What about the other C in C2-MTL?
Last May 21-23, the Arsenal complex in Montreal was the host of C2-MTL, this “new kind of global conference” where commerce and creativity are meant to entwine. Now that the dust has settled, that a much needed step back has been taken, we can reflect on the overall picture with what we hope to be a more objective viewpoint on this “business conference, only different”.
Because this is exactly what Sid Lee, along with his sensational Cirque du Soleil partner, were promoting: a new kind of business conference where the usual commercial challenges are rethought, reshaped, even solved using creative insights. The promise: "a three-day event designed to inspire right and left brain thinking through a smorgasbord of non-traditional experiences, all happening under an unconventional innovation village". Indeed, we can attest, C2-MTL was a one-of-a-kind energy-intensive event for those who usually attend conventional lecture-type conferences. But beyond the tricks and seductions of the show, was mission really accomplished? Were the three action-packed days all that different from any of the other large-scale, high-profile business conference? And if it was different, at what level? Most of all, was the creative portion of the conference as significant as the commercial one? Smorgasbord, or traditional buffet? As we reflected, those were the types of questions that sparked our curiosity and initiated our analysis in hopes to shed some light over the oh-so-talked-about event.
We must start by saying, and we think we can all agree, that commerce was emphasized with great fanfare. The select audience was filled with C-types and decision-makers from all over the world, the content was as business-oriented as it could, and the illustrious speakers came from notorious leading firms (Adidas, Coca-Cola, Ford, Boeing, Virgin and Intel, to name a few). But behind all the glitz and glamour, what was left of creativity? After all, isn't creativity the foundation of the C2-MTL "difference"?
So, what is creativity anyway?
Before going any further in depicting C2-MTL's creativity, its definition must be laid down in more theoretical terms. According to Edward de Bono, the author behind the renowned Six Thinking Hats book and father of lateral thinking, "creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way. It is thinking "outside the box"." Hence, creativity is a state-of-mind, a perspective, a lense through which one decides to look at his world. Beyond the refusal of the status quo, creativity unfolds in the action, in the making. Creative types practice the make-to-learn methodology, to the contrary of the learn-to-make stance preferred by our society (think no further than our education system). "I don't think creativity can be taught, I think creativity has to be lived”, reminded us Andy Nulman during his entertaining appearance at C2. As explained by many management academics (Drazin et al., 1999; Csikszentmihalyi, 1997; Amabile et al., 1996; Oldham & Cummings, 1996) , creative ideas are not the result of pure luck or of rare genius; it is the combination of different ideas taken out of their original context. Therefore, to become more creative, "to generate more innovative ideas, then you should purposely expose your mind to radically different facts and unusual, often conflicting concepts", adds Don Peppers, author and founding partner at the Peppers and Rogers Group. In sum, creativity cannot be witnessed from afar; it has to be deliberately endorsed and put into practice.
Creativity in Reality.
That being said, it could be argued that creativity can only be truly understood once hands get dirty. Translated in business jargon by Fast Company's 100 Most Creative People issue (June 2013), it means that "[commercial] success in today’s age of flux increasingly requires messiness – or, more importantly, a tolerance for messiness, [which] runs in the complete opposite direction of the natural impulse of most executives, who look for models and formulas to emulate, who desire clear, safe routes through our fast-changing economic landscape." When interviewed by Robert Safian for Fast Company's annual special edition, Nate Silver, editor behind the noted FiveThirtyEight.com blog, argued in the same direction, saying "creativity needs to be applied to find true meaning from our growing world of numbers." From this perspective, has C2 encouraged enough messiness among the attendees? Has it pushed the execs to think outside the box and create hands-on? Or was it once again, business as usual?
What do they think ?
After speaking with a few participants, two worldviews seem to be in conflict. The suit-and-tie types who came to C2 with very precise business objectives in mind felt that creativity permeated the entire innovation village. According to them, creativity was indeed everywhere: in the content, in the space, among the people attending, event the event experience was creative. "I think it’s a fairly unique conference of its kind and how much energy is put into creating creativity and how much is expressed. It’s not just Cirque du Soleil, it’s the flow of the people, the way you create a space for people", one participant added. Surprisingly, inspiration was brought up more often than creativity. One established communication agency founder stated he attended C2 only to get re-inspired and reinvigorated; creativity was not the main reason of his participation. At last, some said creativity was mostly a mean to discuss business issues, which is exactly what was expected from this class.
A different version of the event came from right-brained individuals. When asked "what do you think of C2's creativity?", most creatives agreed a lot of thoughts and energy went into organizing a high quality event. The socializing side was also a highlight of the conference to the point where some people stayed back during the conferences only to chat with potential partners. Yet, none were particularly amazed by the creative aspect of C2. One attendee even went as far as to suggest integrating playful kids' game in the like of a collaborative hand painting. "It's too business here. Artists are what's missing. If you want real creativity, you need artists. But none of them can pay a $3,000 ticket". For which problem he suggested a special attending fee for artists.
What came closer to raw creativity-making were the workshops, where participants got to connect on a higher, more personal level, while reflecting and discussing business issues with creative thinking techniques. Although the initiative was great, it was exploited at a minimal level and more could be done is this direction for future editions, as expressed by our serial collaborator Komary in this blog post.
In a nutshell
In retrospective, C2-MTL was undoubtedly an inspiring conference, one where the business class could come and replenish on new ideas. Yet, to say it was the reinvention of the business conference might be an overstatement. The organization of the space was novel, the workshops, although still in an embryonnaire state, allowed hands-on experience, but it remained business as usual (pun intended). The conventional formula of a business conference was duly respected: participants listened to A-list speakers in a vast auditorium, followed by a 20-minute Q&A session and a meet and greet activity for a limited audience. Creativity seemed to transcend all conversations, whether it be in the speakers' talks or among participants during coffee break.
However, creativity did not seem to be fully experienced, lived, put in practice. As we saw, creativity means “breaking out of established patterns” and accepting the uncomfortable. Apart from some colorful shoes, a few funky hairstyles, spotted cool hats, some creatures, and let’s say it, the humid stickiness of an exceptional month of May, the conference setting seemed quite “comfortable” and familiar to most. One where it was easy to blend in, as we are used to, with the class business suits.
It is true, C2 just closed its year number two and made progress within only a year. The very fact that this new type of business conference (and what it hopes to become) even exists is a salute to creativity.The first steps have been taken. But to yet again paraphrase Andy Nulman, "to be creative, you have to jump off of cliffs and grow wings on the way down”, perhaps the C2-MTL team can look at this from this same perspective and dare to take bigger risks. Like Chris Bangle mentioned, you must “have the courage to step up into space”. We certainly are looking forward to C2-MTL’s year 3, and beyond. This organization seems to have all the necessary tools (and creative minds) to completely rethink the business conference, whether it be with more hands-on creation and interaction activities, or shall we dare say, by completely eliminating the traditional conference set-up! Whatever it is, C2-MTL, go ahead, jump and do not be afraid to fly high.