When I ask for examples of ‘creatives’ in a business context, most CEOs refer to graphic designers, advertising copywriters or jingle writers. They never consider that they could be — and should be — creative thinkers themselves. They are surprised when I tell them that leaders who abdicate responsibility for creative thinking to a few people in defined roles are limiting the potential of their organisations.
In an age when disruption is a fact of life, doing things differently is essential to remain competitive. This involves creative thinking — the ability to think laterally, to imagine the possible where others see the impossible, to solve an entrenched problem with a new approach. Thinking like this needs to be led from the top, and it takes practise.
All CEOs should be aiming to unlock creativity in themselves and their people. Instead, most opt for the restricted, silo-based view of innovative thinking that characterises traditional leadership.
We’re all born with the potential to be creative — think about the sand castles, dressing up and finger-painting of your childhood. Somewhere along the way to adulthood, we become more self-conscious and risk-averse, and only a few people retain that sense of limitless possibility. Those who head into the business world tend to build mental barriers between roles that are creative and those that aren’t. They pursue more structured lines of thinking and stop cultivating personal creativity, because they regard it as the domain of ‘creatives’.
To become a CEO who supports creativity and innovation, you’ll need to nurture a culture where everyone feels empowered to express their ideas and act on them. This is hard if you don’t have that confidence yourself. Fortunately, creative confidence can be cultivated.
Mobilising creative thinking
Look for a formal development program that that focuses on building a growth mindset, uncovering your true purpose and passion, and conquering your fear of failure. You should be prepared to let go of the need to control and play safe — a mindset that hampers courage and exploration. You’ll be surprised what happens when you overcome it and rediscover creative freedom.
Next, learn how to inspire, capture, synthesise and guide creativity in others, and how to enable implementation of the resulting ideas. By mastering these skills, you’ll be able to harness the collective intelligence of everyone when developing solutions, not just a selected few ‘creatives’.
To build a creatively inclusive culture, encourage enquiry, collaboration and experimentation. This will create a workplace where people feel empowered to work across silos, explore ideas and fail sometimes. Also, consider introducing dedicated methodologies and tools that support a more flexible, unconstrained way of thinking about business challenges and opportunities. One of the most powerful is design thinking — designing products, services and organisations from the point of view of the end user. This methodology focuses on solutions and the future rather than problems and the present, with an emphasis on possibilities and desired outcomes that match what the customer, worker or other end user needs with what is feasible from a business and a technology point of view.
For more information
If you would like to learn more about creative thinking, there are plenty of good online and print resources from authors such as Jeanne Liedtka, Tim Ogilvie, Tom and David Kelley and Marty Neumeier. I also recommend watching an interview that I conducted with Telstra’s Head of Design Practice, Cecilia Hill.
I’m not arguing that every CEO should be a painter, novelist or ballet dancer. I’m advocating that leaders understand why creativity at work is important, unearth their creative selves and learn how to harness and build creative confidence in their workplaces.
After all, some of the world’s most successful companies are the most creative, Apple and Nike being great examples. If you aspire to join them, unleashing the creative power of your workforce is essential.