality class taking place on a virtual campus.

Stanford Executive Program students gather on a virtual campus. 

A stage, a dance floor, an art studio. These are all environments where we are encouraged to let our creativity flow. But what about the boardroom? A course in the Stanford Executive Program aims to nudge the business leaders who take it to embrace what Stanford Graduate School of Business lecturer Dan Klein calls “creativity as a discipline.” And Klein is using virtual reality to help them do it.

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Klein’s course, Creativity Workout, is based on the premise that executives need to understand and value the seeds of innovation. According to Klein, one of the most important lessons in business school is “learning about the improviser’s mindset.” Not as performers, but as people who are going to facilitate creativity.

“Your job isn’t to be the creative one,” Klein says. “But the more you know and understand about creativity, the better positioned you are to evaluate creativity and to create the context in which creativity can thrive.”

Klein teaches his students classic improv games, such as “Yes, and… ,” which illustrates the value of accepting a partner’s ideas and cooperating to create a successful scene. And this year, for the first time, Klein conducted one two-hour class session entirely in virtual reality.

“The goal of this was twofold,” Klein says. “To give people a tangible experience of virtual reality, to wear a headset and interact with other people in this way. And to open up their minds to what is creatively possible. We’re in a ‘yes, and… ’ mode already, then we say, ‘Alright, so what else can you do?’”

Creativity Workout is one of the offerings in SEP Flex, a new format of the program that combines four weeks on campus with 10 weeks of remote sessions. Since the virtual reality session took place while students were logging in from home, SEP Flex worked with Meta to deliver headsets to all 49 students. The next challenge was the creation of the virtual world students would inhabit. To build it, Klein partnered with the virtual communication platform Engage, which curated a virtual campus that mimicked the real one, decorating it with Stanford banners, flags, and iconography.

The more you know and understand about creativity, the better positioned you are to evaluate creativity, and to create the context in which creativity can thrive.
Dan Klein

The transition to an immersive digital classroom wasn’t without a few glitches. Klein recounts comical user errors. “I realized how big of a challenge it is when it took about 10 minutes for one student to log on,” he says. After some back-and-forth with the Engage and Meta support teams, they discovered that the student was holding the controller backwards.

Klein compares the first experiences of virtual reality to being on a boat for the first time. “Some people are prone to be seasick and some people are fine, and there are some techniques that you can use to minimize that seasickness. And then with a little bit of practice, you can gain your sea legs and you will be fine.”

Intrigued by the possibilities VR presented, Klein gained access to thousands of digital assets and engineered a treasure hunt. He inserted both mundane and fantastical objects throughout the space and encouraged students to examine every corner and crevice of the virtual realm. “It was a chance for them to explore the idea of moving around in space. But also there’s something appealing about hiding a tiny demon under a chair, in a lounge area,” he says. “Or you go behind the flag and there’s an astronaut or a jet plane. At the end, the room was just a great chaos of dragons and coffee mugs all over the space.”

The two-hour session left Klein convinced that virtual reality can be a useful tool for teaching creativity. However, he notes, there is still work to be done to ensure that users are properly trained to access and use the technology. “I think there’s a lot of possibilities. I think we can do genuine, satisfying, engaging, uplifting experiences in VR if we can get the tools in everyone’s hands and get them all logged in.”

“My overall instinct is that it’s ready, technically, but there still seems to be a hurdle in getting wide enough adoption so that people can do it easily. I feel like we were just scratching the surface.”

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