Monday, October 29, 2012

Creative Leadership is a practice requiring ongoing, even daily reflection, development and implementation

I just completed an energizing weekend leading a course on the Business of Creativity in the executive MBA program in Creative Leadership at Falmouth University College in Cornwall.* One of the learnings we dwelt on was the importance of understanding how creative leadership is an ongoing practice that involves regular, even daily development. 

It's far too easy in charting out creative leadership as a distinct model of or approach to leadership to imagine that it can be embraced through a simple decision or change. While it is useful for learning (and, frankly, for teaching) about creative leadership to cite models or provide case examples that draw sharp contrasts with traditional leadership, the realities of individuals, teams, projects or organizations necessitate a more incremental evolution toward exercising and implementing of creative leadership values and principles.

Take the core principle of creative leadership being democratic. This can be readily contrasted with the more autocratic, typically hierarchical command-and-control principles of traditional leadership. Yet while the contrast is instructive, its application by individuals in specific organizations is hardly straightforward: one doesn’t simply decide one day to re-make one’s own approach to decision-making or collaboration, much less the structure or culture of an organization, to be more open and democratic. It’s a transformation that takes time, both for individual practice and development as well as organizational transformation.

That’s obvious when stated so directly, but it’s important to emphasize when we’re asked to step back and consider how creative leadership, and particularly its core tenets and principles, can help us in our own development as leaders in our own organizations. One of the participants in the Falmouth program, for instance, works at the National Health Service, which she described as a tightly closed and hierarchical system averse to democratic decision-making, genuine collaboration, or non-traditional leadership and problem-solving. No individual act of will or decision to embrace new values of creative leadership will change that or have immediate impact. Yet during the course, this participant recognized that she could productively act upon her belief in values such as democracy, humility, and risk-taking – at least by starting in her daily work and focusing the application of these values on effecting small wins on a specific project.

Creative leadership and its tenets can’t be implemented wholesale or overnight. Instead, they need to be grown incrementally to be maximally successful. Perhaps the best closing example of this concerns the core tenet of introspection and the value of self-awareness. To become more self-aware requires regular reflection and self-assessment. Ultimately, like the embrace of other principles guiding creative leaders, developing and exercising such increased self-awareness involves changing our habits of mind and enacting them consistently, even daily, as a way toward re-making ourselves as more effective creative leaders.

*My thanks to Dr. Maria Jemicz, Helen Wood and all the thoughtful, engaged Falmouth EMBA program participants for their Cornish hospitality and an inspiring course.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Balancing Clarity and Uncertainty in Leading More Successful and Creative Teams

One of the most important trends in leadership, especially of creative organizations and tasks, over the last two decades, is arguably the shift in attention from firm-level to team-level or project-level design and management. About team leadership, especially, there has been a range of immensely valuable insights generated and best practices shared by the likes of Jon Katzenbach and Bob Frisch.

I was reminded earlier of one of my favorite single pieces about building more effective collaboration on teams: Lynda Gratton and Tamara J. Erickson's 2007 Harvard Business Review article on "8 Ways to Build Collaborative Teams." The article itself bears regular re-reading and, in using it in classes with executives, I've found that even experienced and thoughtful team-builders and leaders benefit from its practical insights.

The reminder earlier came in a blog posting on "How Successful Virtual Teams Collaborate" by Keith Ferrazzi, who has recently become a leading voice on the topic of leading teams, particularly remote and virtual ones. In his post today, Ferrazzi lists several key lessons: adjust for size, don't be afraid of social media, play games, and train for collaboration

For his last lesson, Ferrazzi references Gratton and Erickson's research, pointing specifically to their counter-intuitive conclusion that the best teams have role clarity but task uncertainty. Collaboration, he notes, "increased when people had clearly defined roles but were uncertain about how to achieve the team's goals.  The uncertainty encouraged everyone to collaborate and think more creatively about different ways in which to fulfill the group's mission." 

That's a fundamental insight about leading better and more creative collaboration on both virtual and in-person teams. It also touches on the more general value of acknowledging and allowing for uncertainty in the effective practice of creative leadership.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Going Deeper on Dark Social: What the Invisibility of So Many Social Referrals Really Means

I've been thinking about a provocative piece published by Alexis C. Madrigal in The Atlantic online last weekend. "Dark Social: We Have the Whole History of the Web Wrong" makes a simple yet profound point about the social web that has emerged over the last decade to transform interpersonal interactions and communication. Madrigal's assertion is that while we celebrate the measurement of social interaction on Twitter and Facebook, these sites are but "the tip of the social iceberg." The bulk of sharing done online, he claims, occurs through email, instant messages, and chat that are largely invisible to existing analytics. Madrigal calls this mass of social traffic, which one study has constituting 69% of social referrals, "dark social."

For anyone who has already puzzled over how to measure, analyze or monetize social traffic, particularly across multiple platforms and networks, this is a daunting proposition. Madrigal's piece goes on to make an important observation about the structuring of social referrals. Essentially, he says, the ability to measure and analyze social traffic rests on public publication and sharing. Public sharing, in turn, is made possible in exchange for the personal data that we as individuals provide the networks.  That logic is powerful and drives Twitter and Facebook but it doesn't operate as directly with a range of other semi-private networks, again with email and IM being the most obvious examples. The implications of this line of thinking for marketing, brand communication, social media generally and even privacy are immense.

Yet for me the power of "Dark Social" is what it potentially says more broadly about open markets, the visibility and publicness of social interactions, and capitalism itself. That's quite a lot, of course, and I'm currently researching some of the complex connections for a project entitled, "The Age of Piracy." Suffice it here to extend Madrigal's provocations in two comments. First, there's a need to step back from believing that increasing social traffic or digital communication is somehow necessarily accompanied in lockstep by an increasing capability to measure and analyze that activity. The often-defining unwieldiness and dynamism of social technologies and platforms means that neither the hopes of marketers seeking foolproof metrics and monetization schemes nor the fears of civil libertarians wanting to deny ever-greater techno-surveillance and intrusiveness into private lives are being fulfilled today. Social traffic and networks may not be in the Wild West stage of their development but, as systems and networks, they remain largely fragmented, unstable across diverse markets, and obscure to consistent analysis.

A second extension or, really, expansion of Madrigal's thinking is the topic of the project I mentioned. Piracy today can be understood to embrace familiar acts of criminality and violence on the high seas, infringement of digital rights and other intellectual property, and the financial machinations of rogue traders, black markets and off-shore banks. Unlike terrorists, whose attacks rely on media amplification to instill fear across wide populations and to create platforms for political and economic critiques, these apparently disparate behaviors are driven by many of the same strategies: their actors want to remain invisible before the glare of media, they care little about conventional nation-states or legal regimes or religious values, and they seek to participate in unfettered capitalism. A final twist, ironically, and as I've previously written here, is the moniker of "pirates" adopted by the creators of the MacIntosh computer led by Steve Jobs at Apple and, in years since, by other innovators wanting to think differently. 

Piracy, in this sense, is more than the cyber-criminality that Misha Glenny and others have written about or even the cyber-threats made to both national security and individual privacy. Instead, it is the shadow of twenty-first century global capitalism that thrives precisely by exploiting the system’s digital and global connectedness, uncoordinated regulation, penchant for risk-taking, and pursuit of quick and massive profits. While that may seem an intellectual leap from Madrigal's invisible emails and instant messages, I would contend the difference is of scale and complexity rather than kind. For social traffickers and economic pirates alike, the informality and lack of metrics that have emerged around the boundaries of new technologies, networks, and markets allow for enormous opportunities to operate in the dark. Our challenge in response may therefore should not simply be to strive to create new tools for shedding light on what's currently invisible (emails, again, from Madrigal) but to re-think the structures of emergent networks and markets such that their boundaries (say, of intellectual property regimes) don't create such dark shadows.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Innovative Leadership: A Thoughtful Model and (free!) Online Self-Assessment from Metcalf Associates

Metcalf Associates, a management consulting and leadership coaching firm, helped to plan a recent "Creating a Marketplace of Ideas" gathering in Columbus, Ohio. The event brought together several heavyweight thinkers about creativity, innovation, and creative cities and economies: Sir Ken Robinson, Jeff Dyer, and Richard Florida shared various insights that aimed to help local individual and businesses innovate and grow. While their presentations (at least as reported in the preceding link) recapitulated some of their respectively best-known ideas, the ideas themselves not only bear repeating but seem particularly layered and substantive when considered together.

Beyond my believing in different ways in each of the speakers it mentions, I cite the posting because at the end is the requisite blurb about Metcalf Associates. The blurb references their book, the Innovative Leadership Fieldbook, and also linka to their model and a free online Innovative Leadership Assessment. An "innovative leader," for Metcalf, delivers results using the following (and I'm simplifying): "Holistic Leadership," which aligns dimensions from the individual to the systemic; "Strategic Leadership," which inspires individuals and organizations; and "Tactical Leadership," which influences individuals, processes and systems. To be successful, innovative leaders need to exercise these types of leadership along five coordinated domains. The free online Innovative Leadership Assessment is organized around these five domains.

Once you've taken the assessment, your results point to your personal tendencies (and potentially areas for attention or improvement) in each of the domains.

The results, for most, will probably reinforce existing understandings of leadership strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement. But it's worth the ten minutes to take the assessment. Why?  While I can't vouch for the finer points of the model (or individual results), the idea of "innovation leadership" marked by alignment, inspiration, and influence strongly resonates with some of the priorities of creative leadership that I conduct research on, teach, and embrace.  Even more basically, though, I support any thoughtful exercise, however brief, that offers an opportunity for leaders to reflect meaningfully on their own values and practice cross multiple dimensions and domains. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Leadership and Luck: Fortune favors the hard-working (and decisive and flexible and trusting...)

In "More luck than judgment," in today's Financial Times, Morgan Witzel draws together a range of perspectives about luck and its place in business and leadership. Many of the varied voices in the piece circle around the familiar understanding that those who commit to hard work and preparation make their own luck. However, an important finer point involves the need not only to prepare but, as (entrepreneur) Julian Richer says, to "tak[e] advantage of opportunities." In other words, luck involves not only the hard work of preparation but also the good judgment allowing for recognition of opportunity, and, crucially, the capability to make decisions pursue or seize that opportunity.

For leaders, complicating the familiar understanding of hard work or preparation for luck in this way can be valuable. Hard work is too broad. We do better to think of smart work marked by the capability to recognize opportunity and then the decisiveness to act upon it. Analysis, recognition and decision-making can thus be acknowledged as discrete aspects of "hard work" that can, in turn, be honed if we are to maximize our preparation for luck.

At the same time, Witzel closes his piece by referencing Machiavelli's Prince and how luck, fortuna, will nevertheless remain elusive. Luck may reward preparation but it is also finally outside the control of individuals, however hard-working or capable. The further attribute he therefore recommends for leaders is flexibility. By adopting a willingness not only to take decisive action when opportunities present themselves but to do so with agility, openness and trust, leaders may most fully benefit from the lucky chances (hopefully) surrounding them.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

More on Nurturing Innovation and Celebrating Piracy: Will the Chinese Steve Jobs be a Pirate?

If the challenge of making sense of (and advancing) innovation I raised in my last post is evident anywhere today, it is in China.  Christopher Beam's current column in Slate, "The Chinese Steve Jobs is Probably a Pirate" deftly probes which types of innovation we celebrate, which we condemn, and the murkiness of trying to distinguish them.

In the case of China, an important layer is obviously nationalistic: while we lionize our own pirates (of Silicon Valley, for instance), we readily demonize others, especially when they may seem to play in an economic system with different rules.  Yet Beam's piece is particularly useful for its reference to venerated American innovations, from Thomas Edison's phonograph to Hollywood movies, that were copied or at least adapted, updated, and improved for the mass market.  The Chinese, by this argument, have learned well the priority of implementation over invention long employed with great success by American innovators.

Put differently, the Chinese have recognized the potential value of being a second- or late-mover and tweaking existing products to exploit opportunities in the current market rather than seeking merely to invent entirely new products or markets.  As many commentators, notably including Malcolm Gladwell, noted following Steve Jobs' passing last fall, it was just this kind of re-thinking, packaging and marketing of others' inventions at which the Apple co-founder was a virtuoso.  Not unrelatedly, the other feature of successful Chinese innovation has been the use of the country's massive labor force to manufacture products cheaply.  Again, citing only the example of Foxconn as a crucial link in Apple's (and other "Western" corporations') supply chains, we can observe how blurred and uneasy are any boundaries we may want to draw between pioneering innovation and piracy.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Nurturing Rebels and Unlocking Innovation: The Creative Turn in Business and Leadership

The CMO of frog, Tim Leberecht, recently wrote, "How to Nurture Your Company's Rebels, And Unlock Their Innovative Might" (the same piece appeared at FastCo. Design). Despite its brevity, the post gathers a range of examples and sources, from innovation communes and Ashoka Changemakers to Roger Martin and U2, of a telling shift underway today to embrace oppositional thinking in business. Both in cultivating internal opposition to enhance innovative outputs and in driving a more fundamental resistance to business as usual across industries, leaders and organizations are increasingly supporting varied creative processes that seek to disrupt the status quo.

For those in the creative or some R&D-intensive industries, especially, this approach and attitude to gaining competitive advantage may not seem new. But there are at least a couple significant developments in play here.  The first is nothing less than an historical transformation of the status of creativity and innovation in business. That's a far-reaching claim, of course, and one I've developed in my own teaching and consulting on creative leadership (and that Chris Bilton has also made). Essentially, the idea is that the last two to three decades have seen a dramatic reversal of the longstanding containment - or even marginalization - of innovation within organizations whose priority had been increasing efficiency, lean operations, and rational problem-solving. The change in mindset, epitomized by innovators in Silicon Valley and outlined most familiarly in the writings on disruptive innovation by Clayton Christensen, is now embraced across industries and beyond, including the non-profit and public sectors (think "creative cities").

Leberecht's post offers a range of examples of successful contrarian practices, small and large, as noted, and concludes by recommending three possible actions for those wanting to make internal oppositions within their organizations productive.  They are:

  1. Create safe spaces
  2. Make sure that internal opposition is constant
  3. Embrace passive and active opposition 
These are sensible enough, though anyone wanting think more deeply about how to develop and deliver on this capability for this creative internal opposition should read Roger Martin's The Opposable Mind.

As important as is the call for more creative and productive internal opposition, it's a second development that I find potentially even more provocative and consequential. The image introducing Leberecht's post is a Jolly Roger and the spectre of piracy threads through his examples of creative opposition. Yet in celebrating the misfits and the rebels whom organizations and even project teams rely on for daring innovation and value-creating differentiation, the old challenge of successfully containing and incorporating oppositional thinking re-emerges. When Leberecht urges launching the development of creative opposition by asking such questions as, What is your company's black market?, in other words, one can easily extend the answer beyond that which is productive for particular organizations. Consider hacking, for example: while there are now "hackers for good," this has become a safely contained and manageable (and, by some individuals, often profitably self-marketed) subset of a larger category of creative rebels, many of whom are not "good" and indeed have proven themselves menacing.  

This is more than semantics. To think more deeply about disruption or opposition leads to the discussion of how essential creative destruction is to genuine innovation in organizations, industries and markets. Even more, though, to speak of creative leadership or innovation in terms of piracy and rebellion should necessarily take account of the boundaries of those organizations, industries and markets -- and also acknowledge the hackers, pirates, rogue traders, dark pools, black markets and more that exist beyond them. Their global rise over the last two to three decades of technological change and globalization has been every bit as dramatic - and illuminating about the nature of innovation - as that of loyal opposition whose work remains internal to corporations or industries.  

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Warren Bennis on Leadership and Character ... and A Key Insight about Reflection

Like so many, I'm an admirer of Warren Bennis's thinking about leadership.  In his current Bloomberg Business Week blog posting, Bennis writes briefly on leadership and character: .  His question is whether business schools can teach character or, put even more basically, whether character can be taught to or learned by leaders.  A fascinating and provocative topic.

Referencing a course on global business leadership by Brandeis Professor Bob Thomas, Bennis writes that there are two overarching principles to engage in character awareness and building: "assessment/reflection and action/reflection."  The blog post concludes with the "Five C's" that Thomas's learning model for reflection is organized around: Crucibles, Commitment to Practice, Combination, Coaches, and Community.  While that model itself is valuable, the main insight I took from the post has a significance beyond the question of character, per se.  It's about the centrality of reflection to good leadership and, even more, the necessity of engaging in both assessment and action in order for reflection to be optimally successful.

Many leaders recognize the importance of reflection and introspection as necessary activities in their own leadership practice.  Too often, though, that reflection only takes the form of self-assessment.  Extending reflection into action allows leaders to build community and even to change "some corner of the world," starting with their own.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Putting more open leadership into practice: A great interview example

One of the fundamental tenets of contemporary leadership thinking, particularly the leadership of creativity and innovation, is the value of ceding control and empowering others -- subordinates and peers, customers and clients alike.  Enabling others through a greater understanding of what they find fulfilling and inspiring them to do what organizations need to be done become every bit as important for leaders as aligning structural capabilities and adapting to fast-changing environmental and marketplace conditions.  More open leadership (to use Charlene Li's term) becomes the basis for greater creativity, efficiency, communication, and overall worker and organizational well-being.

The idea seems both supported by research into the most successful and innovative corporations of the last two decades and by intuitive acceptance as the kind of approach we as leaders should be able to take.  This is potentially more effective leadership that's at once kindler and gentler.  Everybody wins.  Yet as I've repeatedly realized in working with executives, the challenge to the idea is putting it into practice.  That's not an unusual challenge with leadership and management ideas, rules or tips, of course, but the shift in mindset required of more open leadership makes its consistent, practical implementation particularly difficult.

So I was especially pleased when, in reading a recent blogpost by Anthony K. Tjan, an excellent example of how this changed mindset and more open approach to leadership could be illustrated and practiced.  Tjan wrote at the end of last week on the HBR Blog Network about what he called, "The Most Important Job Interview Question" (  Most interviews, he noted, involve "one-way questioning" about candidates' past jobs, skills, work ethic and other attributes that ultimately speak to the question of "Why should you matter to us?"  The more vital question and practical question, Tjan proposes, is "If you were given this opportunity, would you take it?" And the reasons why.

It's a great, brief idea to tuck away for your next job interview.  But more generally, it's also a very concrete example of shifting a leadership mindset to focus on others.  In doing so, the leader cedes control and in exchange takes an important step toward building more robust relationships and more fully embracing others' values and what they might mean to an organization.