Can Creativity Be Learned? Allen Gannett Thinks So

Author: Cristi Kempf       

Allen Gannett

Allen Gannett, author of The Creative Curve, suggests event professionals “look at the things that work at other events. … and add your own novel twist.” (Courtesy Allen Gannett)

Most people think creativity is “a super-nebulous, organic thing,” said technology entrepreneur and author Allen Gannett. “But actually when you look at the science around creativity, the history around creativity, you find over and over a lot of evidence of quite the opposite: that creativity is a learnable, nurture-able skill.”

Gannett sets out to prove it in his book The Creative Curve, where he describes the history of creativity — stretching back to Plato and up to present-day Michelin-starred chefs and Grammy-award winners. Gannett — a Forbes’ “30 Under 30” honoree — provides a roadmap to creativity with his four laws of The Creative Curve: Consumption (or immersion in a chosen topic); Imitation (learning from those who’ve gone before); Creative Communities (the people you turn to for support and collaboration); and Iterations (refining ideas, especially by using data).

At an Event Strategy and Design studio session on Jan. 8 during PCMA Convening Leaders 2020, Gannett — chief strategy officer at content marketing platform Skyword — will explore the art and science of creativity and how event planners can tap into their creative side by using his framework. He recently spoke with Convene.

Everyone values creativity, but few think they themselves are creative. Are there really so few creative people in any group or organization? What did you discover as you did your research?

There are numerous studies that show that creative potential is quite consistent and well-spread among the population, but creative achievement is very narrow. What really has me interested is that gap between creative potential and creative achievement. That’s what my research dug into: “Why is there that gap, and what can you do to close that gap?” The book really came out of a general frustration with hearing people say that they’re not creative, and from working with a lot of very smart people who viewed themselves in what I thought was a quite negative light. The book was an answer to “Is it possible for me to learn to be more creative?”

You write that all commercial creativity is, in the end, about the same thing: creating products that match and intersect with an audience’s taste at a particular point in time. In terms of a planner’s work, how can they make sure the end product — a live event — matches their audience’s taste at the right time?

The broader answer is that one of the big mistakes people make — and this is true whenever you’re an expert in something, so if you’re an event professional — is that we build products, ideas, events, whatever it is, using what we think of as the [latest or] “best features.” But in reality, an audience is looking for those things that feel right to them and are the right experience for them. If there’s something that you do that’s completely “out there” and radical and super novel, it might be too much.

Can you elaborate?

The story I tell in the book is the story of this startup called the Campus Network, which launched a month before Facebook at Columbia [University]. And for a few months they were sort of the big archnemesis of Facebook. And what’s interesting about the story is that Campus Network ultimately failed, obviously, but Campus Network actually had better features than Facebook did. They had activity feeds, the newsfeed, they had groups, they had all of these things that Facebook would have much, much later. But at the time Facebook had the “right” features because Facebook was very simple, and that was as far as people were willing to go. The idea of sharing all your activity, and being part of groups, and broadcasting your photos — that was too much. And so I think that’s a very important idea and a concept to think about. Your job whenever you’re creating something — whether that’s an event or a product — is to create the right thing at that time for your audience.

So drilling down, how do your four rules apply to events, starting with consumption?

Great creatives are very, very obsessive consumers of whatever their niche is. Novelists who write mystery novels have read every mystery novel. Musicians who do jazz have every single jazz album. And you find that consumption is a hugely important part of the creative process. I think for event professionals understanding and going out and consuming other events and experiences — and not just professional events, but also understanding what people are seeing when they go to any offline experience, whether that’s the movies or a vacation — are very important for connecting ideas. Like what are the things you can learn from a hotel check-in process that can apply to an event check-in process? I think that’s super, super important.

The second law is imitation. And I think this is a great example that can apply to events. So often we think about imitation as somewhat scandalous, as this thing you shouldn’t do. But actually when you look at the great creatives of our time, imitation is one of the core things. I think about the amount of people who write a Shakespearean drama or Shakespearean tragedy just told in a new way. What I really think is important is to look at the things that work at other events, that have been consistent. Use those things and add your own novel twist to it. But don’t be afraid to remember that the best practices are the best practices and not everything has to be reinvented.

The third law is the law around creative communities. We think about creativity as a very individual act. But actually creativity is a very social act and you have collaborators. What a lot of people get wrong is that they tend to find collaborators that are very like-minded. The best creative teams tend to have constructive conflict. And they also tend to have people with a wide variety of abilities and resources that fill in each other’s gaps. So, for example, if you’re building a steering committee for a new event, what you want to do is not look for people that have similar beliefs, methods, or processes, but rather have complementary ones. So if you, for example, are chair of an event, and you are weak at programming or speaker recruitment, that’s fine, and you should be okay with that. But then you need to go find someone to help you who is very good at that. This idea of finding collaborators who address your weaknesses rather than finding people who match your strengths, I think, is very important. Because so often that’s a scary concept for us because it means admitting our weaknesses. Successful creatives are very level-headed about that.


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And then fourth is iterations. Basically what you find when you look at a lot of creative companies and even creative individuals is they’re much more iterative with their creativity than you’d expect. In the book, I talk about how I spent a day with a flavor team at Ben & Jerry’s, which, you’d think zany ice cream flavors, they probably have this zany, very organic creative process. It’s actually very data-driven, it’s very diligent, it’s very thoughtful, very intentional, and it’s very iterative. And I think events generally do a really, really good job at this already — just think about the amount of feedback [event organizers get].

If there’s something you’re not collecting feedback on, start collecting feedback on it tomorrow. It can be [done with] a focus group. But I think one of the hardest things for events is that so often we feel constrained when we ask for feedback. We ask about a session, or we ask about the food. But so much of what makes an event special are things like the community, like the other people there. And so think about ways to incorporate more feedback in your event, even more than you already collect, without becoming annoying. You find creatives do this a lot. Like movies use test audiences. At the end of the event, you take 10 people out to lunch, and ask them the nitty-gritty about those things that would get annoying on a 50-question survey. Remember that all good creative products come from iterations, and don’t be scared to collect the data in order to make those changes.

What do you want the participants at your Convening Leaders session to take away?

I want them to have a new frame on how they view themselves in their organizations when it comes to creativity, and to understand that creativity is dynamic. And so you may not be that creative today, but you can be creative tomorrow. It’s a matter of putting the work, the energy, and the thoughtfulness into it. I think coming out with that frame can dramatically change your career, and dramatically change the trajectory of your organization.

Cristi Kempf is executive editor at Convene.

At Convening Leaders

Allen Gannett will lead the Event Strategy and Design studio session “Flashes of Genius: Learning The Art and Science of Creativity,” at 9 a.m. Jan. 8. See the complete schedule and sign up for PCMA Convening Leaders 2020.