Creative Leadership

Over the last 10 years, I have worked across a variety of organizations – from a large International MNC in a steady state industry to a fledgling startup in the Fintech space. The goal of every organization is to maximize profits for its stakeholders. While the pace of change varies with industry, it’s intriguing to look at definite patterns that make certain industries and organizations more suited to disruption than others. I would like to call out Creative Leadership as a key disrupting factor.

In today’s era, every wannabe graduate wants to start the next big venture or be his own boss. For those who join traditional large organizations, the primary goal is to achieve some stability before they take the plunge. While not all may take the plunge, the dream certainly exists. It begins with an idea that can be converted into a product and is marketable in some ways. Now since the golden opportunity is so short-lived, people scramble to make the most of it which has spawned over 4000 startups in India in the last few years. A few of them have achieved unprecedented success while others had a much short-lived tenure. While the media has documented several reasons for the failure of startups from building the wrong product to rapid capital burn, I choose to focus on Creative Leadership as a critical ingredient for success in today’s business environment.

What does Creative Leadership mean? By no means, it precludes building a great product or operating as a monopoly or being reckless in burning cash. It means willing to challenge the norms at every step of your journey. It means imagining the world as it has never been perceived before and building it. It means innovating at a pace that leaves your so called competitors way behind (Case in point – Does anyone even consider Bing or Yahoo to be a competitor to Google search). While many would argue that creativity is an essential ingredient for all, I choose to focus on Leadership as in most businesses, ideation and strategy are the preserve of a few chosen people at the top. So it’s imperative that creativity prospers in this select group first.

Many times, the executives are wary of adopting creativity in leadership. This is particularly true in the Indian context where startups are constantly under the pressure of raising funds or meeting board targets or reducing cash burn. The reality is that creativity does not place any demand on any of this. All it demands is to juxtapose rational business thinking with imagination. The former is very easy to achieve as it’s mostly driven by numbers. The latter isn’t very difficult either but it does not come naturally given the snackable environment we live in. It’s much easier to crunch some numbers and decide on a certain course of action than stepping back and reason the actual problem we are trying to solve.

Recently, I have been reading Creative Confidence where the authors make a very valid argument on how business can grow only when the product design meets all 3 requirements – business viability, technical feasibility and people centricity. My sense is all the 3 requirements have a creative element to decipher. Business viability largely depends on the market where the intended product is to sell – Is it a new market or mere substitution of an existing market? Most executives tend to think their product is so radically innovative that it’s creating a new market (fallacy of positive attribution) whereas it’s merely shifting spends from an already established market. This primarily stems from the core competition that executives use to benchmark against. Does an online business in fashion compete with traditional fashion & luxury stores and other similar online fashion businesses or do they actually compete with other online businesses in food, travel, payments and the lot? The reality is it will be a bit of both. Remember we only have 24 hours in a day and fixed (although growing) amount in our wallet – That won’t change.

Technical feasibility boils down to the development of the product itself. If it is a software product, is it built to scale?  Can it be truly made modular so that organizations outside your own can use your platform to develop new products?  There was a time when we all thought that an engineer’s job is to get shit done (which it still is) but the era has dawned where the creative engineers (ones who keeps the ecosystem in mind) will begin to outdo the traditionalists. One area worth obsessing for the executives is if the so-called product is genuinely a product without any service wrapper or one that needs multiple wrappers to deliver value effectively. It’s not uncommon to see many next gen firms launching products with galore only to realize that the product really cannot survive in the market without extensive servicing support for its customers. No wonder companies are investing in automating their service operations to ensure their core product is able to survive and grow.

Finally, People centricity is an area that is more likely to get compromised once executives plough through the first two requirements. What makes a certain product appeal  to users – How much friction does it reduce for those who use the product? Which features really help to reduce this friction? Are these features part of version 1 or parked until later?  So if the product is designed to ensure all its features function properly but misses the larger point of reducing friction for its users, it will lose its value. It may have little to do with feature or functionality changes but more to do with actually governing the users’ product experience. Now, an online business can do little if the telco network doesn’t load the website fast enough but users will drop off for that very reason. For an online business delivering products and services remotely, it becomes critical to build trust with users at the point of consumption. We are entering an era where people trust the words of those who have used the product or their own experience. This is particularly true for very complex digital products. Push marketing can help place your product in front of the masses but scaling it will depend a lot on your users. It requires executives to think imaginatively about their product and brand – What do we really stand for and care for? Are we trying to outdo or worse match the nearest competitor in their claim or are we serving unmatched experiences to our users?

These are very exciting times indeed with so many young leaders entering the market from very prestigious backgrounds leading companies that will drive the future of India. With the government willing to put its weight behind Startup India, the stage is set for the next generation of entrepreneurs and young leaders to make their mark. They have the opportunity to create a huge impact in our nation, create jobs and lead thousands of young people in the future. There could have never been a better time to inspire and invoke Creative Leadership.