Q&A: Bruce Nussbaum, author, 'Creative Intelligence'

Can anyone, or any company, cultivate creativity? There are five ways to do so -- and succeed in making innovative products. So says author and Parsons professor Bruce Nussbaum.
Written by Reena Jana, Contributor

Bruce Nussbaum likes to tell stories. And when he does, his eyes light up brightly behind his glasses and his arms gesture in sweeping arcs. I have to admit, I've heard a lot of Bruce's stories over the years, as -- full disclosure -- he was once my boss at BusinessWeek magazine, where we covered innovation and design. And his tales are never boring: he's got a knack of making anecdotes come to life by relating them to up-to-the-minute business headlines.

We're having a lunch of quiche and piping hot soup at Bouchon Bakery at Columbus Circle in Manhattan, talking about his new book, Creative Intelligence: Harnessing the Power to Create, Connect, and Inspire. In it, Nussbaum explores and articulates what he calls a "new type of literacy," in which creativity is the key to success in nearly any field from education to economics. And on any scale, from the personal to the national.

In the book, Nussbaum, professor of Innovation and Design at Parsons the New School for Design, reveals five competencies that can help individuals and organizations achieve creative intelligence: Knowledge Mining, Framing, Playing, Making, and Pivoting. During our conversation, we talked about which companies and CEOs possess these traits -- and whether trying to mimic them might be more achievable than most of us think.

Here's our slightly condensed and lightly edited discussion.

SmartPlanet: What’s the relationship between creative intelligence and innovation?

Bruce Nussbaum: A lot of people are asking me that right now. In the book, I focus on the kinds of behaviors that we can learn that allow us to produce originality that has value. That is usually defined as “innovation.” It makes sense to distinguish between invention, which is about new technology, and innovation, which has to have real value to some group.

One of the most compelling ideas in the book is what you call “indie capitalism.” What happens when an indie business becomes successful – is it possible to keep the indie spirit alive?

One creative competency I discuss in the book is pivoting, which is also about scaling. Sometimes a great idea stops at the great idea. But scaling that great idea into production, that’s what is key to success.

Regarding the power of indie capitalism, think of this: All net new jobs in the U.S. have been coming from new businesses that are scaling. In the last five years, the older companies are shedding jobs.

When you scale and you’re cooking, though, keeping creativity alive is really, really difficult. For most of us, we only have one great idea. If we’re lucky! And you play it out over and over again. Then if you’re really successful, you wind up in a monopoly position.

It’s easy to think of Google in this context. As a company, Google does some of the creative competencies very well. Like a lot of tech companies, they mine their own knowledge, knowledge that they have embodied. They know themselves. Googlers are a demographic. They love to play—that’s another creative competency. But what they don’t do well is to mine the cultural context outside themselves. They’re creating all these things for themselves.  For the types of people who work at Google. But I don’t see the traction outside of the company.

That makes me wonder, though: What about Steve Jobs, and his whole approach to following what he and what Jonathan Ive loved personally? Why did that approach work for them?

Jobs was never an engineer. He saw himself as a cultural person, as a designer and an artist. His genius was mining the meaningfulness of the larger culture. Apple always had a tiny R&D budget. Whereas with the engineer types at Google, they mine their own technology but are clueless to society’s needs and wants. So they’re always in beta. They offer the technology as a gift, but without knowing or caring if it sticks. We’ve seen similar situations in fields such as robotics and genomics: they also haven’t taken off, they don't have the deep impact the pundits were expecting. Knowing what is meaningful is more important to innovation than invention and technology. When Apple was APPLE—when Jobs was alive and running it-- that’s what it did best.

Beyond creativity, you also write about “aura” and “charisma.” Can these be cultivated? Jobs had charisma. Jack Dorsey of Twitter and Square does in a way. You could argue that Mark Zuckerberg and even Marissa Mayer—love them or hate them--have it. Can charisma be developed? Can an aura? And if cultivated, don’t they become inauthentic?

Let’s start by defining them. Charisma is a powerful feeling that people have between one another. Aura is a powerful feeling that people have between themselves and things. I think anyone can cultivate charisma: you can learn to communicate, grow more at ease. We can design ourselves to beckon others toward us, to attract people. We can design products to beckon consumers in the same way.  Both charisma and aura are all about incredible attraction.

I guess it’s like dating! If humans can learn to enhance their attractiveness outside of work, in their personal lives, why can’t they with their professional selves and products?

Yes. You can design yourself. And of course the things you’re offering in the marketplace. A key ingredient in attractiveness seems to be mystery. My wife Leslie had it when I met her. Steve Jobs knew this well. Think of how he masterfully did the big reveal of new products.  There was always such beautiful packaging with Apple, and you always look forward to opening things from Apple in a beautiful way. You know, that’s really a basic design principle that a lot of designers across cultures know. But many engineers might not know that.

Surely there must be another example besides Apple that we can turn to, in terms of a technology company that understood or understands creativity.

Yes: IBM. [Former IBM CEO] Lou Gerstner was a packaged goods guy, not an engineer, and he turned around IBM when he took over. The first thing he did  when he got there was get outside of IBM’s offices and go to the customers. IBM spent months in their cultures. They heard: they need solutions, ideas, not metal mainframes. So Gerstner made IBM a service company. But what’s amazing is that they also reframed the mainframes.

I also think about Nike as a company that remains powerfully creative. They’ve had such longevity. They’ve faced so much controversy. They’ve shown all of your 5 competencies.

You know, Google could learn a lot from Nike regarding wearable technology. Nike really gets what people want, rather than just giving them the technology they cook up in their labs. They know their customers so well.

Initially, Nike+, which they worked on with an outside firm, R/GA, was about connecting with runners over music. But they went back, and with R/GA found that what runners were really interested in was stats. And competing. Numbers! So they reframed Nike+ to stats. They changed very quickly. They pivoted. And became very successful. I think that’s also because they knew to look beyond themselves and to partner with R/GA.

And now Nike has the Fuel Band, another killer app. It will soon, I think, become a health band, something broader. It’s interesting because it’s about meaning. In the recent past, you couldn’t do a product like this—health might seem too clinical. But health is being reframed as well-being, so the health band will be really meaningful.

So what advice do you have for other established companies that want to become more creative?

At the very least, you have to change at the top. But you don’t have to wait until you’re at the brink of bankruptcy to turn around the top management and be more creative. I don’t talk about this in the book, but I’ll bring it up now: in an era of so much change, you need a multi-generational team. Think of how the Google guys brought in Eric Schmidt, or Zuckerberg bringing in Sheryl Sandberg—when they brought in other generations, they saved their asses from their own, young perspectives. It goes the other way, too: middle-aged and older C-level leaders need to drop down and bring in young people. Not as interns, but as leaders--in the same way that Zuckerberg brought in Sandberg, just the other way around.

Let’s step away from Apple, Google, and Facebook. What other companies and leaders have the most creative intelligence today?

The Kickstarter founders, definitely. Kickstarter reframes everything: consumers as makers, as participants, as investors. It reframes capitalism itself, as socially driven. It brings us together. This is really significant; it is as significant to the business world as outsourcing was.

The guys at Method, too. They don’t have a detergent background. But they wanted to reframe sustainability for their generation. They wanted it to be fun. Now they’re scaling and are remaining playful. They are into making lots of things, lots of new products.

And then…there’s Ben and Jerry! I didn’t put them in the book, but they’re really creatively intelligent. They’re still culturally relevant! They’ve kept their integrity. Their product is not diluted after all of these years. They have a powerful ongoing story. They employ the creative competencies.

In India, the firm Idiom is wildly creative. One of their founders, Jacob Mathew, is working with Paul Polak to reframe the problem of clean water in India. The problem, they say, isn’t water, it’s cleanliness. Villages have water, but it’s just not potable. All you need to make it clean are purifying tablets. They want to build a billion dollar water business. That's creativity with meaning.

So let’s talk about social innovation. It is really hot right now. It could be because it’s generational, as younger people want a sense of meaning in their work, and in addition recent college graduates might not be able to get jobs because of the economic challenges that exist. Why is that space so ripe for creative intelligence? Does dealing with constraints somehow fuel creative intelligence?

When dealing with poverty, it’s all about constraints. There’s a great challenge to be faced. I’m glad we’re talking about the social innovation impulse, because it is something we need to look at closely. It’s not coming from the poor, but from middle class designers looking for meaning in their lives.

Look, I was in the Peace Corps. But the greatest benefit came to me, not the people I was helping. It is absolutely positive for our culture, but we need to be honest and transparent.

I love the idea of indie capitalism, and reconnecting creativity to capitalism: I like to talk about that phenomenon, to actually turn away from social innovation and turn back to…capitalism. We should not put social innovation in a smaller frame. I know it’s not acceptable to say that Foxconn has possibly raised a lot of people out of poverty. But we should all talk about this more. It is the next subject on the table.

Image: Leslie Beebe

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