Creative leadership is the future of organizational transformation

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Organizations across the globe are experiencing profound changes. New business models, digital transformation, the proliferation of data capture and prediction-based systems, and increasing employee anxiety over future career prospects are forcing leaders to rethink roles and strategies. In a world that's changing at an accelerated rate, business leaders must adapt to create opportunities from new challenges and find ways to benefit from the widespread disruption impacting traditional workplace hierarchies and organizational practices.

Work is no longer a compartmentalized aspect of one's life. Technology has broken down the walls that once separated our personal and professional lives, and both employees and leaders are now easily accessible through digital technologies. Pursuing business goals and objectives isn't relegated to traditional workday hours, teams and processes anymore — business interests can be pursued at all times by employees located anywhere in the world.

With this accessibility and rapidly changing digital landscape, leaders must figure out how to empower, inspire and reward their employees — even as many of them feel increasingly threatened by an evolving global economy.

Ask the Right Questions

Today, leaders are often impeded by outdated expectations regarding their traditional responsibilities. Many businesspeople believe the most important function of a leader is to provide answers to problems — and the faster, more actionable those answers are, the better the leader is perceived to be. This dynamic, however, is both obsolete and potentially dangerous.

Take, for example, what today's leaders perceive as their greatest threats to success, such as recession risks, threats to global trade systems, global political instability, new competitors and declining trust in political and policy institutions. Internally, these current biggest challenges are related to attraction and retention of top talent, creating new business models because of disruptive technologies and developing the next generation of leaders. These details represent a global business environment that is experiencing chaos, insecurity and a lack of faith in organizations.

Traditional leadership strategies created this troublesome reality and have spawned a new creative leadership ethos that prioritizes a different approach: asking the right questions that account for short- and long-term success, instead of offering quick, poorly informed answers.

Questions require a deliberate process that demands facts, analysis and empathy when assessing situations, people and business objectives. Creative leadership must be insightful to navigate the ambiguities and paradoxes of our increasingly complex world. Asking the right questions, instead of offering the perceived right answers, is a powerful step in successfully leveraging transformation to achieve desired business outcomes.

Implement Solutions — Not Ideas

The front end of innovative solutions is the implementation of a creativity process. Starting with the right questions, creative leaders facilitate the development of solutions by creating an environment, processes and techniques that will drive the organization to more effectively leverage its creativity power to address the future of the business. Moreover, this will drive the organization to experiment, learn to fail and implement more effective products and solutions.

Many organizations fail to implement effectively, because they lack or skip important parts of a creativity process, such as clarifying and developing a vision to solve a problem or following a process to evaluate and develop ideas into solutions. Creative leaders will apply techniques (such as divergence and convergence) and methodologies (such as agility and design thinking), organize people and teams, and nurture a constructive and diverse environment to develop innovative products and solutions.

These new leaders will challenge the status quo and drive new behaviors, hierarchy, culture, communication and so on. They will also rely on a greater leverage of data and analytics, and technologies — such as artificial intelligence — will play an increasingly prominent role. The vast amounts of data being collected in countless ways will provide creative leaders with higher-quality information to make more informed, more predictive and more valuable decisions.

All of this doesn't come easy. Leaders must be able to drive a robust change management process.

Lead Horizontal Workforces Through Change Management

The rigid structures of traditional organizational hierarchies lack the agility and fluidity needed to compete in today's hyper-connected marketplace. The conventional roles of CEOs and other C-suite executives must develop with — and, in fact, lead — changes in workforces being driven by digital technologies and employees' desire for professional development opportunities.

While new business models and automation will drive organizations to update 35% to 50% of their current core competencies moving forward, leaders must create a new environment to support the creativity process and innovation. They will need to support a flatter organization and arrange workforces into horizontal structures, such as tribes and squad teams, in which stronger guidance becomes even more imperative.

Because organizations and employees are entering an inescapable era of trying new things — new offerings, products, client segments, geographies, etc. — the leaders of tomorrow must balance willingness to experiment (which can feel counterintuitive for leaders steeped in traditional management styles) with a more rigorous execution and disciplined approach. If an employee or team makes a mistake, creative leaders must react with tolerance for missteps that teach valuable lessons without communicating the acceptance of incompetence. They will support a much higher collaboration in the organization with individual accountability.

Change management is a primary responsibility of creative leaders. They must use new cognitive competencies and empathy to drive the new culture, being transparent and rigorous. They must also establish the norms, expected behaviors and non-negotiables. They will recognize more, support colleagues with challenges and balance the paradoxes in innovative cultures.

New leaders will play a relevant role in a world with tremendous volatility and ambiguity, bringing creativity to solve new problems in different ways, supporting higher innovation and disruptive solutions. We won't solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.

André Maxnuk
by André Maxnuk

CEO Mexico and Latin America Zone Leader, Mercer