Why companies need creative leaders in the future of work

In 2019, LinkedIn named it “the most important skill in the world.” The World Economic Forum (WEF) placed it third on a list of the “10 skills you need to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.” Surprisingly, it is not data science or artificial intelligence, but something much softer: creativity.

In her book, The Creative Leap, Natalie Nixon defines creativity as “the ability to toggle between wonder and rigor in order to solve problems and deliver novel value.” When put that way, it is easy to see why creativity will be one of the most vital factors for success in the future of work.

Yet many leaders are failing to cultivate this essential quality — both within their own leadership and within their organizations. One study, for instance, found that 75 per cent of adults believe they are not “living up to their creative potential” and are “under pressure to be productive rather than creative at work.” This is not the way forward into our future economy. For leaders who need convincing, here are three ways they can benefit from prioritizing creativity.

According to a survey from Adobe and Forrester Consulting, creative companies are “more likely to report a commanding market leadership position with a higher market share than their competitors.” In the coming years, I believe this creativity advantage will only grow — and Warren Berger, author of A More Beautiful Question, agrees. “Now, more than ever, creativity is the competitive tool that’s going to make a difference,” he said. “Whether you’re an entrepreneur, a large company, or a solo creative person, it’s what makes you stand out.”

As an example, Tucker Marion, an associate professor at Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business, suggested comparing the mobile phones produced by Apple and Samsung. “[A]t the outset, they’re very similar,” he noted. “But once you start digging, there’s more creativity in the iPhone. Take facial recognition, for example: It’s a seamless user experience… Creativity is essential in business because it’s a differentiator.”

Over the long run, research from McKinsey shows that having such a differentiator — let’s call it the “creativity factor” — can lead to better returns. When the firm gave companies a creativity score “based on the prestigious Cannes Lions awards… for advertising and marketing excellence,” it discovered that the most creative companies’ organic revenue growth and total return to shareholders were greater than their peers. The creative companies also scored higher on innovation outcomes. “Creativity is at the heart of business innovation, and innovation is the engine of growth,” the authors concluded.

Augment human value

The robots are here — and, while they may be able to perform calculations, assemble parts, and even fill prescriptions more efficiently than people, they still lack the human touch, of which creativity plays an integral role. Rather than striving to compete with the robots, therefore, human leaders and their team members should strive to complement the rapidly advancing technology that surrounds us.

One way to do so is by embracing creativity. As Neil Stevenson, an executive portfolio director at the famed design firm IDEO, explained: “Creativity is a way we can add value and do well as people, while staying relevant and not being replaced by computers.”

I believe that technology and creativity work best together, as in the case of Microsoft’s AI assistant, Cortana, whose development team included a poet, a novelist, and a former TV writer. Research from Accenture backs up this assertion, revealing that “firms achieve the most significant performance improvements” when humans and machines collaborate.

Design the future

Returning to McKinsey’s analysis of creative companies, nearly 60 per cent in the top quartile “self-identify as industry shapers or innovation leaders.” Only one-third of their less creative peers identified themselves in the same way. Tomorrow’s most creative leaders, therefore, will not merely allow the future to unfold before them — but, instead, will shape it themselves.

In Fast Company, Courtney Feider, a creative disruption strategist, wrote that creative leaders “see things differently from everyone else” and “learn something new every day” — which, in turn, allows them to “envision the futures they’d like to build.” This will be of the utmost importance in the coming decade, explained IDEO’s Matt Adams, because, “As problems get more complex, there are fewer examples of how to solve them. Instead of looking at what is or what has been, we need to start looking to what can be.”

For leaders who would like to foster creativity among their teams and themselves, thereby designing their own futures, there are a variety of strategies. They could reward creativity (as in Tata’s “Dare to Try” award), assign dedicated creative time (as in Google’s 20 per cent rule), design creative workspaces, prioritize fast decisions, and always ask open-ended questions. They could, of course, hire diverse teams, which can lead to greater creativity, too.

Leaders should not, however, relegate creativity to a “design lab” or “innovation center”; rather, they should ensure that creativity is encouraged to permeate throughout the entirety of an organization. As Nixon wrote in The Creativity Leap: “If all we are doing is setting aside new departments or spaces that we designate as the space in which to innovate, then it is as if we are saying there is a separate time and space to be creative and to be productive. And that just is not so. Creativity is a productivity play. That is why it is essential for business, not just some frilly, extraneous add-on. Taking the leap to build an organization-wide creative capacity is the single best way to continually innovate.”

 

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