The Value of Creative Leadership: Driving Innovation and Change


by Rob Cordova


Like so many of us, my smartphone’s alarm wakes me up every morning. Over breakfast, my eight-year-old daughter is glued to games and activities on her iPad. If she gets stuck on a particular level, she uses her smartphone to research cheats, walkthroughs, and video tutorials. Meanwhile, my toddler animatedly repeats Spanish phrases as instructed by an educational children’s TV program streamed through our video subscription service.

The thought of beginning any sentence with “Back in my day…” makes me shudder, so I silently observe how quickly the world is changing and take mental notes about what tomorrow’s landscape might look like. These days, I spend a lot of time with companies that are obsessed with tomorrow—and innovating for it. The word “innovation” appears in their vision and mission statements, goals, and employee surveys, and, thus, the workshops I lead for them. But I’ve found that, more often than not, the companies that are obsessed with innovation are actually struggling with creativity.

The Value of Creative Leaders

A decade ago, innovation training was the business-world equivalent of an elective course. People would show up, get in touch with their creative side, and walk away with hundreds of ideas that would never be discussed again. Nowadays, creativity is not only acknowledged as essential to innovation, it’s become the most critical skill requirement for today’s leaders. Why? With a creative mindset, economic pressures, regulatory changes, accelerated industry adaptations, an increasing volume of data, and ever-changing customer preferences are seen as opportunities—not obstacles.

In my workshops, I constantly encounter leaders who see their companies as both messengers of change and barriers to new ideas. True as this may be, every leader is responsible for encouraging fresh thinking and harnessing their team’s creativity to move the business forward. No one else is in a better position to question the status quo, hear ideas about keeping the company competitive, and act on relevant ideas. Yes, leaders face urgent daily deadlines and never-ending employee issues, but guiding the creative climate of their organization must remain a top priority. By adopting the four behaviors below, leaders can embrace creativity and take immediate, real-world action.

Challenge Norms

When joining a new company or assuming a new role, we tend to survey the environment’s culture and dynamics. We study how the place works, we define its norms, and we pledge allegiance to them. Creative leaders take the opposite approach. Consider, for example, a session where I asked participants to identify the norms—assumptions—of a rental car company.

People mentioned a fleet of cars, daily or weekly rental, premium prices on gas and insurance, and staff to check cars in and out. I congratulated them for outlining the formula for every rental car company in existence. Then I asked the group to imagine a car rental company that offered BMWs and Mini Coopers by the hour, included gas and insurance in its hourly rate, and issued key cards that allowed customers to access rentals without any staff assistance. Most people couldn’t wait to tell me why the idea was ridiculous. A handful nodded knowingly and called out the name of a company with a similar business model: Zipcar.

Challenging the norms allows us to create something new, creative, and usually competitive. And the simplest route to achieving this is through challenging our current way of doing things. By flipping our assumptions about our businesses, we often find the very strategies that will enable a successful future.

Stay Open to New Ideas

During a session with IT leaders from Seattle-area companies, we explored the idea of the proactive (vs. reactive) IT help desk. Could a help desk contact customers before problems occurred? What if the help desk was a lounge that people could visit, as opposed to a call center? What if the help desk assisted customers with their personal technology issues as well?

Do those ideas strike you as radical and achievable, or are you thinking about why they won’t work? If your answer is the latter, you’re in good company. Our resistance to new ideas begins early, as I witnessed in an undergraduate class I taught in the Gabelli School of Management at Fordham University.

At the end of the semester, teams presented their ideas for innovative products. The first team pitched a peanut butter dispenser based on the design of deodorant dispensers. They laid out the common problem—getting every last bit of peanut butter out of a jar—and demonstrated how their solution would not only be more efficient but also provide a superior experience for the consumer.

I was brimming with pride…until I opened up the floor for Q&A. Hands flew up, and from the mouths of my students came slams, cut-downs, and doomsday predictions. It was ugly, but not at all rare. I seized the moment to reacquaint the class with the most effective tool for keeping conversations focus on opportunities rather than criticism: POINT. Developed by professors from Buffalo State University’s International Center for Studies in Creativity, POINT has changed the way I think about and discuss new ideas. This simple tool can be used by leaders to build creative momentum, rather than deflate it. 

  • Positives. No matter how crazy an idea might seem, list a few things that you like about it. Example: “The peanut-butter dispenser could be fun to use and it would solve the problem of wasted product.” 
  • Opportunities. Discuss what might happen if the idea were actually successful, and explore related ideas that come to mind. Example: “This new peanut-butter container could become the new norm for spreadable foods.” 
  • Issues. Voice your concerns, but express them in the form of a question. Example: “What steps can we take to ensure we are not infringing on any patent issues?” 
  • New Thinking. Answer the questions posed in the Issues phase. Example: “We could explore partnerships with dispenser manufacturers” OR “We could research patent laws to find out if we’re in the clear or not.”

I’ve seen POINT completely change the conversation and energy of a new idea in both academic and corporate settings. The methodology provides a starting place for discussion, fuel for motivation, and a fertile ground to allow original ideas to grow beyond their initial premise.

Take Risks

Creativity becomes innovation only if you’re able to materialize an idea and turn it into something people will value. As with anything new, there’s always risk. Instead of thinking about risk in terms of million-dollar investments or failures, think about what defines a smart risk and how you can encourage an environment where failures are accepted and even celebrated.

To do this, start by re-evaluating your prototyping process. Long process cycles and huge investments are a thing of the past. Cross-department collaboration, online labs, and instant user feedback now enable us to test half-baked products and services in phases to determine if we’re heading in the right direction. Next, you need to reconsider your willingness to fail. Risks are gambles and, as leaders, we must accept that losses are not only acceptable, they’re valuable.

I personally experienced this radical approach to failure about a decade ago, when I worked as a trainer for a prominent financial services company. I was leading a project team tasked with rolling out a new product in Japan. We did our market research and spent endless hours laying the groundwork in Asia. Six months after the launch, we declared it a failure and pulled out. I assumed I would lose my job, but as it turned out, my company’s definition of failure was much more progressive than my own.

Instead of manifesting my worst-case scenario, the company awarded me—and every member of the team—its highest form of recognition and treated us to a fancy dinner in France. This surprising outcome taught me to regard every project or idea as a learning adventure. The company’s culture of capturing learnings and rewarding failure empowered our team to go on to successful product launches around the world. Your own company’s survival is based on its ability to innovate, so you must create a working environment where failure is celebrated and creativity is coveted.

Explore Connections

Innovation and creativity are a mindset, not a one-off exercise. Leaders must continually scan the landscape to create optimal conditions for making connections. Identifying and connecting trends in emerging markets, technologies, and generational shifts is critical to ensuring your company’s long-term sustainability.

Aging populations, BYOD, Brazil, Millennials, and gamification are a handful of trends that will ultimately affect all of us. Start planning today for the effect these trends will have on tomorrow’s strategies. Learn about the latest innovations from IBM’s 5 in 5; follow trendspotters at Google Trends and Trend Hunter; subscribe to the blogs of leaders in seemingly unrelated industries for creative insights that you can apply to your own business.

And, finally, when a situation calls for a dose of pure creativity, ask a kid. My own daughter has a permanent place on my research team, thanks to a parent-teacher conference in which her teachers told me she was “too creative.” How so? Apparently she has a knack for creating original stories on the spot, making up new games on the playground, and seeking new ways of doing pretty much everything. At that moment, I wanted to invent a new word for “proud.”

It would be spectacular to see how our businesses would change if every leader possessed the creativity of an eight-year-old, but it’s unnecessary. We all have the capacity for creative leadership. We can regularly challenge norms to find business opportunities. We can suspend our criticism and evaluate wild ideas objectively. We can encourage our teams to take smart risks and celebrate their failures. Your ability to harness creativity and move innovative ideas forward will ultimately determine the future of your organization. So take a page from the playbooks of creative leaders—as well as eight-year-olds everywhere—and look beyond the obstacles to discover your path to innovation.

 

As a leading expert in the field of learning and development, Rob Cordova has improved the creativity and innovation capabilities of thousands of professionals in more than twenty countries around the world. He is known for his dynamic, high-impact learning experiences and award-winning exercises that are designed to make creativity and innovation real, accessible, and practical.

Tag(s): leadership

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