3 Things the Most Creative Leaders Do23 December, 2015 / Articles
Over the past three decades at IDEO, I’ve worked with some of the most innovative companies in the world and seen a lot of creative leaders in action. I’ve paid attention to how the best of them operate — how they nurture creativity all around them — and I’ve noticed three things:
They build core enthusiast communities inside and outside of their organizations. Chris Anderson, CEO of drone-maker 3D Robotics, started seeking knowledge and insight from drone aficionados with his website DIYDrones long before he ever hired his first employee, and has continued to practice open-source innovation in the years since. The company nurtures its creative community and recognizes participation at every level. When a contributor offers even the simplest input, the company sends him or her a T-shirt, signifying inclusion in 3D Robotics’ tribe of “insiders.” As bright people from around the world ratchet up their participation, they might instead get plane tickets so they can travel to the company’s headquarters and meet its leaders in person. Some eventually cross over to become full-time employees. The free-flowing exchange, in which employees, partners, and collaborators gain social capital through their creative input, has helped propel growth. 3D Robotics currently makes more consumer and commercial drones than any other company in America.
They achieve big change through a series of small experiments. Many years ago, Jim Hackett, then CEO of Steelcase — a long-time IDEO strategic partner — wanted to get his top executives to move to open workspaces. Then, as now in many organizations, the private office was a privilege of rank, but because Steelcase was a global leader in system furniture, Hackett thought it was important for its managers to walk the talk and demonstrate the value of working in non-traditional office formats. He had a hunch that if he simply announced a sweeping change — out with the old way and in with the new — many of his execs would have resisted and asked to be exempted.
So Jim instead proposed a small experiment. He asked his management team to join him in a six-month prototype of the company’s open “Leadership Community.” All he wanted was for them to give it an honest try for a limited time, using the best of Steelcase’s own products, and he promised that whatever was not working at the end of six months would be addressed. When a respected leader asks you to join a short experiment, it’s very hard to say no, or even complain. And no one did. Though it has evolved over time, Steelcase’s six-month experiment turned into 20 years. The executives never went back to their private offices.
They jump-start their innovation journey with storytelling. Marketers have always understood how great messaging contributes to the success of new products, services, and brands. And the best creative leaders are now screening ideas from the very beginning for the potential to both delight customers and also tell an engaging story. Jane Park, CEO of the beauty-products start-up Julep, worked with IDEO to find a breakthrough in nail polish that would spark new conversations among core users, known as “mavens.” The design research highlighted an issue long understood but never fully addressed: the difficulty that women have applying nail polish when holding the brush in their non-dominant hand. Park and her team realized that all tools requiring precision — like a pencil or a paintbrush, or even a surgeon’s scalpel — have length. So they developed a long, articulated handle — dubbed Plié — which allows users to get a smoother, more precise finish and also docks magnetically to the nail polish cap.
The creative solution had value all its own, but the origin story linking Plié to other tools gave it the buzz it needed to catch on. It helped win the hearts and minds of both Julep’s internal team and external stakeholders out in the marketplace. Noting the combination of great stories and an invested community, Forbes recently suggested that Julep might be “the next billion-dollar beauty brand.”
There are, of course, many other ways that creative leaders push their colleagues and their companies to achieve greatness. But community-building, experimentation, and storytelling are three very important pieces of their repertoire.