A survey of 1,500 CEOs conducted several years ago by IBM revealed that the most valued management skill was no longer operations or marketing but creativity. Yet creativity, says Bruce Nussbaum, author of Creative Intelligence: Harnessing the Power to Create, Connect, and Inspire — who began covering innovation and design in the 1990s for BusinessWeek and is now a professor of innovation and design at New York City’s New School — is still perceived as “artsy-fartsy.”
All too often, Nussbaum said, business-people see creativity as the purview of “people who paint and write and do things in the ‘creative arts.’” But that’s beginning to change, he told Convene, with the “realization that the skills and competencies that make people creative are exactly the skills and competencies that generate economic value.” Nussbaum believes that we’re at a point in time — and it’s happened before in history — where creativity is critical to business success.
That applies to the process of designing conferences to engage today’s participants, as well as to understanding how the meeting environment itself can foster creativity.
You focus in your book on the creative and entrepreneurial mindset. How important is that kind of thinking within established organizations versus those that are startups?
Maybe even more so. Wherever I go and talk to large corporations, it’s clear that they’re kind of terrified because their consumer base is changing and the way they interact with their consumers is changing dramatically and they don’t quite know what to do. They know it has something to do with social media and something to do with engagement and something to do with a lot of things technology [-related].
Very often, corporations are run by engineers, right? They’re still mostly male-dominated, which is surprising. And they see the world in very traditional terms, but they know things are changing and they know they have to deal with it. And so they very often will call it “innovation,” which is kind of a male term for creativity, because they’re more comfortable with innovation — you know, it’s male, it’s engineering, it has like a military tone to it.
I think when you look at startups today, they are much more driven by the processes and the practices of creativity than the efficiency-dominant ethos and management style of large corporations. So I think this is all my way of saying that creativity is really apropos and essential to generating economic value at the turn of the 21st century, and that’s pretty much why I wrote the book.
Thinking specifically about one of the five Creative Competencies you outline in your book — framing — can you speak to how that relates to the meetings industry?
Sure, let me talk about framing and framing engagements, which I think has turned out to be one of the more powerful competencies in my book, and clearly one that as I go around and get to corporations, one that they really get into, that they’re understanding.
So one of the competencies I talk about is, in the old days — not too long ago, but certainly our parents’ generation, grandparents’ generation — we had people who were basically passive in terms of you gave them an experience. The whole idea is, you create a wonderful experience for people and they’ll be happy and they’ll buy your stuff. And it’s still true, you know, in lots of places. But clearly — certainly with Gen Y and increasingly with Boomers and certainly around the world — people want to participate in all the things in their lives, and they have the tools to do it. Seeing them as sort of passive people who experience things or simply want to go and put down their money and get something in a very simple transaction — the world isn’t working that way anymore. People want to be active in all of their engagements. Face-book is an engagement. Twitter is an engagement. They want to participate in the creation of their lives in a very active way.
And so the relationship of people to their products and to the things that are important in their lives is much more active and much more dynamic. And you have to learn to frame that engagement. You have to understand that you can create that engagement. And to me, that’s an essential part of creativity. It is one of the great creative competencies, you know, that we all have to be aware and we have to learn.
The need to reframe how you engage people is central to conferences and meetings. We’ve really gone beyond the point of having meetings where people come and sit still for a day or two days while experts yak at them. No one wants to do that anymore, and I’m still surprised at how many conferences I go to where they’re structured exactly like that.
What has been your experience at those kinds of conferences?
People tuning out. They open their screens, and they go somewhere else. And the structure of meetings and the structure of the engagement — you know, you’re not meeting, you’re engaging in many different ways. And I think you have to structure the coming together of people in much more dynamic and diverse ways. And that has enormous implications for associations that are dealing with meetings.
How would you restructure that “coming together”? Would that involve crowdsourcing to determine, first of all, what topics people want covered? More group discussions?
All of those things — salons, small-group meetings. Absolutely, it’s crucial to solicit the ideas of the participants before you start structuring the actual meeting or, again, participate in their engagements. So you need to bring them in early and not have them simply pay their money and come.
And there is a growing disaffection with and distrust of experts and growing trust for the opinions of peers and colleagues. That has plusses and minuses, because your friends and you have a certain level of experience but it doesn’t go beyond that. But right now, peer trust is much higher than the trust of authority.
And so you need to structure your meetings so that people have a lot of time to talk to their peers as opposed to that 10-minute break. The break is, in many ways, what’s more important to the people who are going to meetings. So you have to structure that and you have to make it meaningful. You have to give them loads of space and the opportunity to interact.
Doesn’t that speak to your belief in the collaborative nature of creativity? Do you think meetings can be well-springs of creativity?
Yes, exactly. You know, we look at almost all the innovations that have changed our lives over the last 30 years, with Facebook and Google and going back to Apple. You’re really looking at dyads and triads. You’re looking at two and three and maybe four people who have combined their ideas to come up with something new, who are connecting two or three dots of knowledge. So with Google, you had those two guys and they were connecting basically a desire for searching for information with new technology. Zipcar — you’re connecting a new shared-value system, which is kind of anti-owning, with new technology. It’s kind of simple. And very often, the new technology is critical, but it also connects with a desire. It’s not that complicated, but it does involve a couple of people. It’s quite rare to have just one.
Which goes against the usual way of considering inventors as types who toil away alone in the laboratory.
I think it’s a misunderstanding. What seems to happen most of the time is that you have an intense collaborative experience, a team experience. And then a lot of the insights happen when you’re in the shower or when you’re running. When you pull away from it, if you have a period or a space where you can integrate the insights, you do have aha moments. But it’s not because you’ve been alone in a room or in the dark working by yourself. It’s because you’ve been working with people and you’re making connections and you integrate it. And often, that moment of integration is when you’re alone, right?
So the process — I call it “serious play.” You’re playing with people to make those connections, to understand what’s going on, to see what’s new. And then for a lot of them, they do need a little alone time and it comes together.
When you’re putting together meetings, I think it’s really good to have people do things — to give them an assignment. If you’re doing it for a day, to take an hour or two and have them think about how they would change either their job or their business — something — and give them the tools to do that. And that should be part of most meetings today. I think that’s what people really like.
How important is it to provide a multi-disciplinary approach at meetings — for example, hiring speakers outside of the conference’s field of endeavor — in order to spark creativity?
The whole concept of multidisciplinary approach has become so foundational, I just assume it happens. Yes, it’s hugely important. It’s so important that you shouldn’t even think about it.
It’s a challenge, though, for associations with a narrow focus. How should they integrate other disciplines into their conference program?
You know, the simple answer is just bringing people outside the specific business culture that you’re dealing with. So yeah, bring in some designers or mix it up a little bit. Make that part of the meeting process. Yet, the thing about that is — you never do it. I’ve been to a million conferences and meetings, whether it’s about this or that or whatever, it’s only about those people who are in that narrow creative culture.
Basically, that’s what the d.school [the Institute of Design] at Stanford does — it mixes people up and gives them tasks to work [on together]. And if you do it in a really smart way, people really love it. You know, they discover that they have a capability of discovering and they come away with something that they can use.
What was one of the most surprising things to come out of your work on this book?
One that comes to mind is scale — scale is hugely important to creativity if it’s to come to something more than simple invention. If it’s to come into the world and certainly if it is to have economic value, it has to be scaled. But the people who are very good at creativity are not necessarily the people who know how to scale.
Here’s a good example. Hewlett-Packard was this wonderful place where they had dozens of laboratories where scientists were working on all kinds of stuff, from scientific instruments to inkjet printers. They really didn’t have a whole lot in common, but they did the things that they thought were interesting. And they had these people who wandered around, and they went from lab to lab and they curated the creativity. They basically were experts, right? And they were able to see which creativity was appropriate for the culture and which had great potential. And then they provided the resources — the money, marketing, machinery, prototyping — to take that creativity to another level.
And I think this combination of the creatives and the scalers is really, really crucial to how things actually happen. We have lots of words for and roles for the people who scale. Gallery owners and museum curators take the work of painters, and great editors do the same thing. They make these decisions because of their experience, and then they provide these great platforms.
When you organize meetings, you’re curating an engagement. And you’re framing that engagement. And once you begin to see it that way, it takes on a different significance and [you’re in a] much more dynamic role than just an organizer. You’re really a curator, and it’s a very different frame.
Would you say there’s one conference that you’ve attended or spoken at recently that struck you as being creative in the way it was designed?
I think this is the era in which a lot of conferences and people [who run them] really have the intent to change the structure and make it more dynamic. People are realizing that the old conference format is no longer working, people don’t like it, so they’re trying things out.
The BIF [Business Innovation Factory] conference is really one of my favorites. It’s pretty sweet. Part of it is size. You can’t have a thousand people. My preference would be two or three hundred and no more than that. The BIF conference is very dynamic. People get up, they tell their stories. There’s tons of time in between for people to interact and talk to each other. You have to have places where people can go and drink and eat and talk and play. And you need places [where] people gather at night, which is hugely important, outside the formal stuff or for breakfast. And BIF does that quite well.
The other conference that does that quite well is the one that Patrick Whitney [dean of the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology] runs in Chicago [twice] a year [a design research conference and a design strategy conference]. I usually go to the research one, and that’s very good — you have presenters, but you also have a lot of time built in to hang out and to mingle and talk and exchange and that sort of thing.
Being in a big city sometimes helps a lot — and Chicago, it’s hugely dynamic and that in itself can be a very important thing if you take advantage of it. You know, if you’re just in a dark room for two days, that really sucks. But if you really open up a conference, you make it very stimulating.
Watch a video of Nussbaum interviewed at the Business Innovation Factory (BIF) conference, held this past September in Providence, R.I.: convn.org/BIF-nussbaum.