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3 Things the Most Creative
Leaders Do
by Tom Kelley
DECEMBER 10, 2015

Over the past three decades at IDEO, I’ve worked with some of the most innovative
companies in the world and seen a lot of creative leaders in action. I’ve paid attention to how
the best of them operate — how they nurture creativity all around them — and I’ve noticed
three things:

They build core enthusiast communities inside and outside of their organizations. Chris
Anderson, CEO of drone-maker 3D Robotics, started seeking knowledge and insight from
drone aficionados with his website DIYDrones long before he ever hired his first employee,
and has continued to practice open-source innovation in the years since. The company
nurtures its creative community and recognizes participation at every level. When a
contributor offers even the simplest input, the company sends him or her a T-shirt, signifying
inclusion in 3D Robotics’ tribe of “insiders.” As bright people from around the world ratchet
up their participation, they might instead get plane tickets so they can travel to the
company’s headquarters and meet its leaders in person. Some eventually cross over to
become full-time employees. The free-flowing exchange, in which employees, partners, and
collaborators gain social capital through their creative input, has helped propel growth. 3D
Robotics currently makes more consumer and commercial drones than any other company in

They achieve big change through a series of


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small experiments. Many years ago, Jim
Hackett, then CEO of Steelcase — a long-time
IDEO strategic partner — wanted to get his top
executives to move to open workspaces. Then,
as now in many organizations, the private
office was a privilege of rank, but because
Steelcase was a global leader in system

furniture, Hackett thought it was important for its managers to walk the talk and demonstrate
the value of working in non-traditional office formats. He had a hunch that if he simply
announced a sweeping change — out with the old way and in with the new — many of his
execs would have resisted and asked to be exempted.

So Jim instead proposed a small experiment. He asked his management team to join him in a
six-month prototype of the company’s open “Leadership Community.” All he wanted was for
them to give it an honest try for a limited time, using the best of Steelcase’s own products,
and he promised that whatever was not working at the end of six months would be

addressed. When a respected leader asks you to join a short experiment, it’s very hard to say
no, or even complain. And no one did. Though it has evolved over time, Steelcase’s six-month
experiment turned into 20 years. The executives never went back to their private offices.

They jump-start their innovation journey with storytelling. Marketers have always
understood how great messaging contributes to the success of new products, services, and
brands. And the best creative leaders are now screening ideas from the very beginning for the
potential to both delight customers and also tell an engaging story. Jane Park, CEO of the
beauty-products start-up Julep, worked with IDEO to find a breakthrough in nail polish that
would spark new conversations among core users, known as “mavens.” The design research
highlighted an issue long understood but never fully addressed: the difficulty that women
have applying nail polish when holding the brush in their non-dominant hand. Park and her
team realized that all tools requiring precision — like a pencil or a paintbrush, or even a
surgeon’s scalpel — have length. So they developed a long, articulated handle — dubbed Plié —
which allows users to get a smoother, more precise finish and also docks magnetically to the
nail polish cap.

The creative solution had value all its own, but the origin story linking Plié to other tools gave
it the buzz it needed to catch on. It helped win the hearts and minds of both Julep’s internal
team and external stakeholders out in the marketplace. Noting the combination of great
stories and an invested community, Forbes recently suggested that Julep might be “the next
billion-dollar beauty brand.”

There are, of course, many other ways that creative leaders push their colleagues and their
companies to achieve greatness. But community-building, experimentation, and storytelling
are three very important pieces of their repertoire.

Tom Kelley is the co-author of Creative Confidence (Crown Business, 2013) and a
partner at IDEO, a global design and innovation firm.

This article is about CREATIVITY

Related Topics: LEADERSHIP |


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