Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

December 2013

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

By Michelle Russell, Editor in Chief

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.

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