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Creative leadership

Creative Leadership

In today’s rapidly changing, hypercompetitive business environment, creative leadership is critical.

Companies need to innovate to gain a competitive edge, says Linda Naiman, founder of Creativity at Work, a company that helps organizations develop creativity and leadership capabilities.

“In an increasingly global economy, as we face the rise of artificial intelligence, robots and more, how are you going to compete?” she says. “You have to be creative. You have to add value rather than compete on price.”

Executives need to be creative, as well. In a study by the Center for Creative Leadership, 94 percent of global executives said that innovating was important or very important, yet only 14 percent felt their company did it effectively.


Finding a path

The problem isn’t a lack of ideas; given the right environment, people can always come up with fresh approaches. But leaders who say they want creative ideas often fail to follow through. They go with ideas that fit easily into their existing operations rather than those that are off the beaten track, even when their own customers would prefer a more creative solution.

David Horth, director of innovation venturing and partnerships for the Center for Creative Leadership, has witnessed the problem firsthand. At a United Kingdom company, he asked executives privately what they did when someone approached them with an idea. The company’s vice president of marketing said he secretly wished he could mow down ideas with a machine gun. An IT executive said he would give the person with the idea an afternoon off — with the hope that the idea would go away.

Resistance to trying something new is understandable. It’s easy to say you want creativity, but spending money on a new product or plunging headlong into a new strategy requires a leap of faith.

“There is no path to the future,” Naiman says. “You create your own, and it’s fraught with chaos, ambiguity and the possibility of failure.”


Balancing risk and innovation

Leaders need to balance the natural tension between running today’s business and innovating for the future, Horth says. That means dedicating at least a portion of your portfolio to innovation.

“You don’t need to bet the farm, but you must have an element of risk. It’s your lifeblood,” he says.

Leaders also must encourage middle managers to give ideas serious consideration rather than simply shutting them down. If someone’s idea falls on deaf ears twice, the person usually gives up, Horth says.

He has a simple formula for how to react when someone presents an idea: POINT. The “P” stands for “positive”— talk about the idea’s good points. “O” is for “opportunities” — what else might the idea help the company do? “I” is for the issues with implementing the idea. You should view them as problems that can be solved, rather than reasons to nip the idea in the bud. “NT” stands for “new thinking,” or ideas to solve the issues.

If you don’t have time to go through the whole drill, at least discuss the positives of the idea and the issues that need to be worked out. The person with the idea will leave feeling heard, and inspired to refine the plan to make it work.


Design thinking

To turn ideas into innovations, you need to create a company culture that encourages risk-taking, Naiman says. Increasingly, businesses are turning to design thinking, a method that encourages trying new ideas and creating rapid prototypes. That allows companies to get feedback on new ideas or processes and refine them in successive iterations, rather than spending months or years to create the “perfect” solution — which customers will probably want to change anyway.

Design thinking isn’t confined to products; it can also be used internally to test and evaluate new processes using feedback from the people who use them.

“Design thinking is collaborative and requires cross-disciplinary problem solvers. It breaks down silos,” Naiman says.

In this kind of culture, the failure of an idea isn’t a disgrace — it’s an opportunity to learn and improve.

Embracing creativity, feedback and iteration pays off, too. A 2015 study by the Design Management Institute found that that over the last 10 years, companies that used design thinking, including Apple, Coca-Cola, Starbucks and Intuit, outperformed the S&P index by 211 percent.


Idea machines

So how do you generate ideas? There are many techniques to get people’s creative juices flowing.

Naiman has had success with “QuestionStorming.” Instead of proposing solutions to a problem, first have a team come up with 50 questions related to it in 15 minutes. The questions broaden thinking to include facets that might otherwise be ignored.

QuestionStorming can be a bit of a shock, Naiman says. “Middle managers don’t want to ask a lot of questions — they’re worried their employees will think they’re stupid,” she says. But the questions generate new ideas, some of which lead to actionable solutions.

Another technique is to generate ideas through images. When discussing a problem, people tend to search for the one right answer, Horth says. Brainstorming sessions are an attempt to expand thinking, but often they lead to ideas that are incremental, not fundamentally different from the status quo.

Images breed radical ideas, and using them is simple.

“Show people images and have them make connections between them and the problem statement,” says Horth. Images used by the Creative Leadership Institute range from nature scenes to caricatures to Egyptian hieroglyphics. None has an obvious connection to business problems, and that forces the brain to make leaps. “People start using metaphors and images to come up with radical, far-fetched ideas,” Horth says. Although most will be discarded, “one or two might lead to something revolutionary that will generate more revenue.”


Committing to creativity

Paying lip service to creativity won’t help in an era when you need to outinnovate your competitors. To make creative thinking a reality, you need to set aside a portion of your budget for moonshots. Focus on the positive aspects of ideas rather than ditching them because you’re afraid they won’t work. And build a culture of design thinking, where new ideas and processes are developed rapidly and failure is just one rung on the ladder to success.