Bruce Nussbaum’s New Book Creative Intelligence

Bruce Nussbaum is known for his excellent work as an editor at Business Week, where he founded their quarterly innovation insert called IN: Inside Innovation. He’s now a professor of innovation and design at Parsons School of Design in New York, and he’s just published his first book, Creative Intelligence. It’s a pleasure to read, it’s filled with timely anecdotes, and it’s grounded in the latest research. There are almost 70 pages of footnotes!

What I really like about Nussbaum’s book is his perspective as an expert in design thinking. He tells the story of how his title, “Creative Intelligence,” emerged from a Stanford conference called “The Future of Design” in 2010. In his view, the “design thinking” trend is fading a bit, and giving way to an increasing focus on creativity. The last few years have seen creativity research converge on a core set of shared findings, starting with my 2007 book Group Genius, then with Peter Sims’ 2011 Little Bets, Steven Johnson’s 2011 Where Good Ideas Come From, and Jonah Lehrer’s book now-discredited 2012 book Imagination (which was largely derived from these earlier works). Nussbaum knows this research well, and his book contains many of these messages–particularly emphasizing the importance of collaboration in creativity–but using several anecdotes I wasn’t familiar with. For example, he quotes Keith Richards saying

What I found about the blues and music, tracing things back, was that nothing came from itself. This is not one stroke of genius. This cat was listening to somebody and it’s his variation on the theme. And so you suddenly realize that everybody’s connected here. They’re all interconnected. (p. 9)

As Nussbaum later says, “Creative Intelligence is social: We increase our creative ability by learning from others, collaborating, sharing.” (p. 30)

Nussbaum organizes the research into five “competencies of creative intelligence”: Knowledge Mining, Framing, Playing, Making, and Pivoting. I checked these out pretty closely, because in my own forthcoming book, Zig Zag, I propose eight creativity disciplines. Nussbaum’s five overlap quite a bit with my eight, and I’m intrigued by the differences, as well.

Knowledge Mining. This corresponds to the second and third steps in my book, LEARN and LOOK. Creativity depends on a large body of domain-specific expertise, that’s why it takes years of work before a person can make a creative contribution. But creativity also benefits from an open and inquisitive mind.

Framing. This is closely related to what creativity researchers call “problem finding”–the ability to frame and formulate a question in the most promising way. This is my first step and I call it ASK.

Playing. Sure enough, my book’s fourth step is PLAY. Imagine, get silly, have fun.

Making. And again, my book’s eighth and last step is MAKE. This section of Nussbaum’s book is strong; he describes the new maker and DIY culture, and the impact of cheap 3-D printers.

Pivoting. This trendy term usually gets used to describe when a startup company switches direction in response to customer feedback. My own book’s title, “Zig Zag,” describes the frequent twists and turns that precede successful creativity. By “Pivoting,” Nussbaum means the process that leads “from the inception to the production side of creation.” The core message of my book is that the creative process zigs and zags during that process, and Nussbaum would agree with that. This section of his book has some great practical advice about how to manage the process successfully.

The core message of Creative Intelligence is perfectly aligned with the latest research:

Creative intelligence is about tools, not lightbulbs. It’s something we do, not something that happens to us. It’s about what happens during those moments of insight, but also after; it’s the hard work and the collaborations that can help bring your idea out of your mind and into the world.

The Art of Business

This week I participated in a fascinating event here in St. Louis, a business creativity conference called “Play @ Work.” In this photo, I’m seated and two of the keynote speakers are with me: Peter Sims at the left (author of Little Bets) and Kevin Carroll (author of Rules of the Red Rubber Ball). The two days were filled with workshops where local executives participated in dance, art, and theater workshops–all designed to foster communication, collaboration, and creativity.

The event was organized and hosted by the Center of Creative Arts (COCA) and their new “COCAbiz” initiative. Kudos to COCA for such a successful event!

The Emerging Consensus View of Innovation

We can now claim, with some certainty, that we collectively understand how innovation works. I say this after reading two recent books:

Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge From Small Discoveries by Peter Sims, and

Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson.

Both of these books present essentially the same account of creativity and innovation that I presented in my 2007 book Group Genius. That’s no doubt because all three books are based on the latest scientific studies of creativity and innovation. Here’s a quick summary of the emerging consensus view:

  • Creativity is not about one big genius idea; it’s about a lot of small sparks (Sims calls them “little bets”) over a long period of time.
  • Over a long period of time, the small sparks may gradually result in a successful new innovation. This is more likely with certain work habits, and with certain collaborative team designs.
  • The work habits, and team designs, that make creativity more likely are those that:
    • Fail often and fail quickly
    • Involve an improvisational approach to the problem, rather than an advance planning approach
    • Tap into many different people and information sources
  • Creativity is never the result of one genius having a brilliant idea; these stories are always mythical. Instead, many people contribute the small sparks that are behind a successful idea.

Both books contain some of the same stories that I told in Group Genius: For example, one of Steven Johnson’s favorite stories, about Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution by natural selection, was first told in my book (pp. 103-104). I thought the stories in Sims’ book were a bit more original; he told several stories I wasn’t aware of.

I was particularly intrigued by Sims’ summary of research into “lucky people” by Dr. Richard Wiseman. Wiseman studied the behavioral patterns that are different in lucky and unlucky people (people defined themselves as lucky or unlucky). The lucky people pay more attention to what’s going on around them than the unlucky people, and they are more open to opportunities that come along spontaneously, whereas unlucky people are “creatures of routine, fixated on specific outcomes” (p. 123). The lucky people have three times greater open body language in social situations, and smile twice as much, as unlucky people. Examining their social networks, lucky people “are effective at building secure, and long-lasting, attachments with the people they meet…they often keep in touch with a much larger number of friends and colleagues than unlucky people” (p. 124).

So if you want to learn about this emerging consensus view of innovation, which of the three books should you read? Of course, I like my own book! And I like Peter Sims’ book, too. I would say that Sims’ book is a bit more journalistic, a bit more skimming across the top of the research, whereas my book goes into a bit more depth with the stories and the underlying themes. My book is a bit more explicit about the practical take-home lessons, too (but Sims has good advice as well).