Why creativity is key to business agility
Business agility means reacting to change in real-time, creating new strategies in situations where there is no playbook, such as during COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2020, a digital manufacturer was poised to release a new consumer product when the COVID-19 pandemic started. One of the company’s biggest markets is the United States, which was getting hit hard. But rather than wait, the company’s executives decided to move forward with the product launch and shift their strategy from a hybrid approach — including both digital and face-to-face marketing — to a 100 percent digital strategy.
That quick pivot allowed them to engage in the U.S. market and accelerate their engagement in Europe and China. It was stunning, from a leadership perspective, that such a traditional company transformed almost overnight, realizing it needed to move forward with business but in a different way.
2020 was a year no one could have predicted or planned for — a year that demanded business leaders be incredibly agile to keep their organizations moving forward. Those that were agile in their approach adjusted better to the pandemic, and they are now positioned to accelerate their success in a post-pandemic world. Being an agile organization, though, does not just happen — it takes creativity and an ability to think far beyond the box.
What’s creativity got to do with it?
Business agility is the ability to react to change in real time, creating a new strategy in the face of situations — like COVID-19 — for which there is no playbook.
Even without COVID-19, the pace of innovation is accelerating. Leaders who are not used to change and do not embrace it are going to struggle. Making agile leadership decisions is like servicing an airplane while it is in the air. The role of a leader today is to make judgment calls and course corrections on the fly, relying on good data and personal conviction.
This kind of agility is the essence of creativity: making something new that did not exist before — in this case, strategy and opportunity. The creative process can be uncomfortable because it isn’t always clear how things will turn out. Creative people, however, do not fear change. They embrace it and look for ways to use it to benefit employees and customers. Creative leaders and organizations are equipped for true agility because their mindset fosters a culture of communication and collaboration.
Creativity across the organization
Agile leaders do not shoulder the creative burden alone. They know how to harness the creativity of everyone in the company.
Last December, I talked with an executive from a very traditional Japanese company who realized he did not know how to relate to younger workers in his company. He began having lunches and drinks with his employees, learning who they were and what motivated them. As a result, he found himself making changes to the way the company had always done things.
This leader changed work hours because he learned that creatives and engineers worked better later in the day. He relaxed the dress code and even began showing up to board meetings in a t-shirt and sport coat instead of a suit and tie to illustrate the need to adapt and change. Most importantly, the company became more digitally engaged with customers. They rolled out new apps that delivered real-time demographic data, enabling the company to improve the customer experience and explore moves into adjacent markets.
The small act of sitting down with employees generated a tremendous amount of creativity, shifting the company’s strategy and, at the same time, getting employees excited about executing the new strategy.
Adobe’s creative leadership
Adobe Japan has made its own creative pivots in response to COVID-19. Before the pandemic, Japanese businesses relied heavily on paper documents and signatures. Suddenly, digital workflows and e-signatures — which we thought would be adopted slowly over time — were in high demand, and we had to accelerate our strategy and shift resources to those parts of the business.
Another change we are making is in how we communicate our strategy to our employees. In an agile leadership model, leaders describe why they are pursuing a strategy in the context of what is happening in the market. This approach allows employees to offer suggestions and feedback that help create and validate the strategy. And the organization can move faster — and with more real-time insight — because more decisions are being made at the ground level, with leaders supporting their teams and facilitating the decision-making process, rather than driving every decision.
We are also working to help our customers be more creative and agile. One way we do this is through online forum events where we gather leaders and pose relevant questions: How has leadership changed with the pandemic? How do companies embrace change and lean into their creativity? How are we coping in the Japanese market? We are all facing similar challenges in real time, and there are lessons to be learned from each other.
Adobe Japan is already a digital company with a creative culture and drive for innovation. We can share our own story and lead by example, but these forums are also a great opportunity for us to learn from our customers — and for everyone to share ideas for navigating this challenge.
Leading with curiosity
I may not be a creative artist or designer, but I have reinvented myself more than once, going from professional baseball to tech sales to global enterprise leadership. Early on my father gave me some excellent advice, “Travel. Go see the world. There’s so much to see.” That direction stoked my curiosity about different cultures, people, and backgrounds — that has served me well.
Having a global perspective creates an environment where constant learning is the norm. Applying this leadership style enables my team to change and evolve to different cultures and various situations in this dynamic market. The philosophy of agile leadership — also known as “situational leadership” — is more relevant today than ever. It is not about following a playbook. It is about approaching leadership decisions both strategically and creatively.
Our world is in the midst of remarkable changes, and change equals opportunity. In this climate, successful leaders will look for any opening to rally their teams to take risks and make bold moves. How can you creatively lead to propel your businesses forward? This is our present challenge and our mission for the future.