5 creative leadership trends that will power organisations in 2021

As we head into a new year and a new-look business environment, enterprise leaders will be challenged like never before by a range of factors including a largely remote workforce, accelerated transformation and elevated customer expectations.

The opportunities presented in this new landscape will see those who embrace a creativity-led leadership approach excel and thrive. This means bringing together the five elements of creative leadership – culture, data, skills, experience and technology – to drive their teams and their organisations forward.

Creativity for leaders means joining new dots, making new connections and finding innovative solutions to problems. It’s about challenging the status quo and inspiring your team to do the same.

We looked at the results of the Adobe Creativity Quotient (CQ) and spoke to top business leaders from across Asia Pacific in our LinkedIn Live series Adobe CQ Presents: Making the Modern Leader, to get insights and practical tips on how to evolve and elevate creative leadership.

Here are the five key trends leaders need to know for 2021.

Trend 1: Culture is the overarching factor that influences creativity

There was a common thread running through every episode of Adobe CQ Presents: Making the Modern Leader, regardless of the assessment area being discussed: culture.

Business leaders identified culture as an indispensable factor in enabling all aspects of creativity within an organisation, be it data centricity, improving creative skills or delivering innovative experiences.

However, according to Adobe CQ, only 29 percent of APAC leaders have succeeded at creating a culture that embraces creativity. As businesses start to accelerate towards a new COVID-normal, leaders must continue to drive a creative culture even in a hybrid digital-analogue work environment.

Organisational culture may seem like an elusive, intangible piece of the creativity puzzle, but those who invest in getting it right will reap the rewards.

It begins with leaders who are competent in change management, who can effectively guide their teams through transformation and create a ‘fail fast’ environment that views change as the norm. They encourage their people to actively contribute new ideas, experiment without fear of failure and solve problems fast. This also helps organisations maintain agility amidst a crisis, so it can continue to meet rapidly changing demands.

In the age of remote working, attention should be paid to recreating or replacing the aspects of culture that require in-person engagement, such as corridor conversations and other informal spaces for bonding and engagement, as these are equally important for a culture of openness and collaboration.

It’s also critical not to overlook the importance of the hiring process in enabling culture transformation. Leaders should look to build teams that are diverse not just in terms of age and gender, but also skills and experiences.

Trend 2: Data centricity only matters if you have the right data

Customer centricity lies at the intersection of data and culture, and many leaders today understand that data centricity is key for customer centricity. However, only 36 percent of leaders effectively use data at the start of every creative process, and almost 1 in 5 use data retrospectively, to post-rationalise creative approaches.

To add further complexity to the equation, many organisations are facing the ‘problem of plenty’ when it comes to data volume, as pointed out by Tata CliQ’s chief product and customer experience officer Dharmarajan K.

With the wealth of tools available to capture granular data, an organisation’s priority must now shift to collecting and dissecting the right data. Use of data also needs to be more strategic, meaningful and structured, right from the start.

Data must now be marked ‘Before COVID’ and ‘After COVID’, with insights drawn from it contextualised by how the pandemic has changed customer behaviour dramatically.

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Trend 3: The line between functions within an organisation will blur as delivering innovative experiences becomes a company-wide mandate

As Adobe India’s head of marketing, Sunder Madakshira notes customer experience is now a board mandate. The pandemic has moved the needle on what constitutes a good customer experience, and expectations will only continue on an upward trajectory from here on out.

The amalgamation of the C-suite roles has been accelerated as organisations aim to become more agile with CX, and any remaining siloes within the organisation, including marketing, technology and customer service will be broken down as teams lean into deeper cross-department collaboration.

This cross-silo collaboration will be key to business success as we emerge from the pandemic, according to Peeyush Dubey, CMO at global technology consulting firm LTI.

“The companies that will emerge stronger are the ones where the CIO and CMO take joint ownership of customer experience,” Dubey says.

Convenience is the main tent pole of CX today, and the ability to understand the human experience as well as the emotional aspect of customer journeys is the next evolution of experience management.

Trend 4: Focus on creative skill development needs to accelerate

Adobe CQ found just 25 percent of APAC respondents were leading the way with driving creative skills like collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving in their teams – skills needed to navigate transformation and change.

Creativity is all about making connections and while technology can augment and enhance this, it can’t replace human creativity.

Even soft skills like empathy are by their very nature creative skills; uniquely human abilities enabling greater connection.

Suzanne Steele, managing director for Adobe ANZ, said empathy is increasingly critical for leaders in everything they do, from understanding buying journeys for customer experience management to internal team processes, even in data analysis.

“Data without empathy is meaningless. We need to be able to put ourselves in our customers’, our students’, and our citizens’ shoes if we’re to deliver exceptional customer experience.”

Leaders looking to innovate and drive business transformation in 2021 must evolve their view of creative skills, and really lean into fostering entrepreneurial skills that can be applied across business functions and roles.

However currently, just 18 percent of leaders said their teams would need entrepreneurial skills for the future. But as technology continues to advance, technical skills will become less business critical and these uniquely human skills will drive the success of organisations and individuals alike.

As Rosewood Hotel Group CIO Micah Friedman puts it: “It’s not the non-creatives versus the creatives: we all have to be creatives, just in different ways.”

Critical thinking, problem solving, the ability to analyse problems and create innovative and novel solutions to both old and new challenges and develop these skills within their teams will be what sets great leaders apart.

Trend 5: Leaders need to understand how technology can help augment human skills

The value of technology and its ability to augment creative skills is well understood by most organisation leaders, but in the face of the rising digital economy, how do they operationalise tech in their business?

Though 2020 brought a huge digital shift that heavily favored technology, the offline channels can’t be completely forgotten. The emphasis will be on the importance of investing in both technology and skills to create engaging, valuable customer experiences that will endure.

Things like the ability for organisations to rapidly take data from insight to action will be crucial in a business environment that is certain to be fluid and turbulent over the course of the next year.

All of this relies heavily on technology to power teams, and for leaders the challenge lies within recognising this power to augment, enhance and empower your teams.

“Leaders need to think not just how they teach people tech, but how they give them the time and money to be able to apply that tech in their business,” says managing director of Adobe SEA Simon Dale.

“For CTOs, CIOs and CMOs, there’s this emergence of marketing applications built on integrated data where before there might have been a few little solutions which automated a little piece of marketing, now you’ve got the capability to fully automate a digital customer journey from end-to-end and transact with the customer.”

According to Dale, “being able to understand the power of that integrated customer journey management and take the organisation down that path is going to be one of the major challenges.”

Technology will only continue to advance, enabling businesses to reimagine their operations, but your people need the right skills to understand how to apply it in your business.

We’ve emerged from a year unlike any other and as the next is set to be equally as disruptive, those who lead with creativity will be well placed to embrace and thrive in the new normal.