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.