News & Opinion

Thinker in Residence: A Q&A with Bruce Nussbaum

Sally Haldorson

March 06, 2013


Creative Intelligence competencies are designed to help you amplify your creativity. Separately and collectively, they increase your creative capacity. The model here is not the light bulb going off in the mind of a genius but the improved ability that comes with training in sports or yoga.

Creative Intelligence competencies are designed to help you amplify your creativity. Separately and collectively, they increase your creative capacity. The model here is not the light bulb going off in the mind of a genius but the improved ability that comes with training in sports or yoga. Each of us can learn to be more creative. Most of us can get really good at it.

~Bruce Nussbaum

Yesterday, we introduced you to Bruce Nussbaum's new book, Creative Intelligence, and shared an overview of the author and his work. Today, we'll drill deeper into the core aspects and benefits of Creative Intelligence. We asked Nussbaum a series of questions about his theory and the book that evolved from it, and we think you'll find his answers thoughtful and thorough. As a result, we hope you get as excited about his work's clear inclination toward potential, not limitation. Q: You write in your book, "Let's face it. Creativity scares us." Why does it? And why shouldn't it? BN: Let's start with the positive--creativity should NOT scare us because we were born creative. All that talk about humans being "tool-makers" is really talk about all of us being creative. Using a tool is a creative act and since tool-making and using distinguishes humans as a species (ok, not quite, a couple of other species use tools too), then we are naturally creative. Anyone with kids knows they are naturally creative. Of course, we go on in many of our schools to squeeze creativity out of our children. Teaching to the test, memorizing math and science formulas, just sitting still for hours on end, especially for boys, knocks the creativity out of you. We've actually been taught that creativity is really hard. It isn't. We've been taught that creativity is rare. It isn't. We've been taught it just "happens," like a light bulb going off. It doesn't. We've been taught that creativity is mental. It's social as much as mental. And we've been told, often again and again, that WE aren't creative. We are, in so many ways. We just don't define it as "creative." Researchers at Cornell University, University of Pennsylvania, and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, showed that in a test, participants "demonstrated a negative bias toward creativity ....when participants experienced uncertainty." Worse, "the bias against creativity interfered with participants' ability to recognize a creative idea." People tend to choose what they know in the face of uncertainty even though they realize it probably won't help them. It is just familiar. And what words did the participants associate creativity with? "Agony." "Poison." And my favorite—"Vomit." So, yes, creativity scares us. And it doesn't have to. Q: You take quite a dismissive view of the recent obsession for seeing creativity as something 'solve-able' via neuroscientific investigation. ("We need to stop searching for some magical place in the brain where creativity resides.") Where should we look instead? BN: Hooking people up to brain scans in artificial experiments in labs to see which parts of their brains light up when they "create" doesn't tell us anything about HOW to create. It tells us nothing about the reality of creative behavior. Neuroscience is a lot like Javanese shadow plays. You see the shadows of puppets up on the screen playing out scenes reflecting the social realities of life. To understand those realities, you have to understand Javanese and Indonesian politics and economics. You have to know the actual behaviors of people and their historic and cultural contexts. It's not much different with creativity. You can learn creative competencies that help you observe reality, take from it, and make the new. Most creativity comes from connecting existing information in new ways or old knowledge with new technology. It doesn't come from any single part of the brain. It's not right or left brain but whole brain. I'll get into neuroscience when it can MAKE me more creative. And we just might be there soon. The concept of flow state, which we all have learned about by now, is very connected to the chemicals in our mind. I'm betting it isn't "neuro" science that gets us to more creativity but "pharmaneurology" (is that a word?) that does. But that's another book.

And what words did the participants associate creativity with? "Agony." "Poison." And my favorite—"Vomit." So, yes, creativity scares us. And it doesn't have to.

Q: Demystifying creativity seems to be one of the goals of establishing your 5 competencies, and one of the ways we can do this is by "knowledge mining." I think most people feel like they are cheating a bit when looking at another person's work, that that isn't true creativity. Why is this not true? NB: Yikes, what is "true" creativity? My favorite text about innovation and creativity, which I assign to my classes at Parsons, is Keith Richard's autobiography, Life. Think about it. There is nothing more creative than a great band, right. And the Rolling Stones is clearly one of the most creative. Here is a quote from Richards in my book: "What I found about the blues and music, tracing things back, was that nothing came from itself. As great as it is, this is not one stroke of genius. This was listening to somebody and it's his variation on the rhythm. And so you suddenly realize that everybody's connected here. This is not just that he's fantastic and the rest are crap; they're all interconnected." Most creativity involves mining one, two, or three domains of knowledge for ideas that you connect to something else in a novel way that generates value. That's really my definition of creativity. Q: "Lack of awareness about the frames that color our perceptions of the world severely limits our ability to see new opportunities. Yet one of the first steps in creating something new is to break free of the old definitions and interpret facts and patterns in new ways. And that can be quite difficult." Would you talk a little about how "reframing" works? BN: The hero (heroine?) in Zero Dark Thirty finds Osama bin Laden by changing the frame of how the CIA sees the terrorist. The CIA's narrative of Osama had been that he was living in a remote area of northern Pakistan. The job of the CIA was first to look for him in this area and second, to discover what terrorist plots he was trying to carry out before they happened. Maya, the CIA analyst, changed that frame. First, she reframed the narrative to say Osama could be living anywhere, including a big city in Pakistan. Second, she reframed the CIA's engagement with him by starting to look for people connected to Osama, not just Osama. She reframed what I call the Frame of Engagement. This reframing of both the story narrative and our sense of engagement can be hugely powerful in creativity. It opens up new possibilities and new options and new avenues for action. Reframing was crucial to the CIA. Lew Gerstner reframed IBM and saved it when it took its narrative from being a builder of "hard metal" big computers to being a service that helps clients solve problems. We can do that kind of reframing to ourselves as well. Who are we really? Method, the company that makes cleaning products, reframed what it means to be "sustainable" by making it cool, beautifully designed, and normal, as opposed to suffering, boring, and brown. Q: There have been plenty of books written about the value of play, trying to subvert the assumption that play is a waste of time. You encourage organizations/people to allow play, but not without rules. How do we begin to 'channel' play? BN: We can begin by just thinking about all the places and spaces we play in--our many playgrounds. These are all what Huizinga called "magic circles" where we suspend the rules and make up new ones with people we trust. These are safe places where we try things out, where outcomes aren't certain and where we can make mistakes without horrible things happening. We can laugh at them. Most of us already play in these kinds of playgrounds—we just don't recognize them as such. So just do that—map them. At work, start mapping where your playgrounds are. Who are your playmates? Any team working together in a space is really a playground with people playing. Any lab, of course. The harder task is to think of the informal playgrounds you play in. Think about the people you like to get together with who aren't formally part of your work group – where you "bat ideas around." These magic circles and these playmates are often the most productive because there is less pressure to perform and produce. Many companies like 3M and Google offer 15% or 20% "free" time to people to do their own thing. It's a great idea—and one you should do for yourself anyhow. Think about who you're with in that free time—who do you spend time with, just "messing around?" Who do you like to play with? Then do more of it. Play is serious. Serious play is creative.

At work, start mapping where your playgrounds are. Who are your playmates? Any team working together in a space is really a playground with people playing.

Q: You assert that "there is no need to make the case that Making is a necessary part of Creative Intelligence" to Gen Y'ers. How has technology changed the creativity game in terms of what we're actually able to make? BN: Just take a moment to think about what we make today without even thinking about it. The beautiful photography on Instagram, the shoes and t-shirts and clothes we design with Threadless and Nike, the products and services we invent and sell on Etsy, eBay, Amazon, and Kickstarter, the gizmos and robots we do for Maker Faires and school Science Fairs, the "bespoke" bikes we put together to ride, the class curricula we build with double-major or independent study, the friends networks we compose on Facebook, the intellectual comment we add to Wikipedia and, increasingly, the stuff we literally make with 3D printing. There is a confluence of new, cheaper, easier to use digital fabricators (3D printers), new low-cost sales platforms, new social media aggregators of funding, crowdsourcing and, of course, the old, by now, Apple-provided digital tools for designing, presenting, collating, and curating your very own music and moving images that is generating a renaissance in making. Wowie. Q: The word "pivoting" is often used in business in terms of strategy, but here you use the word a bit differently. "Pivoting involves taking the intangibles that money can't buy—our dreams, our desires—and turning them into the things that it can....And that's what creativity can do, create gold from straw, art from angst, and yes, household products from wishes for a better life...." How do people pivot "from creativity to creation"? BN: Pivoting is all about scaling. It's about taking your fresh, new creativity and linking to someone who can scale it into actual creation. I call that person the "wanderer." The wanderer is the one who looks at your creativity, decides it should become reality and provides the financial, prototyping, marketing, making and selling resources to get it out into the world. In the past, it was often the General Manager in business that did this. HP, in its golden years, had many labs full of great engineers making new things. GMs would wander through, decide what could work, and make it happen. Museum and gallery curators are wanderers. Coaches and teachers are wanderers. They are all experts with lots of experience who edit creativity, make decisions, and then provide resources to go from creativity to creation. Guess which is the largest group of such "wanderers" who curate creation? Family and friends. They are key wanderers in enabling startups on Kickstarter—and everywhere. Hooray, mom and dad! Who knew you were critical to creativity?

Museum and gallery curators are wanderers. Coaches and teachers are wanderers. They are all experts with lots of experience who edit creativity, make decisions, and then provide resources to go from creativity to creation.

Q: All 5 of your competencies, particularly Making and Pivoting, in my mind, contribute to the emergence of "Indie Capitalism." Can you explain what this movement is and its potential power? BN: Indie Capitalism is the kind of capitalism we all love—it's entrepreneurial, it's creativity-based, it's local, it's social, it's US. It's not CRONY CAPITALISM—BIG—business or banks or government (although it does embrace big businesses, banks, and government that embrace Indie Capitalist principles). Nearly all of my students at Parsons want to start up their own companies when they graduate. This is startling to me and should be to everyone in America. They want a capitalism that reflects their culture and, in a way, all of us do. We all—conservative or liberal—applaud Steve Jobs, right. So here are the principles of Indie Capitalism:
1- Creativity drives capitalism. Creativity is the source of economic value. It's not efficiency, it's not trading, it's not finance but creativity. Profit derives from generating and scaling creativity into marketable commodities. 2- The entrepreneur drives economic growth. The entrepreneur, motivated by a calling to create something new or better, is the source of innovation, economic growth, jobs, profits, taxes. 3- Capitalism is a social movement, not just a market phenomenon. Capitalism exists within a social context of ceremonies, rituals, and emotions that make it dynamic and offer the opportunities for creativity and profit. 4- Social networks are the building blocks of the economy, again, not just the market. People belong to a large and growing number of real and digital communities and economic value arises out of those social relations. 5- Making is a core part of economic and social life and more making should be local, not just global. Made-In-The-USA is a brand of rising cultural and economic value.
Q: Creative Intelligence may be "a new form of cultural literacy" but you also believe it can change how we meet economic and political challenges since we are currently "stuck in a problem-solving mindset—as if there's one correct solution to any of the issues facing the nation, as if the puzzle will end as soon as we get it right." How can practicing Creative Intelligence help? BN: I write in the book that "we were trained to deal with a world of predictable futures but the future—both the good and the bad—is anything but predictable. We're living in an 'I don't know' world where we can't fathom the problems to come, much less the answers." When cascading change makes problems constantly morphing even as they present themselves to us, we can't come up with the "right" solutions. There really aren't any, just options that could work. So we need a different mind-set to dealing with unpredictability. It's like going into a frontier where you know very little, if nothing at all, about your surroundings. So you need skills to cope, to discover, to invent, to adapt, to innovate. Historically, we've been at this place before. We need to return and relearn these creative skills of survival. Creative Intelligence offers us skills we can learn and train for that enable us to succeed and prosper in an environment of chaos and uncertainty. So we see puzzles and challenges, not problems, that have multiple answers. We play at these challenges to figure out new ways of dealing with them. We try and see the world differently through different narrative frames and participate differently though different engagement frames. And then we don't stop with new concepts or ideas but we use new methods of making things and then find wanderers to help us turn our creativity into real things. In a stable world that doesn't change that much over time, focusing on efficiency makes a lot of sense. That's what we still study and train for. In a changing world, shifting all the time, creativity is a much more important skill. That is the challenge ahead for all of us.
Bruce Nussbaum, former assistant managing editor for BusinessWeek, is professor of innovation and design at Parsons School of Design and an award-winning writer. He is founder of the Innovation & Design online channel, and IN: Inside Innovation, a quarterly innovation magazine, and blogs at Fast Company and Harvard Business Review. Nussbaum is responsible for starting BusinessWeek's coverage of the annual International Design Excellence Award and the World's Most Innovative Companies survey. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He taught third-grade science in the Philippines as a Peace Corps volunteer. → → Check in with us tomorrow for more insight "On Business and Books" from Bruce Nussbaum. → → Read yesterday's Thinker in Residence introduction to Creative Intelligence.

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