Nimble by Design: Creative Leadership in the Digital Age

“Leadership is not magnetic personality, that can just as well be a glib tongue. It is not making friends and influencing people, that is flattery. Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to higher sights, the raising of a person’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations.”

– Peter F. Drucker

Having spent over a decade in the creative industry, I’ve come to find that there is a notion that creatives are an unruly bunch – often referred to as ‘the beast that cannot be tamed.’

While it’s true that nine-to-fives and rigid structure are a slow death to the creative, it’s also true that leaders in the industry would rather pass the blame than see themselves as part of the problem.

The worldwide shift to digital business transformation has been a major catalyst in the importance of creative industries. It’s got me thinking about where the industry is going, and how important leadership will be now more than ever.

Ongoing and rapid development and diffusion of novel digital technologies, coupled with the emergence of a changing workforce, means that the agencies in this sector must work hard to stay ahead. It requires innovation and agility, as well as consistent investment in the skills and talent that drive creative business success.

In South Africa, companies like Flexyforce have already created a platform that automates an on-demand workforce. This means there is finally a system allowing agencies to book a freelancer at the click of a button. They take care of the contracting and related admin, making it easier than ever to book someone with the right skillset located anywhere across the country.

But as much as this creates a massive opportunity for agencies trying to increase pitch work and revenue without having to permanently increase their resource count, it brings its own challenges.

In an environment in which budgets are smaller, time frames are tighter and technology is altering the way in which things are done, sometimes there is not enough allowance for all the creative processes to actually flourish within the given deadlines.

You need to adapt to the new conditions and compositions of your workforce as the overall performance of the team will always be your responsibility.

You also need to ensure consistent productivity, meet deadlines, ever decreasing and competitive budgets and, at the same time, get the passion and the enthusiasm that you want from the people doing the work.

As leaders, we are forced to move people from one project to another, almost immediately leaving little time for reflection, training or skills development amongst the staff. It has become an ephemeral tenuous balancing act, and leaders in the industry often talk of how tensions can arise between commercial needs and the creation of art.

Creatives frequently comment that increased commercial demands have created conditions in which a fear of failure has reduced the appetite for risk.

Failure somehow makes success unattainable yet failure is fundamental to success. The more you fail the more you learn and can improve on a previous failure. It represents opportunity and growth.  According to Henry Ford, “Failure is the opportunity to begin again, more intelligently.”

As a leader it is our job to keep encouraging the experimentation against the pressures that have been mentioned above. It is about trying to create an environment in which the creatives feel safe in and still take risks.

If there is one thing that top leadership companies have in common it is the fact that they recognise the value of innovation. They place innovation at the heart of their corporate culture and use it to drive efficiencies.

To create a culture of innovation we need to promote and reward collaboration, celebrate success and learn from setbacks.

As an example, researchers at 3M have free rein to spend 15% of their time exploring new ideas in whatever way they like. They can brainstorm in or out of the office, whether it is playing ping pong or taking a walk on the beach. The only rule that 3M places on this innovation time is that they must share their insights with others.

In an industry that is dependent on the passion of the people to give it spark, individuality and flair, creating a shared vision is paramount to success.

While it might be true that creatives don’t respond well to rules and structures, the key is striking a balance between setting boundaries and preventing them from fully expressing their creativity.

One doesn’t manage creativity. One manages for creativity.