Leaders Can Turn Creativity Into A Competitive Advantage

reuser project management firm

In 1985, Peter Drucker made a hopeful case for an entrepreneurial society in which innovation and the creation of new businesses would more than compensate for job losses stemming from the retreat of manufacturing industries in the U.S. and other developed economies. Since then, the U.S. has increasingly come to rely on innovation and entrepreneurship to drive growth — but we haven’t achieved the scale of entrepreneurial society we need to offset the effects of globalization and automation.

One reason for this is the increasing speed of change itself. Technological innovations like high-speed trading and digital marketing enable competitors to emerge, thrive, and disrupt companies far faster than ever before. This “VUCA”(Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity) rewards innovation but it also punishes failure more harshly. The result is that while we may be creating many new businesses we are destroying existing ones faster than ever before. The average lifespan of companies in the Fortune 500 has dropped precipitously over recent decades.

A second reason is that our assumptions about good management practices are out of date. Since the 1980s, management practices like the Toyota Production System that promotes efficiency, quality, and scale has done wonders to lift the quality and profitability of global manufacturing. But in a business environment that is spectacularly unpredictable in almost every way, efficiency is no longer the most sensible — or at least not the only sensible — strategy.

What we need is a shift in emphasis from operational competitiveness toward creative competitiveness —  the capacity of organizations and society to create, embrace, and successfully execute on new ideas.

How can we foster creative competitiveness, especially in big, established corporate ecosystems?

All of our management practices need to be updated: how organizations are structured, how we deploy capital, how we interact and collaborate with broader networks, what tools and technology we embrace and deploy, what we measure, what markets we target, who we hire and how we lead. Of these, how we lead and the kind of culture we create are the essential starting points.

When our goal is efficiency, our concept of governance includes ensuring standardization, high levels of coordination, careful assessment of risk, and, of course, the elimination of waste. When we want to be creatively fit, governance looks quite different. It should be, and feel, more nurturing. It should focus on speed of learning and rigorous experimentation. It benefits from an attitude of abundance.

Nurturing a creatively competitive organization requires curiosity above all else. Asking the right questions is more important (and more difficult) than having the right answers. 

The first of these roles is that of the explorer

This is the stance that is closest to the governing, decision-making, leading-from-the-front style we’re used to seeing in efficiency-led organizations, except for one crucial difference. The explorer leads from the front not by issuing directions, but by asking strategically purposeful questions. These set the organization off on explorative quests that, if they’re successful, will bring great value.

The second stance is that of the gardener

Who fosters the conditions in which creativity can thrive. This kind of leading-from-behind requires forethought and careful investment. By nurturing new capabilities, providing spaces and tools that encourage creativity and collaboration, and protecting the tender shoots of innovation from the efficiency-led behaviors of the organizational core, the gardener releases the creative potential of the organization.

The final and most challenging role is that of the player-coach

This kind of leading from the side requires a lot of confidence. Leaders must engage in the act of the innovation without dominating it. The job of the player-coach is to anticipate obstacles that the team may not expect, to nudge and guide the cycles of experimentation required to bring ideas to life. Whereas the gardener can prepare the ground in advance, the player/coach must be ‘on the field’ working with teams as they are developing their ideas. To do so requires deep levels of engagement with the ideas and knowledge of the organization.

While leading for creativity is just the first of many new practices required of creatively competitive organizations, it is the one on which all others depend. Nothing is sure to shut down the engine of innovation faster than leaders who behave as if creating and executing on new ideas is just another item on their efficiency oriented checklists.

View Original Article in Harvard Business Review: