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Barbara Lombardo

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The competitive advantage of creative leadership


A study from IBM lifts the lid on creative leadership and how organisations can enable leaders to innovate.

Why are some organisations consistently good at innovating and adapting while others seem to be caught out by change? Is it because of their disciplined innovation process? Is it the knowledge and skills of their people? Or is it their determination to build a culture where challenging assumptions is not only encouraged, but expected?

In today’s volatile and complex environment, rapid adaptability is fundamental to success. Yesterday’s market-leading best practices can all too often turn into tomorrow’s recipe for disaster. History is full of examples of organisations that became so enamored with, or paralysed by, the status quo that they failed to anticipate the fickle winds of customer demands and faded into oblivion.

"Creative leadership in action enables a wide range of product, process and business model innovations."

Forward-thinking leaders, however, learn to harness this complexity to their advantage. They take processes with many distinctive parts and integrate each element into a smoothly functioning whole.

According to the newly released IBM Creative Leadership study, leaders who embrace the dynamic tension between creative disruption and operational efficiency can create new models of extraordinary value.

After open interviews with 40 leaders from around the globe, the study found that to succeed in an increasingly interconnected world, creative leaders avoid choosing between unacceptable alternatives. Instead, they use the power inherent in these dualities to invent new assumptions and create new models geared to an ever-changing world.

The study also found that creativity was one of the most important leadership qualities over the next five years.

Most people believe creativity is initiated by ideation or brainstorming. But it actually begins much earlier. The path to differentiation starts by seeing what others do not – connecting the dots among what, at first glance, might appear to be unrelated activities or data.

Making this connection requires organisations to examine each element of an opportunity or challenge in minute detail. Is any one element of a programme viable? How does it stand on its own? What are the differentiating elements that make the activity or information compelling, interesting and marketable? Then, the organisation must zoom out and see how each piece will fit into an interconnected whole. Does this add value to the overall project or mission? Is it effective?

One study participant relates how a large specialty clothing retailer asked him to come up with a new store design by challenging the assumptions behind everything they had been doing. A recommendation to re-configure 12 test stores was made as a way to prototype the new ideas. This was done by using a combination of design and systems thinking to re-imagine the concept from the ground up. Those stores ended up outperforming other company stores by a wide margin, a success that the participant credits to the retailer's willingness to look at its customer value proposition from an entirely new and different perspective, making it marketable.

Creative leadership in action enables a wide range of product, process and business model innovations. The study identified three imperatives that organisations looking to foster creative leadership need to act upon:

Uncover the key capabilities of the creative organisation

Inspire belief that action is possible. Expose those individuals who see opportunities where others do not and map out what is found. Ideas and people need to connect in novel ways. Try many and various ideas. Maintain the discipline to get things done.

Unlock and catalyse the creative capabilities of leaders

Create high-impact, experiential learning tied to real business challenges. Develop inspirational role models who demonstrate accomplishment and empowered leadership. Unleash small, diverse teams to pursue bold ideas in response to challenges. Create work structures and incentives aligned with intrinsic motivation. Promote a culture of inspiring vision built on authenticity and powered by trust.

Unleash and scale organisational creativity

Share information for collective vision. Tap into global expertise networks. Expand management and communication style repertoires. Build ad hoc constituencies of those sharing common goals. Empower the organisation’s ability to understand how the world behaves and influence collective behaviour through real-time analytics.

These key imperatives characterise successful creative leadership styles that separate outperformers from the flock.

As organisations come to terms with the need to work more closely with a broad range of constituents to create shared value, leadership will need to develop the ability  to collaborate across profit/non profit, local/global, and real-world/virtual-world boundaries. This will often require leadership styles characterised by influence rather than power.

Managing the increasing complexity inherent in today’s environment requires leaders who will work to unlock, uncover and unleash the collective creative capabilities of their organisations. These leaders will muster the will to challenge assumptions and encourage the disruption of the status quo. They will find a way to harness the dynamic tension between the opposing forces of integration and differentiaton and let loose the drivers of innovation that, ultimately, can position their organisations to surprise and delight customers, employees and shareholders alike.

The IBM Institute of Business Value Study Cultivating organisational creativity in an age of complexity was published in August 2011.

Barbara Lombardo is a partner in IBM Global Business Services, Organisation and People consulting services, and the global leader for enterprise leadership with over 20 years of management consulting experience. Daniel Roddy is the Human Capital Management lead for the IBM Institute for Business Value within IBM Global Business Services, with interests in creative leadership, leveraging collective intelligence and the future of work.




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