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Questions for Bruce Nussbaum

Interview by: Carolyn Drebin

The innovation expert, author, and educator, describes ‘Creative Intelligence’ and the urgent need for creative competencies.

How do you define ‘Creative Intelligence’, or ‘CQ’? 

A few years ago I was at a conference on innovation and design thinking at Stanford’s Institute of Design. Bill Burnett, who heads up Stanford’s design program, said something that really resonated with me: “We have GREs and SATs to measure math, verbal and writing scores; but we don’t even attempt to measure creativity.” That got me thinking: what if we could develop a methodology to assess an individual’s Creative Intelligence, or ‘CQ’? 

I started talking to some of the most creative people I know about how we might assess creativity. First up was [former] Rotman Dean Roger Martin, who was among the first to bring design thinking into a business school setting. He offered some simple advice: “Do what Juilliard does,” he said. “Look at students’ portfolios, and then test them on their performance.” 

Next I spoke to Tim Brown of IDEO, who described the very similar approach that IDEO uses for hiring people. Like Juilliard, they begin by looking at what people have already done. “The portfolio is the architected communication of what it means to be you and what you’ve done in the world,” he said. Then comes a performance aspect: like Google and a growing number of companies, IDEO gives candidates a ‘performance challenge’ right at the interview. 

While it is early days in terms of being able to measure CQ, what comes out of the processes Roger and Tim describe is a better understanding of an individual’s Creative Intelligence. 

In your book you describe five ‘competencies’ of Creative Intelligence (see below). Tell us a bit more about ‘knowledge mining’. 

At its core, creativity is all about figuring out what is meaningful to people. Successful mining of existing knowledge can reveal important patterns and show you possible paths to the new. Recognizing the important ‘dots’ and connecting them in different ways is what entrepreneurialism is about. For example, by connecting the dots of ‘cheap’, ‘shoes’ and ‘social media’, you get Zappos. Connect ‘looking for friends’, ‘sharing’ and ‘social media’ and you get Facebook. Connect the dots of ‘cars’, ‘sharing values’, ‘cheap’ and ‘social media’ and you get ZipCar.

Five Competencies of Creative Intelligence

  • Knowledge Mining: Those who are routinely creative are skilled at connecting information from various sources in new and surprising ways. Creative entrepreneurs, thinkers and artists use their own experiences and aspirations as a starting point for dreaming up new things. When their own experience is insufficient, they go straight to the source and partner with people who are more embedded in a culture than they are.

  • Framing: Understanding your frame of reference — your way of seeing the world as it compares with other people’s—is critical, no matter your aspirations or industry. People who understand framing techniques are better able to shift their perspectives depending on the situation, environment or community they’re interacting with.

  • Playing: We associate play with children, but Navy Seals, scientists and engineers all ‘play’ at discovering solutions to challenges. By adopting a playful mindset, we’re more willing to take risks, explore possibilities and learn to navigate uncertainty, without the paralyzing stigma of failure.

  • Making: After decades of rewarding mental agility — trading on Wall Street, consulting, strategy and branding — we are experiencing a ‘maker’s renaissance’. People want to make things again, and thanks to a whole host of new technologies and the democratization of the tools of creativity, we’re doing it.

  • Pivoting: Traditional notions of creativity separate the process of coming up with new ideas from the actual making of new things; but truly creative people don’t stop at the idea: they quickly make the pivot into creation.

Another creative competency is ‘framing’. How does framing affect our creativity?

A frame basically means, how you interpret the world and make sense of it. We construct a frame for a given scenario by applying meaning and understanding to what we see. This is a powerful tool for innovation, because understanding how we frame things also enables us to re-frame that narrative — to change how we see and interpret something. This ability lies at the very core of creativity. 

We also frame our engagement with the world around us. Where once we had a small number of contacts, such as family and neighbours, now we make hundreds, and each is framed quite differently. For instance, we engage with our Facebook friends differently than with our family or business colleagues. As with narrative framing, understanding the various ‘engagement frames’ in our lives allows us to re-frame them. Brands are all about framing: they are a combination of the narrative frame of a business and its engagement frames with consumers.

Using the frame of ‘playing’, as opposed to ‘problem solving’, can turn problems or issues into games or challenges. Why is this so useful? 

Traditional problem solving assumes that there is an identifiable problem with a proper solution; but we don’t live in that world any more. We live in a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (‘VUCA’). Most of the time, we don’t even know what the exact problem is, much less the answer. Serious play sees the world in terms of a ‘game’ with rules that change as you play; outcomes are open-ended, effort is iterative and focus is on ‘what works’, not the fetishism of failure. If you think about it, we are constantly ‘playing around’ at finding new ways to get things done, and I believe we should embrace the concept formally.

How can we boost our Creative Intelligence? 

A good first step is to stop and reflect on what you are good at. Most of us aren’t aware of our own capabilities and even when we are, we don’t see how to connect the skills from one area to another. For instance, you might be great at reading body language, or organizing family trips. By framing these skills differently, you could utilize them in countless creative ways. Another way to become more aware of your creative potential is to start keeping a portfolio. It might begin as a journal containing your ideas, notes, sketches and work. Over time, it will show the many ‘dots’ you’ve collected and this will encourage you to think about connecting some of them. In my view, colleges and universities should begin to request portfolios as part of the admissions process — and not just design schools. Organizations looking to hire people should do the same, and, like Google and IDEO, they should add a performance challenge to their job interviews.

Many people experience severe ‘creativity anxiety’. Why is that? 

Creativity scares us. There is so much uncertainty about it that we often reject it in favour of predictability and conventionality. In addition, we are taught that it’s this rare, random thing reserved for ‘special’ brains. That is a false notion of creativity: we are all born creative and can easily learn to be more so. 

Creativity is not just an individual gift of genius, it is also a social activity, the result of an ensemble or team play. True, those ‘Aha’ moments of insight — when we connect the dots and come up with something new — often occur when we are alone; but this tends to happen after intense social interaction and observation — after research, learning and engagement with the world. You need both.

Is brainstorming still a useful approach? 

None of the big, disruptive innovations in our lives have come out of brainstorming. It was invented by advertising agencies in the 1930s. The idea was that if you throw a lot of smart people in a room together and ask them to come up with ideas, some will stick. But in truth, it rarely happens that way. I think we need to replace brainstorming with what I call ‘magic circles’. These are environments where two or three smart people who trust each other can come together and ‘play’ at connecting disparate dots of knowledge in an open-ended kind of game. Look at the innovations that have changed our lives: Google, Facebook,; ZipCar, Amazon, 3M’s Post-Its — even jazz and rock & roll. In each case, there was a small group of people working together in a ‘playground’ setting — a magic circle. That circle can be in a lab, a school, a conference room — anywhere that you can have space, time and permission to improvise. This is the type of setting we need for innovation in an era of constant, cascading change.

Recently we have seen a return to homegrown manufacturing, or a ‘maker economy’. What are the implications for the global economy? 

The revival of a ‘making culture’ is of enormous consequence. For a generation, we have outsourced making to Asia; but now, we are bringing it home. Lower-cost making technologies, such as 3-D printing, crowd-funding social media organizations such as Kickstarter, and a switch in values are combining to mark a shift from globalization to localization. If you think about it, Kickstarter is the most important change in capitalism in 100 years: it makes us all investors, consumers, makers and patrons at the same time. In short, it socializes capitalism again.

What are ‘wanderers’, and how can they help leverage creative solutions?

The skills involved in creating are not the same as those of scaling. Wanderers are people on the ‘outside’ who can curate new ideas, decide what has the best chance to be successful, and provide financing or connections to make it happen. In art, there is the gallery owner; in music, the producer; in sports, the coach. Businesses need to identify and empower wanderers. In its heyday, Hewlett Packard was great at this. Managers gave their employees the freedom to play, to mine knowledge from sources that interested them and to frame ideas however they wanted. But just as important, HP also provided a network of ‘wandering’ general managers who moved from lab to lab, screening inventions and deciding where to invest. These wanderers helped lift new ideas off the drawing board and transform them into reality. The open, collaborative culture we associate with Silicon Valley companies from Google to Facebook was modeled in large part on HP. Of course, crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter and Kiva make wanderers out of all of us.

What needs to change in terms of business education?

Some of the most creative people in the world are those who create new businesses. In terms of education, there are two problems to overcome. One is a framing issue. We need to expand the widely-used narrative frame of ‘business’ to include creativity. The bigger problem is teaching creative competencies. The math-based analytics learned to promote efficiency can help on the scaling end of creativity, but not in the process of being innovative. There is a whole different set of skills that must be learned. They are more qualitative than quantitative, more a search for cultural meaning than a mechanism for maximizing. Some of these notions have started to seep into business schools like Rotman, but we have a long way to go.

Bruce Nussbaum is the author of Creative Intelligence: Harnessing The Power to Create, Connect and Inspire (HarperBusiness, 2013). The former assistant managing editor for Business Week, he is a professor of Innovation and Design at Parsons The New School of Design in New York City and founder of both the Innovation & Design online channel and IN: Inside Innovation, a quarterly innovation supplement. Follow him on Twitter @brucenussbaum, or visit his Tumblr:


This interview originally appeared in 'The Legacy Issue' (Fall 2013).

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