The Real Story at Davos

Davos Day 5

Surprisingly good weather at the Belvedere Pavilion

So has it been worth it? Absolutely. I realize that I have seen only a small sliver of Davos, the tip of the iceberg that is the open sessions and the official program. What the newspapers report is largely true: For many executives, the day at Davos is filled with private meetings with clients and business partners, and with “closed sessions” that are invitation only and that bring together the key people in an industry. For example, I just learned that Steve Ballmer is here in Davos, but he’s not a participant in the WEF (at least, he’s not a listed participant; perhaps there is a “secret participant” category?). Michael Dell, however, has been attending a lot of sessions (including the one I did on the Creative Workplace).

But it’s an exaggeration to say that the official program sessions mean nothing. As I said in my previous post, the WEF staff does a brilliant job of curating the sessions. And every session I attended had every seat filled. The participants are smart, successful, busy people, and believe me: if they thought these sessions were a waste of time they wouldn’t come. They would get up and leave after five minutes, in fact.

And I certainly don’t feel excluded, like some of the news coverage suggests is the case. These snarky articles (New York Times, I’m talking to you) compare WEF to high school, with everyone feeling insecure and jockeying for status. I have met many CEOs, and they have all been interested, open, and eager to talk.

I am supposedly here on “the faculty” but I am the one who has been learning this week. Kudos to the WEF for a successful conference!

Designing an Experience

I used to think that a curator was someone who managed the galleries at an art museum. Of course, that’s true, but I’ve come to realize that at a deeper level, a curator is a designer of experiences. I first awoke to this deeper meaning when I was invited to speak in Amsterdam by De Appel arts organization, as part of their “The Old Brand New” speaker series in 2009. They talked about “curating” the speaker series, and I loved this way of speaking. A curator designs experiences, whether presentations, performances, or art spaces.

The WEF staff are extremely talented curators. At each session I’ve been in, including the two that I moderated on Friday, there were about ten people who had been selected to lead discussion. And in each case, I could tell that these invited participants were selected very carefully. They were always from an extremely broad range of backgrounds: every region of the world, politicians and business leaders, men and women, and every industry sector. My own research on groups demonstrates that cognitive diversity results in greater group creativity: More surprising new ideas, more unexpected combinations. It’s all about what I call emergence: in a creative group experience, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

My morning session on Friday, The Creative Workplace, brought together myself, a professor; Marc Beniof, CEO of Salesforce.com; Tim Brown, CEO of the design firm IDEO; and Marcus Samuelsson, the famous chef known for restaurants like Aquavit and Red Rooster. My afternoon session, Managing Across Cultures, had seven discussion leaders, one for each table, and these world leaders came from every region.

So yes, I think these sessions provide valuable experiences for the participants. But I read an article in Thursday’s International Herald Tribune that claimed that “no one attends Davos for the sessions.” And I believe that’s at least half true; they certainly don’t attend only for the sessions. I’ve met people in various hotels that aren’t actually registered for the WEF, but they come to Davos because everyone they want to meet with is here, and their schedule tends to be more open than when they’re back at home running their company or their country. As I said in my last posting, I believe there is real value in the unplanned and unexpected connections that happen on the shuttle bus or at the bar.  But those are “undesigned experiences” (or at least, less obviously designed); the sessions are very thoughtfully designed, and I have been impressed with the staff of the WEF and how they have curated this event.

Davos Parties

Davos Day 3

Because it is my first time at the WEF, I look to experienced regulars for advice: the so-called “Davos Man.” (And increasingly, Davos Woman…the WEF mandates that for each delegation of five participants, one must be a woman.) And a lot of the advice has to do with what happens outside of the sessions in the Congress Center: in particular, the parties. Wednesday night, the Burda party; Thursday night, the McKinsey party; Friday night, the Google party.

It’s true that Davos is about bringing people together, about what you might call “densifying the social network”. It’s easy to make fun of the rich and powerful hanging out at parties, but what I’ve seen is a serious and meaningful attempt to make connections. And I’ve been surprised at the openness and inquisitiveness of everyone I meet. When I used to live in Manhattan, there were plenty of parties where if you weren’t in the same industry, and you couldn’t help someone’s career, they wouldn’t talk to you. And I have seen no evidence of a status hierarchy: as in, no attention to who arrived in a private jet or who has their own driver (car passes are not easy to come by).

Hotel Belvedere

Here, I’ve been in conversations with politicians, government advisors, mining CEOs, and financial services, in various combinations and talking about a surprising range of topics. If you ever question the value of a broad liberal arts education, you should listen in on one of these conversations. Being narrow and specialized clearly doesn’t make a good leader.

Creativity results from breadth, diversity, cross-disciplinary connections, and conversation. I’m seeing a lot of that at Davos.

The Davos Audience

Davos Day 2

I participated in my first Davos session, a dinner session Wednesday night about design thinking and the CEO, a full house with about 40 people at five tables. Bob Sutton of Stanford did an excellent job of moderating the event.

A couple of tentative observations about those in attendance: First, there is a truly diverse mix of people. They seem to broadly divide into the more political and policy sphere, and the more business and management sphere. The session topics also fall into these broad categories. (The three sessions I’m participating in are all in the business and management area.)

I suspect that a lot of the executives are here not only for networking, but also for a high-level form of executive education. For example, several of the CEOs in our dinner session were hoping to learn more about design thinking–specific techniques and strategies for making it work in their organization. Others in attendance had already shifted their organizations to design thinking, and they were there to share observations and stories.

This was a new session topic for Davos. It’s an important topic and the interest was strong. What worked for me was the extremely diverse range of backgrounds, industries, and perspectives in the room.

The Davos World Economic Forum

Day 1: Wednesday

Coat Check in Congress Center

This week, I’ll be blogging daily from the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, where I am an invited participant and a member of the faculty. “Davos” is legendary, of course, but it’s my first time, so I don’t know quite what to expect. Earlier this week, extended articles in the print media had a distinctly snarky, expose quality to them.

The New York Times reported that the absolute lowest price for admission is $70,000, ranging up to $527,000 for the Strategic Partner level, which entitles you to buy five admission tickets to Davos, at $19,000 each, costing an additional $95,000 for a total of $622,000.  It makes me dizzy just typing those numbers! When this same article was reprinted in the International Herald Tribune, which I picked up in the Zurich airport Wednesday morning, the headline was something like “How much does it cost to attend Davos? If you have to ask…(you can’t afford it).” (Fortunately, because I am on the faculty for the event and moderating several sessions, I attend for free.) The New York Times article made the whole event sound like an expensive version of high school, with everyone wondering if they got invited to the “right” party with the “right” people. (Full disclosure: I haven’t been invited to any of the right parties. And I was a geek in high school, too.)

Here’s the lead from another article from the New York Times, 24 January, by Jack Ewing:

Leaders in business, politics and academia from around the world will gather in Davos, Switzerland, this week to try to rescue the planet. It’s a safe bet that, for the 41st year in a row, they will fail.

Vito J. Racanelli, in Barron’s, opened his 24 January article like this:

Gather about three dozen of the world’s most powerful political leaders, mix them with 1,400 international corporate executives and a few Nobel Laureates; add hundreds of top-tier bureaucrats, academics and intellectuals, and sprinkle in Robert De Niro and Bono. You get Davos, the picturesque Swiss mountain resort that has become synonymous with the annual World Economic Forum meetings.

The Wall Street Journal’s coverage has been remarkably neutral and non-snarky by contrast. The WSJ web site has the best coverage, with several updates every day.

But in general, it seems like it’s open season on Davos. It’s an easy target when the rich and the powerful get together in a pricy ski resort and exclude everyone else. And I haven’t even mentioned yet the anti-globalization protesters who usually show up at such events (I haven’t seen any here so far, but in previous years they were apparently a constant).

So is it worthwhile? I came here because I believe in collaboration, in the power of bringing people together to exchange and share ideas. If the WEF lives up to its ambition, it will generate a unique form of group genius, bringing the world’s leaders together–people who might just have the ideas we need to “improve the state of the world,” the official mission of the WEF.

Stay tuned for my next postings.

Composer John Adams

The Saturday Wall Street Journal has started a regular weekly feature called “Creating,” that focuses on a different creator each week. Featured today (January 8-9, 2011) is composer John Adams, and I found it interesting because so much of what he says aligns with the perspectives on creativity I argue in my writings.

He refers to the myth about Mozart composing in a burst of romantic-era inspiration and finishing works just minutes before the premiere (it’s not true), and says it is “the worst possible model for any composer who hopes to get a decent performance of his or her own music.”

In preparing to work on a new composition, he exposes himself to a wide range of potentially related material. In writing his opera “Doctor Atomic,” about Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project that developed the first nuclear bomb, he spent four years doing research on the topic.

For his most famous piece, “Nixon in China,” he’s still making small changes to the work, even though it was first performed 25 years ago. This practice has been quite common among composers going back hundreds of years. (Again, challenging our romantic beliefs in the wild burst of inspiration.) And like many historical composers, Adams collaborates with his players by listening to their suggestions and occasionally changing the work.