Creativity And Imagination Are Leadership Skills For Work Transformation: IDEO Co-CEO

Global social and economic upheaval has resulted in savvy leaders reexamining skills required to make an impact on their organizations. Navigating these uncharted waters means that creativity and imagination have become valued leadership skills to transform organizations that will thrive in what IDEO’s Paul Bennett calls “a moment of deep world swirl.”

Bennett, Co-CEO and Chief Creative Officer of the design powerhouse, is on a mission to help organizations transform into ones that are more authentic, inclusive and respectful. He talks about his great optimism since participating in the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland earlier this year.

“We’ve had a reckoning over the last two or three years, and business has heard it,” he said. That reckoning means that leaders are moving away from the barbarians at the gate, table-banging leadership style to one centered on collaboration and curiosity, perhaps what Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella calls “learn-it-all instead of know-it-all.”

The time is right to apply the IDEO principles of creativity, imagination and human-centered design to help advance this evolution at the highest levels of business.

“In the last 20 years I’ve seen a huge shift, from being a sideshow to being at the board table,” Bennett said. Now imagination is housed squarely in the C-suite as leaders strive to reinvent work, keep employees engaged and deliver value in a world that is not going back to the way it was before.

Bennett talks about being “blown away” during the recent World Economic Forum because he encountered so much humility in the leaders he met there.

“When most CEOs believe they need to be the ones with all the answers, the ones who succeed today are more humble and seek better questions,” he said.

So what is most important for leaders to transform their organizations? “Drop your ego,” says Bennett. “Let people see you as a person. You don’t need to be the cleverest person at the table.”

The post-ego leader who brings humility, curiosity and inquisitiveness to work, will also build those muscles within their teams to keep evolving. Bennett is passionate about including all levels in the success of a business. He has a particular passion for frontline workers, those grocery store, transportation and health care workers who kept everything working when work was shut down. He points out that all employees want to participate in solutions and that leaders should actively look for ways to integrate frontline workers into the business-decision making process.

My favorite designers are nurses and doctors and people that work on the front line because they spend all day hacking whatever it is they have to do to make it work better,” he said. Organizations who tap into this expertise with thrive.

Here’s what post-ego leaders can do to cultivate creativity and imagination that will transform their organizations.

Listen to your people

In an exemplary illustration of listening, IDEO partnered with the Ford Foundation to learn from frontline workers. Company leaders of three different industries worked shoulder to shoulder with their frontline workers, who provided savvy recommendations in record time. The reason for this quickness? They’d been in the trenches and had been percolating on these challenges and brought insight and clarity. Yet no one had asked for their opinion before. A benefit, in addition to quicker business solutions, is that workers felt respected and acknowledged, which contributes to improved retention, positive culture and a more motivated workforce.

Practice gratitude daily

Bennett spends part of his day thanking people, adding that “gratitude is a powerful leadership tool.” As you demonstrate gratitude be specific about what you’re thanking people for. A blanket email to the entire staff will not resonate as much as a note saying “Sally, I’m grateful for how you handled that tough question in the meeting.”

Experiment with the wild idea

Don’t write off that wild idea too soon. Experiment, prototype, fail sooner. Some leaders dismiss the crazy idea too soon, without experimenting with whether it might lead to something viable.

“Being brave is a business asset,” Bennett said. “By actually encouraging your staff to bring forward ideas, you will have a much more successful organization.”

Seek deeper collaboration

“Collaboration is the new competitive advantage. Hoarding ideas in your corner, and thinking that everybody else has to catch up with you is an old mental model. I believe the power of the future is going to be a deep collaboration, surprising collaboration,” Bennet said. He points to a collaboration between furniture giant Ikea and the Dutch government to create a manufacturing, recycling and resale facility in Amsterdam “because the Dutch government believes that you have to make it easy for people to recycle or to reuse products, and an Ikea is a perfect place to do that.”

With a post-ego leadership mindset to listen better, practice gratitude, experiment with wild ideas and seek deeper collaboration, you can transform your organization and cultivate optimism for the future we cannot yet see.