frog design: What Can Wile E. Coyote Teach Us About Creative Intelligence?

frog design: What Can Wile E. Coyote Teach Us About Creative Intelligence?

Bruce Nussbaum was right to close the book on Design Thinking. It is time to move on. Business never really got the message. What businesses continue to care about is innovation.

  • 21 april 2011

Bruce Nussbaum was right to close the book on Design Thinking. It is time to move on. Business never really got the message. What businesses continue to care about is innovation. While designers may think that innovation requires Design Thinking, that was an idea that never really stuck in the executive suite. Is “creativity” any different? Most executives will acknowledge that innovation requires some form of creativity. But creativity brings its own baggage.

Creativity is generally viewed as an inherent quality within a person; there’s a notion that you find out early in life whether you are creative or not. How many times have you heard a business person say “I am not creative” in a meeting? The concept of “Creative Intelligence” (or CQ) extends that model by implying that our level of creativity can be assessed in a quantitative manner similar to an IQ score. By bringing creativity into the sphere of assessment, I fear that CQ will ultimately suffer a similar fate as Design Thinking.

Putting HR in the Driver’s Seat

Why do I say that? Last fall, frog design had the opportunity to participate in the Economist ‘Ideas Economy’ conference on Human Potential in New York and I was able to observe firsthand, the dangers of this model of creativity. While the conference had the usual provocative speakers (Clay Shirky, Dan Pink, Dan Ariely) the audience leaned heavily toward HR executives.

The underlying message coming from Richard Florida, Vijay Vaitheeswaran, and others is that creativity should be viewed as a critical resource that is undervalued within most organizations and thus, represents a huge area for growth in the 21st century (hence the “Human Potential” referred to in the title). The corollary to that message was that HR should play a lead role in building and managing this resource like any other link in the corporate value chain. Again and again speakers fell into the trap of referring to “creativity” as a form of organizational capital just like finances, real estate, or energy. I found this very disturbing. And I worry that the concept of CQ will only play into HR’s hands.

Misconceptions About Creativity

The frog team spent two days injecting a series of games into the conference to inspire collaboration among participants and to challenge this assumption. In the closing session, I had the opportunity to reveal the key message behind these activities and reframe the notion of creativity and human potential. To make my point, I used one of my favorite representations of creativity and human potential in popular culture: Wile E. Coyote. So, what exactly does a cartoon character teach us about creativity?

1. Creativity is BETWEEN Us (Not Within Us)

You would probably argue that Wile E.’s CQ is much higher than Road Runner. In fact, he probably generates more inventions per broadcast minute than any other character in popular culture. While Road Runner just, well, runs away. But would Wile E. be anywhere near as creative without Road Runner? Would his inventions emerge out of his own faculties unprompted or only in response to a situation? His relationship with Road Runner is a dynamic that constantly pushes him farther, faster, and (unfortunately in most cases) higher than he imagined.

The reality is that we can’t just assess and hire people with high CQs and expect them to do their creative magic. Creativity emerges out of relationships; it’s the tension between different ideas and perspectives and so it is risky to define it as an ability that we inherently possess. Wile E.’s inventions always fail because he has no one to collaborate with, only Road Runner to inspire them. And all Road Runner ever does is beep beep and zoom off.

2. Creativity Must be Externalized

Creativity is driven by the ability to externalize ideas in a wide variety of forms. Wile E. is the best rapid-prototyper in the history of popular culture. He can wire, weld, hammer, drill, and solder almost anything. This implies a wide variety of intelligences at work in Wile E.’s brain–after all, some of the best ideas emerge when we pair artists and engineers, scientists and strategists.

This is one of the true universal insights of the design process. We should be careful not to assume that there is one form of “Creative Intelligence.” I am afraid that any practical measurement of CQ will, by definition, narrow this range. The key to true creativity is to ensure that multiple forms of intelligence are at the table (including the most analytic and least “creative”) and that they are externalized and synthesized in an active manner. After all, how does Road Runner always manage to be in the right place at the right time? He might possess a different type of intelligence than Wile E., but one that is equally wily.

3. Creativity is Driven by Social Dynamics

Creativity is the result of a set of relationships with strong social and emotional dimensions. It comes out of a collaborative environment (and this is where HR can play a meaningful role), hence the shift in focus toward organizational culture and transformation in design organizations.

Wile E. Coyote has evolved in an environment that is truly barren. This condition is heightened by the beautiful, but stagnant backdrops that frame his frenetic activity. The canyons and mesas seem truly oblivious to his existential plight. The only other creature in his world, sadly, is Road Runner, the object of his every affection and desire.

Road Runner is the only possibility for collaboration with Wile E. Coyote, for both connection and meaning. How can we ever be creative without feeling this human connection and without being able to bounce our ideas off of each other? The heartbreaking thing about the show is not that Wile E. never gets his meal. It is that his efforts are never acknowledged by Road Runner at all. The best he can do is look knowingly out at the camera–out at us–hoping for some sympathy before he falls (and falls and falls) to the empty desert floor.


Group Intelligence

Clearly I am a huge fan of Road Runner and empathize with Wile E. Doesn’t everyone? But I have found that Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote are a very accessible metaphor for communicating some important dimensions of creativity that are often lost on the business community. In the end, I fear that people are going to read about Creative Intelligence and believe that all that they need to do is identify and hire for a high level of CQ and their business will become more “creative,” instead of building an environment and culture that is truly open and collaborative.

I have seen over and over again how a multi-disciplinary environment that recognizes many forms of intelligence and brings them together in a collaborative manner leads to true Creative Intelligence. This type of dynamic is critical to the design process. And yes, some people are especially talented at facilitating these kinds of interactions (whether they are designers, teachers, activists, or advocates). Is this a sign of Creative Intelligence, empathy, or Emotional Intelligence (EQ)? As Greg Aper put it in his insightful comments to Bruce’s post, “Trying to separate a social ability from the psychology of the individual is not a task I would relish.”

Design teaches us that creativity is not an innate ability–it is the end result of many forms of intelligence coming together, and intelligence born out of collaboration and out of networks. Perhaps true CQ resides in the group and the community, and not the individual. Now, how are we going to measure that?

By Robert Fabricant

Reprinted with kind permission from design mind, a publication of global innovation firm frog design.


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