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December 2013

How Creativity Generates Economic Value: Talking to Innovation Expert Bruce Nussbaum

By Michelle Russell, Editor in Chief

Design and innovation expert Bruce Nussbaum believes creativity is not an innate trait but a set of business competencies that you cultivate and implement regularly - and it's critical to generating economic value. What does that have to do with the meetings industry? Plenty, and it starts with rethinking your role.

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.

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