Skip to main content
rotman magazine q&a

Bruce Nussbaum, the author of Creative Intelligence: ‘Creativity scares us. There is so much uncertainty about it that we often reject it in favour of predictability and conventionality.’

This interview with Bruce Nussbaum, an innovation expert and the author of Creative Intelligence, is reprinted with permission from Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management. The interview has been edited and condensed.

How do you define 'Creative Intelligence'?

A few years ago I was at a conference on innovation and design thinking at the Stanford [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."

In your book you describe five 'competencies' of Creative Intelligence. Tell us a bit more about the first one: knowledge mining.

At its core, creativity is all about knowing what is meaningful to people. Successful mining of meaningful knowledge reveals important patterns and shows 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.

Another creative competency is 'framing'. What are the some different kinds of framing that 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, or to change how we see and interpret something. This ability lies at the very core of creativity.

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 can 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 over time, and this will encourage you to think about connecting some of them.

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.

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 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.

Bruce Nussbaum is the author of Creative Intelligence. 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.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct

Tickers mentioned in this story