The recent version of the biennial IBM CEO study brings good news about creativity. In the fourth study of its kind (the series began in 2004, in a very different world), the research team surveyed over 1500 global CEO’s in face-to-face interviews, exploring their goals and challenges. Researchers analyzed the data, identified the standout companies (defined by their ability to expand operating margins over both the long haul and in short term crises), and from this extracted three best practices for how to “stand out in a complex world.”
At the top of the list is the finding that thrills the hearts and minds of creativity wonks like me: “Embody Creative Leadership.” In the words of the study, “CEO’s now realize that creativity trumps other leadership characteristics.”
In fact, there’s a lot to be excited about in the report. And some room for caution as well, that the recommendations don’t become too tweaked out of shape. Since the study has been released, for example, I’ve seen reference to the finding on creative leadership cropping up in other sources (including the recent Newsweek article on creativity in America). From what I’ve noticed so far, a couple of things are happening as the report is getting out into the world, which I think are worth exploring.
First, giddy perhaps with the quite public enthronement of creativity as the key leadership competency, many are not giving the question of the actual relationship between creativity and leadership as much air time. Second, the CEO’s surveyed identified the need for creativity in direct response to the issue of increasing complexity, which puts a particular criterion upon which creative approach is best suited in response. The third point, which is sort of a sleeper, perhaps, is that when one stands back to look at the three recommendations together (Embody Creative Leadership; Reinvent Customer Relationships; and Build Operating Dexterity), it’s becomes clear that the demand for creativity is in fact larded throughout the entire report.
Touching on each briefly here (look for other posts to come), let me pull out a few of the detailed findings.
Creativity and Leadership
Creativity is conceived of in the context of leadership values: in analyzing the comments of those CEO’s who mentioned creativity as key, a relationship emerged between creativity and integrity. I infer from this that the respondents believe that if creative leadership is to be developed, both leadership values and creative thinking must be nurtured. If we swing too far toward the C word without focusing on the L, then we may fail to achieve the very best outcomes. The opposite is also true.
Rapid business model change requires change leadership: According to the IBM report, those executives who listed creativity as the most important competency are more prone to innovate within their organizations, and a significant amount of that innovation is occurring through business model change. “CEO’s must be able to test, tweak, and redesign their core activities continually.” To succeed in this type of continual organizational change is to be able to persuade, influence, empower and engage others in a view of the future that is compelling enough for them to go along for the ride, over and over again. Thus, creative leadership involves change leadership. (For a great discussion on the link between creativity, change and leadership, see Creative Leadership: Skills that Drive Change, by Puccio, Murdock and Mance.)
Creativity in Response to Complexity
Since the word “creativity” can mean so many different things, to different people, for different reasons and at different times, I believe it will become very useful as this report continues to circulate that we be clear about what’s indicated, not only to put at ease those who fear the pink tutu, but also to point toward tools and methodologies which are designed specifically for the creative task at hand: dealing with complexity.
According to the findings, a majority of CEO’s believe not only that the level of complexity will continue to rise, but that they will continue to be unprepared to deal with it. From the executive perspective, it’s clear what’s at stake: how to solve increasingly complex problems, and how to seize or create opportunities in a rapidly complexifying environment. Creative Problem Solving and its variations are tailor-made for these complex, ambiguous situations. Knowing the nature of the situation allows for the best creative response.
The IBM Global CEO study called out three recommendations for “capitalizing on complexity:” Embody Creative Leadership; Reinvent Customer Relationships; and Build Operating Dexterity. Taking a quick look at the second and third on the list, we see how the need for greater creativity is in fact evident throughout the whole report, and not only in the section on creative leadership.
Co-creating with the customer: the report uses the phrase “co-create” to describe the increasingly embedded level of relationship between customer, product and producer. Clearly, the value of creative thinking is not being reserved for the discussion of leadership capabilities; it extends not only to internal processes but to external customers and stakeholders as well.
Dexterity amid paradox: In the discussion of Building Operating Dexterity, the study authors acknowledge the pull between global and local, simple and complex, etc; they also emphasize the importance of being able to manage these, and other, paradoxes. While the point about co-creating with customers rather smacks you in the face with its link to creativity in general, this statement about paradox and dichotomy is a bit more subtle — but worth calling out. In the creativity literature, there is reference made to what creativity researcher Albert Rothenburg termed “Janusian Thinking” — the ability to hold opposing thoughts in mind, and to see what emerges from this relationship of paradox. Janusian Thinking is a creative thinking skill. When the study authors recommend developing the capacity to manage within paradox, they are, yet again, calling for creativity.
More to come
The IBM Global CEO study is obviously a boon to those interested in furthering creativity, especially in organizations. There’s a lot to unpack in the report (also a lot of data available at the IBM site). We can be very excited about the possibilities, but I also think it’s good to have an ear to the ground, being attentive to the distortions and over-simplifications that can happen with these kinds of attention-grabbing findings. The interconnectedness of leadership, change and creativity; the best practices and methodologies available as creative responses to complex situations; and the awareness of how thoroughly today’s organizations depend upon creative thinking are all sound points of inquiry in extending the findings.