Creativity Conferences – Valuable or BoonDoggle?

I’m missing the CREA conference this week, literally and figuratively. What I miss is the “creativity community”  – that wacky group of people interested in the subject.  Some of the most interesting people on the planet are in Italy, right now. Raise a glass and have a dance for me, and more importantly — learn something you can really use.

I made a decision not to offer a session this year. I’ve gone back and forth on this and thought it might be of value to share my thinking about the “why” or “why not” of creativity conferences.

I’ve written about CREA, and positively, in this blog before (see my old post here). I stand by my words of the past –mostly –but realize that there is a flip side to many of those positives. Like before, I’m dead sure that this week about 150 people will have a wonderful time in Sestri Levante, Italy.  I mean, what’s not to like about the Italian Rivieria?  Sestri is in glorious spring bloom — and, CREA features fantastic food, dancing, and upbeat, highly creative people doing interesting things. Did I mention amazingly scenic?

I guarantee you there is no better place to have a beer and yammer on about all things creative than after hours at CREA. And it’s not just a party, I’ve had deeply meaningful experiences teaching at CREA. Many people have, both leaders and participants. Sentimentally, I’m attached to CREA.  My first year, the first CREA, I lead a session with Matteo Catullo (in the middle in the above photo) on using the arts in creative problem solving — it was magical. Every year I lead a session at CREA, something great happened.

But sadly, sentiment and magic doesn’t always get you innovative results, or even personal productivity.  Can I say it more bluntly — it doesn’t get you business!  I can’t justify going for fun, or even a spiritual experience — at least not every year. Like the customers I work for, I need to generate results, or, I’m in trouble. And for me, CREA isn’t getting me any closer to better results at this point in time. As you can probably tell, I’d still like to be there anyway!

Let me speak to this subject from a larger business perspective:  If you’re a hardcore corporate innovator, you might find this conference wanting.  Yes, I know, I’ve often said it —  what’s needed by many hardcore corporate innovators is a return to the softcore roots of their own creative self expression. If you are self-aware enough to know you need that, by all means go to CREA. If you’re sniffing with cynicism already, you’d probably love the party, but not the content, at CREA. The connection is not quite direct enough.

Then again, it might change your life!

This would also hold true for the CPSI conference, although CPSI has made an effort to provide more innovation-centric programs in recent years (CPSI is the Creative Problem Solving Institute). The ACA (American Creativity Association, who I’ve also blogged about) Conference is a bit different. They make an effort to have dense academic content (and they are not dense!) and they go somewhat lighter on the touchy-feeley interactive workshop type of creativity program. All interesting, but depending on what you are after, all not relevant.

Backstory: CREA is the annual event of the Creativity European Association, billed as “The Annual Conference on Creative Problem Solving, Creativity & Innovation”. 2010 is its 8th year.  While it seems very pan-european in its title, in actuality, it’s mostly Italians and North Americans running the show and leading sessions.  There is also a notable French presence, and a smattering of leaders from Holland, Belgium and elsewhere. Sessions are mostly in English (oddly, only one leader from the UK this year) with some Italian and a few in French. There are no Spanish, German, or other European languages accommodated.

As I said earlier, the purpose of this blog post is to examine the value of creativity conferences.  There is value — but I think it’s important for attendees, and conference organizers, to be clear about what they hope to learn or accomplish. I think the greater value of the CREA conference is personal development — and not professional development.  In my view, CREA is more about creativity than it is about innovation.  Creativity is where innovation starts — but it’s only the start.  Innovation requires it’s own set of methods, tools, and techniques — built on top of creative fundamentals. What you learn at CREA is half of what you  need if you are seeking organizational innovation.

So, if we’re talking dollars and sense, for some corporate buyers, this is indeed a boondoggle.  It’s just one step too far removed from results, and too cushy (and expensive) a location to be easily justified to check signers. CREA says on their website: “CREA provides students of all ages and backgrounds with an alternative and unique space for growth.”

Well, not really.  I get the intent, but unless you live in Italy you’ve got plane flights, and train tickets to buy just to get there. Then you pay for the conference itself, which ain’t cheap.  That’s probably why many of the participants are either creativity practitioners, or single person consultants — they sign the check — and don’t have to justify the expense to some corporate CFO.  For many this amounts to a learning vacation — and nothing wrong with that. The presenters/leaders get a small discount on the registration fee — but they also Pay The Conference to attend. Pretty amazing all those leaders pay for the privilege of giving away their trade secrets, very generous.  Yet, all these expenses and logistics mean that of the whole group there is only a small percentage of bona fide corporate innovators attending.

It is nonetheless a very interesting, and elite, group of people.  They have the means to spend a week in Italy and pay a conference a fairly hefty fee. Let’s be honest here, in the grand scheme of things this is not a terribly diverse group.  Because of its exclusivity-by-virtue-of-expense, you’ll not see many school teachers, let alone students, at CREA. Basically, you won’t see anybody who isn’t fairly affluent (or making a big sacrifice). This leaves out most of eastern Europe. Nor will you see many Venture Capitalists, inventors, or high level corporate innovators — who are to busy or bottom-line-centric for something this ‘soft.’

If you are looking for a conference to learn the nuts and bolts on how to “do” innovation, this is not it.  What you’ll learn are creative process methods and tools which can then be applied to challenges.  Creative tools and techniques are great things to know, but they are generic skills that can be very hard to apply.  You won’t learn a formula at CREA for innovation, they give some building blocks only.  Further, knowing creative process tools doesn’t mean you’ll use them, and doesn’t mean you’ll have results, either personally or professionally.  I’ve talked to many CREA (and CPSI) participants. Some claim personal transformation. And, you look at what they are up to year to year and…nothing’s changed. Yet some attend year after year (me included) and the reason is simple — the creativity community.  It’s what I’m going to miss most not being there. There is something very powerful about a community of highly curious, creatively self-expressed people.

To be fair, there are some sessions that are more directly about innovation, but the bulk of the conference offerings are experiential creativity/creative problem solving workshops (good news). There are no keynote speeches (more good news). However, the sessions are mostly about creativity. Even the innovation sessions, with rare exceptions, are run by leaders who are, at best, specialists; creative corporate facilitators, or researchers, and not womb-to-tomb innovation process experts.

How helpful can a person be who has never actually created a product?

Like many conferences, it’s up to attendees to take the learnings and apply them.  One of the challenges of a “touchy-feely” conference is this — its hard to translate the feelings and the personal transformations into day to day rubber-meets-the-road measurable behaviors. And harder still to claim results.

The fundamental methodology of the conference is CPS, and, not the original Osborn-Parnes version, but a revised version of CPS as defined by Gerard Puccio, Marie Mance, and Mary Murdock in their book Creative Leadership, Skills That Drive Change.  It’s an excellent book, and, there are significant differences between the old and new model. It’s a judgment call which is more appropriate as a backdrop for innovation.  The Puccio and friends version is somewhat more proprietary, whereas the older version is more or less “open source.” I made a deliberate choice to base Jack’s Notebook, a business novel about creative problem solving, on the older, simpler, open-source model. That choice aside, either CPS version works as starting point/building block for innovation — and — it’s incomplete if you are looking for a more holistic approach to innovation.  CPS need to be coupled with a holisitic methodology for innovation that includes coping with and improving People (hiring, firing, inspiring, managing, leading) Products (inventing, designing, prototyping, producing) and Environment (culcha!) — as well as what CPS addresses – Process.

Here’s the bottom line: if you really want to learn innovation, you’d be better served reading the literature and practicing it in real world situations.  If you want to stimulate, understand, and practice creative process, CREA (and CPSI or ACA) are darn good places to do it.

    21 Responses to “Creativity Conferences – Valuable or BoonDoggle?”

    1. Paula Rosch says:

      Gregg,

      Thanks for sharing your (many!) thoughts and insights about creativity conferences.

      There’s no accounting for all the different ways we learn about, practice, and see the results of our personal and collective creativity. Which means that many of us may find the path to creativity outside of the conference setting. The methods are no less interactive, “touchy-feely” or real-world oriented.

      That’s the beauty of creativity and innovation – finding the way that works for you!

      Thanks for recognizing that.

      Paula

      • GREGG FRALEY says:

        It was a long post, and I hate to do that, but I had a lot to say. I actually got this down about 500 words! And yes, many of us find our way outside conferences; some of us by choice, others because they simply can’t manage the expense. It would be nice if there was a least one conference (actually Mindcamp is close) that is a bit more accessible to the average person. Thanks for your comment!

    2. Will you now do a similar evaluations of TED events, TEDx events, 90 minute concurrent sessions at ANY conference, 1/2 workshops done by a single consultant?

      Who can attend a Innovation Network Convergence?
      Who can attend a TED event?
      Who can attend an IDEA Fair?

      I learned from a master over 30 years ago, while attending a global symposium attended by experts from around the globe, that the greatest learnings and values occur during break-times, meal times, after hours over drinks, seldom during sessions.

      Having been someone who has attended and presented at over 130 separate creativity conferences (from 1 to 30+ years) as an independent consultant having his company pay the tab…

      you go to learn, share, meet, connect, reconnect, develop friendships, redevelop past friendships.

      Having degrees in education and educational psychology and 30+ years experience doing workshops (1/2 to 5-day), concurrent sessions, presenting keynote addresses, and teaching university courses…

      people learn in many different ways
      community adds to the value and richness of learning
      most courses, workshops, complete conferences seldom produce a sense of even any degree of community.

      After 30+ years of doing what my audiences have said fairly good to great sessions I know my content, delivery, exercises, articles or books have made little difference in the amount of creativity, creative thinking or actual final innovation.

      Yes CREA-Italy, CREA-France, CPSI, ACA, IN, ECCI and the many other conferences and workshops held around the globe are excellent places for stimulation, learning, understanding and to practice processes, tools and concepts.

      • GREGG FRALEY says:

        I have done blogs on TEDx events, and TED videos. Obviously I can’t post a blog on every event. It would be a truism to say that nearly every creativity conference is somewhat elitist. I long for the day when someone will create a creativity event that is more accessible to the average wage earning person…

        My point with this post is really to examine the why’s and why nots of attending a creativity conference, and CREA in particular, because it’s current, this week. I hope I’ve been fair.

        Thanks for your comments, as always.

    3. Elizabeth says:

      Hmmm. I’ve been to CPSI (Creative Problem Solving Insitute) for many years, learn a lot, never been one to particpate in the social aspect, just the meat. Used what I learned with Clients and they turned profits as a result. For example, one client generated $60 million dollars in sales as a direct result of the process I took them throughwhich was CPS based. Pretty good return on investment I’d say.

      So I’m not sure I buy your theory that creativity and innovation conferences are only soft.

      • GREGG FRALEY says:

        That’s not my theory — it’s a common perception that these creativity-oriented conferences have to cope with in marketing themselves. I’m trying to make the distinction between a conference that is primarily oriented to personal creativity, and one that is oriented to innovation process. And yes, of course, the twain does meet, and, creativity conferences are still a tough sell to the corporate audiences. Evidence – CPSI shrinks from 1000 down to 300, or less, in 8 years.

        It’s the far sighted manager who can see the returns you cite. And for every great story of success — and there are many — you’ll find a corresponding organization having a very difficult time making the cultural adjustments necessary to have that happen for them. My point is “proof” is still challenging.

    4. Anne Manning says:

      Gregg, I loved this post. It captures a lot of what i’ve been thinking and feeling about these conferences. Thank you for taking the time to think through and write this thoughtful analysis.

      Like you, I wanted to go to CREA this year, but felt it was better to focus the time/energy and money on more hard-core work initiatives.

      I am struck by your description of the participants being an elite and fairly non-diverse group of people who are fun and interesting to be with. I am also struck by your comment about how, perhaps, the major take-aways from these conferences are experiential learnings of a personal nature that do not (always) have direct application in a work setting. That is definitely an idea to continue evolving.

      Anne

      • GREGG FRALEY says:

        Thanks for your comment Anne. I’m remembering sitting around a breakfast table at CPSI and realizing that everyone at the table was ENFP. It might be fair to say that creativity conferences appeal to a certain kind of person.

    5. Missy says:

      So, my question (challenge?) to us “Conference-junkies” would be: IWWMW sell the soft parts of the conference better? It might be in the phrasing (CPSI’s new tagline is a start in this right direction). It might be in the “Official Offerings” such as keynotes and conference sessions.

      Or maybe the challenge is really IWWMW make sure creativity and innovation conferences marry the immersive experience of being in a creative community with the end-of-day business of corporate creativity and innovation?

      I have no immediate answers – Gregg? Any thoughts, my wise friend?

      • GREGG FRALEY says:

        You could sell the soft parts better by marketing the conference as personal development. I’m not sure this is the best idea for CPSI. I think the conference tag line is spot on actually, the key is to actually deliver on that promise. The link of immersive experience with results in the Holy Grail, and, that can be done with on-going involvement. Realistically, I don’t think a conference alone can make that link.

        …and I’m not so much wise, as a wise guy (and not in the Goodfellas sense… )

    6. John says:

      Hmmm. Wow. Yes … and. I remember once a long-time creativity consultant telling me to come to a conference in New York, where I could “spend a long weekend with a great group of like-minded shamans.” To me that sounded like a guarantee to thwart innovation. Let’s be blunt … there is little to no diversity at these conferences. Attendees are (even in SA) by-and-large white, suburban, and college educated (some would say over educated) with a liberal-leaning political orientation. Not that any of those things are bad, just that this ensures that there is very little diversity of thought or perspective … something that you run into, in spades, when working on innovation out in the corporate or organizational world. Interesting to think about. Thanks for the post and hope to see you back in Buffalo!

      • GREGG FRALEY says:

        Thanks for your comment John. I’m not likely to be in Buffalo, although I’d like to be, again, for the community bit. It’s interesting to me that the people who need creativity the most are the least likely people to attend a conference like CPSI or CREA.

    7. [...] posted recently on creativity conferences, (Creativity Conferences, Valuable or Boondoggle?) and somewhat controversially. I appreciate the [...]

    8. matteo says:

      ciao Gregg,
      there is a season to let yourself be shaken by the wind, there is another to rest under the snow, there is another to come back to your creative family, I hope to see you at next CPSI,
      hug Matteo

    9. Olwen WOLFE says:

      Hi Gregg,

      Thanks for putting so much thought into your article. I agree with some aspects (lots of like-minded people who love to re-connect) but wish to tell you that there are changes compared to what you experienced in earlier years.
      For instance, there were many more senior corporate innovation specialists than before who went to learn more about the creative front end of innovation. They may not have partied as much as you used to, but they were very satisfied to get a boost in their thinking from the core programs and some of the workshops.
      The attendees were 40% French, there were very few Italians as always, hardly and North Americans due to the cost of traveling. There were people from many other countries.
      There were three new programs. 50% newcomers.
      As one of the founders, I am pleased to witness creative methods spreading to more parts of society than before.
      The link between creativity methods and innovation processes, also management processes such as Lean and Six Sigma is pretty new. Some presenters touched upon it.
      So please take the new evolutions into account!
      And yes, I do think people involved in creativity and innovation need many other sources of inspiration!
      Warm wishes,
      Olwen, Worlding, Paris

    10. Olwen WOLFE says:

      Hi Gregg,

      Thanks for putting so much thought into your article. I agree with some aspects (lots of like-minded people who love to re-connect) but wish to tell you that there are changes compared to what you experienced in earlier years.
      For instance, there were many more senior corporate innovation specialists than before who went to learn more about the creative front end of innovation. They may not have partied as much as you used to, but they were very satisfied to get a boost in their thinking from the core programs and some of the workshops.
      The attendees were 40% French, there were very few Italians as always, hardly any North Americans due to the cost of traveling. There were people from many other countries.
      There were three new programs. 50% newcomers.
      As one of the founders, I am pleased to witness creative methods spreading to more parts of society than before.
      The link between creativity methods and innovation processes, also management processes such as Lean and Six Sigma is pretty new. Some presenters touched upon it.
      So please take the new evolutions into account!
      And yes, I do think people involved in creativity and innovation need many other sources of inspiration!
      Warm wishes,
      Olwen, Worlding, Paris

      • GREGG FRALEY says:

        Thanks for your comments Olwen.

        Wouldn’t it be great if the things we teach at CREA and CPSI were really available to the young people of Europe?

        Wouldn’t it be great if CREA and/or CPSI could take a meaningful role in taking the content we believe in to them?

    11. Delphine says:

      As I was quite alone when I began to use such tools and methods in my job in this big huge NTIC French company I was in, CREAconference helped me a lot in a very concrete way : I’ve learnt my job (that was to facilitate meetings, help projects to find ideas, to improve the services they were working on, etc.), and the conference climate gave me the strenghth to do, to try, to experiment.
      I agree with you on the fact that such conferences can’t be the only answer for innovation, they are no magic wands. But a notebook is not the one and only answer either ;-) And by the way, creativity conferences are not innovation conferences, creativity is useful for innovation, but also for many other things, and could be useful for instance for social purposes, for education of course, and yes for personal development.

      As for diversity, you’re completely right. And we should try and find a way to get more diversity in these conferences. But at the same time, you’re talking about convincing firms and big bosses of the ROI of these conferences, and I’m not sure that getting more diversity would please them. I’d love to see a place where business men or women and teachers and students and employees ans why not kids could attend all together. I’m afraid it wouldn’t be good marketing… That’s why for instance the kids program was not an official one this year…

      • GREGG FRALEY says:

        Thank you kindly for your comments Delphine.

        CREA is a great training conference for people like you, perfect really.

        When you say that creativity conferences are not innovation conferences, you are making my original point for me. CREA is a creativity conference, and a very good one. Why does it need to add “& Innovation” to the website? It’s an afterthought, and/or, an attempt to reassure corporate types that the conference is not “just a creativity conference.” As you point out, what it does well is creative problem solving and the even more generic creativity, and, you are quite right, those skills can be used for lots of things.

        I’m actually Not trying to convince firms and big bosses of the ROI of creativity conferences. I wouldn’t bother trying. There will always be a small number of those big boss types that get it and send people. Anybody who takes persuading is pretty much a lost cause in my opinion. CREA (or CPSI) don’t need to do that. Why not play to their strengths — which is personal creative development, problem solving training, facilitation skills, and personal self-expression. They do this So Well.

        CREA is potentially the world’s greatest creativity conference. Why water down the message? Why try to be all things to all people?

        As for diversity, well, as long as CREA is in Sestri it will remain pretty much as it is now. As you point out, it serves participants like you well, so maybe that’s just fine. If they really wanted to be “AND Innovation” in a serious way, they’d need to significantly broaden the programming. If they did this, maybe they would attract a more diverse, if still affluent, group.

    12. [...] a few weeks ago I wrote a somewhat controversial piece about creativity conferences.  Perhaps I put too fine a point on it — I was trying to make the distinction between [...]

    13. [...] people. For more detail about the pro’s and con’s of this interesting conference see my post from last year. The quick summary: it’s a Creativity conference, and it does that very well. Innovation, in [...]

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