Monkeying around Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2008

Ask Dan Levinson, president of The Art Institute of California — Orange County, about creativity, and he’ll share the following story.

Scientists put four monkeys in a cage with a staircase that led to bananas. When the monkeys went up to get the bananas, scientists sprayed them with water, and the monkeys retreated. The scientists then replaced one monkey with a new monkey.

When that monkey tried to go up the stairs, the original monkeys stopped him so he wouldn’t get sprayed. Eventually, all four original monkeys had been replaced by four new monkeys, none of which would climb the stairs.

The lesson? Don’t blindly accept traditional practices whose origins are forgotten. Levinson continuously challenges his 250 employees to avoid doing that, while pushing for new and creative solutions to the same old processes.

Smart Business spoke with the president about how to train employees to think creatively by refusing to give them the answers.

Don’t give away the answers. Every new manager gets stuck in this process: ‘I have the answers; I’m going to tell you what the answers are,’ as opposed to taking the time to start training employees so that, in the long run, they can do it themselves.

Do not always give out the answers. Find out what (employees) think first, and then, if they’re on the right track, rely on them to do their jobs without giving them a lot of oversight.

I had a mentor, (and she said) that I had a revolving door in my office. People would fly in, ask me a question, I’d give them the answer, and they’d fly out.

She said, ‘You have to stop that cycle. One of the key points of stopping that cycle is to actually find out what they think about the question that they’re asking. Make them think before they can just come running to your office.’

When I met with my managers, I did explain the process to them of what I was trying to do. I said, ‘When you come to me with a question, come up with a couple of different solutions of what it is that you think you should do.’

Instead of just freeing my time up, it also empowered my managers. They didn’t feel like they were always coming to me for approval.

It also helped me identify some of my managers, where they needed some development or possibly some reassignment at that point. It was very helpful because, as we were talking about their solutions and why they were right or wrong, I was able to use that as a counseling session for each of my managers.

Take employees on a picnic. It’s great to come in with a vision of where you think you’d like the organization to go, but it really happens from the ground up. You have to get people involved in the visioning process.

[Say], ‘We’re at the company picnic five years from now. What does the company look like?’

Make people close their eyes at that meeting. Give them one or two minutes of silence to make them really think about it. Following up with that, take one minute to write down what their vision is.

Start it with all employees, and then break it down by department and have it roll up.

I have done it at the all-school meeting in the past, where we’ve taken an hour to talk through what’s going on, what’s happening, where we were and then where we would like to go.

I put them all up on a board, and I tried to group them together as close to topic as possible. When I got all of these different answers, it was really interesting.

A lot of times, it’s a matter of each department coming up with their own vision and mission and making sure that they fit into the overall vision and mission.

When it breaks down into smaller departmental meetings, whoever the executive committee manager that’s part of that process, you can help guide them along the way. Say, ‘Here’s the overall objective that we had last year. Let’s work within that frame before we jump outside of it.’

(Getting the involvement) just helps in the process of implementing whatever changes need to come down the road. It’s the buy-in factor.

Do the best with what you have. Quality is job No. 1. What it really takes is the attitude of understanding what your limitations are and being able to create within those limitations. Quality can be made at any level.

You might have done that team-building exercise where you have an egg that you have to drop off the second floor. The team that’s capable of creating whatever will save that egg from being cracked is the winner. You’re given straws, tape and newspaper — not a lot of quality materials or resources — in order to protect that egg.

By using creative thought and really thinking about what it is that you want to do to save that egg, you’re able to create a quality device that will protect that egg.

A lot of people are always saying, ‘I can’t do it because I don’t have the resources.’ The best thing to do is to look back at what resources you do have and then think about what you can do.

It’s that kind of thing; ‘If something’s broken, what are we going to do? What resources do we have? Let’s do it the best we possibly can.’

HOW TO REACH: The Art Institute of California — Orange County, (888) 549-3055 or