Digital leaders as catalysts for creativity

Here is an interview with me from the Web Managers Group blog. I thought I should share it here with you as as well.

Sofie Sandell’s book Digital Leadership was published in September 2013 and centres on leadership, creativity and social media. I caught up with her to explore some of the themes in the book further…

Reading the book, it was refreshing to discover your emphasis on the digital leader’s responsibility for establishing the conditions for creativity and innovation to flourish. What made you decide to write it, and to give it this focus?

I’ve worked on digital marketing and e-commerce in large organisations in the past and I learned that you have to be innovative, brave and daring enough to take risks when you introduce new digital ideas. Many people fear new technology and that can stop development and bring an entire organisation to a standstill.

I’ve been interested in leadership and creativity for years. I started writing about these topics in a blog four years ago, mainly to demonstrate credibility when I was pitching a new TV programme to the BBC and Channel 4 in the UK. I wrote about the leadership challenge and how to manage creativity, and I also shared some of my own experiences of working on digital projects.

Consumers are becoming increasingly demanding (maybe you’ve noticed that yourself!) and to keep your clients happy you need to explore new techniques and new ways to connect. When you discover new ways to do business you will most likely use digital tools, for example, to establish new ways of trading, new ways of managing customer service and even in the creation of new products.

Businesses that do well even in a recession are often ahead of the game, use technology well and show the way forward for others. These businesses are not waiting on anyone else or to learn from, they don’t want to copy ‘best practice’ before they take action. They make mistakes, learn from them and then move on to the next project.

At the start of the book you talk about digital leaders as catalysts for unlocking and fostering creativity by taking new routes.

You stress that this means breaking from old patterns and routines, and allowing for mistakes and improvisation along the way. Why does creativity thrive best under these conditions?

An organisation that manages innovation well also knows how creativity works. I believe that we lose a lot of our natural creativity during our school years. After being told to do things in a certain way in school we don’t dare to explore things anymore. We try our best to fit in and to not stick out.

When you break a pattern or try out something new you stick out, and you might find yourself in an uncomfortable situation. If your team and environment supports you, you are more likely to be successful, but if they make fun of you and turn you down you might stop trying.

The ability to be creative is dependent on good communication with your team and shared values and beliefs that will drive you forward, as well as leadership that will quickly forgive you if you mess things up.

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I interviewed a Swedish creativity expert named PA Ståhlberg and he said: “If you want real creativity, you have to goof!” You might be uncomfortable making mistakes, but his recipe for success calls for at least three mistakes per month.

You can read my interview with PA Ståhlberg here.

You highlight the reality that team creativity can be tricky, but acknowledge this is the type of creative context most people work within. What’s the core tactic by which we can learn how to improve ourselves and foster team creativity within the parameters of the system(s) surrounding us?

I believe it starts within us. Discover what makes you creative and what stops you from being creative. If you feel that you are not very good at being creative I have good news for you. You can learn how creativity works.

When you work in a team one thing that really matters in regards to how creative you feel and dare to be is language. When someone is suggesting an improvement or a new idea, take the time and listen to what your colleague has to say and encourage them to tell you more. Sometimes we are so busy that the way we communicate with others stops all kinds of flow and creativity and we won’t even spend two minutes listening to our colleagues. If this happens often you will soon see the results: bureaucratic inertia.

Equally, we often evaluate an idea when the idea is too small and weak to survive criticism. I’ve made this mistake many times and presented a new idea to the kind of people who think that gold medals are awarded for being the most critical person in a business. When you have a new idea or project you need to give it time to grow stronger and you need to share it with people who will give good input. Then, when it’s well-equipped for scrutiny, you can share it with the people who don’t know how to nurture ideas.

I believe that all organisations and people benefit from collaboration, internally and externally. One way of helping creativity to flow is to form great relationships with the people around you. Then when you have a challenge you have more people to ask for help and they will be likely to help you out.

A remark that felt timely from the book was “creative leaders dare to improvise with the resources they have available.” You follow this by saying: “There’s no need to bring in external consultants to deliver a long report about what should be done just because no-one on the team dares to say it. They trust that the people in their team and organisation will find a solution to the problems they face.”

How can a digital leader or manager dispense with the “objectivity space” (my term) or neutral perspective consultants can provide? If doubt persists among more senior staff about internally generated solutions, isn’t inviting in consultants sometimes the way out of Catch 22 situations?

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Yes, it can work to bring in someone from the outside to point out what should be done and it may well be necessary to do that in an organisation under certain circumstances. If something is totally messed up and there is no trust in the leadership this might be the only way forward. Also, if there is a lack of knowledge in a particular area, organisations may wish to use external resources.

In organisations with weak leadership I’ve seen situations where businesses choose to listen to an outsider just because they never listen to each other. This is a structural leadership problem that can be solved by better communication.

If people are afraid of sharing their ideas or never suggest anything because, for example, they find that their manager is always too busy to listen to them, then most people will avoid speaking up. This is, of course, not ideal and the change has to come from the leaders and the managers. It might also be an awareness problem – that is, the leadership have forgotten how to listen.

It’s clear from the book that Pixar Studios is a creative ecosystem you’re inspired by: a place where creativity is practiced as being about solving problems along the way and where all the concepts are conceived and developed in-house.

What key management and cultural factors at play in Pixar enable this?

Pixar have a strong belief that every individual’s contribution is valuable. Computer animation is complex and every opportunity to make a process easier saves a lot of time and resources and for that reason they encourage everyone to share new ideas and better practices.

I often see in my creativity workshops that when people feel that their view matters they will share their more inspired ideas. When they feel that their voice doesn’t count they will remain silent.

I also know people who have worked with Pixar and they were impressed by the way the company managed knowledge between people and projects. When you share knowledge and keep an environment open for new ideas people become more creative.

On Pixar’s website you will find ”Life at Pixar” defined as: ”Unique ideas. Compelling stories. Visual artistry. Cutting-edge technology.” These phrases are a great expression of what the company believes in.

To be able to create unique ideas and compelling stories you have to fight complacency. The day you are “happy” and there are no more improvements to be made is the day you move backwards one step at a time.

I also believe that Pixar’s partnership with Disney has been a key driver of their success. When organisations work together magic can happen, in this case movies such as ‘Toy Story’ and ‘Finding Nemo’.

The alchemy at Pixar that emerges from your portrait of them seems to follow from certain working practices they have baked-in: “When they start what seems like an impossible project, the team trusts that there is a solution just around the corner. This trust creates a vibrant environment and fantastic movies.”

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Tell us a few of the steps they take to ensure this which could usefully translate to other organisations.

Pixar trust that a solution to complex problems exists. Team members also believe that they can figure this solution out if they are stuck with a problem. Often when you are totally stuck with a technical problem the best you can do is to move away from the problem for a while, go for walk or leave it overnight, and then your brain will work on it and make some new connections when you are thinking of something else. The next time you look at the problem you see the solution.

When we relax we create new patterns in our brain and that helps us to think more creatively. This works for all kind of problems, in all kinds of organisations and all over the world. The other day I heard that Einstein often spent time relaxing in his rocking-chair. When sitting there almost falling asleep he came up with many of his ideas. To relax and daydream works wonders for your creativity.

At Pixar they are always learning and improving their knowledge at all levels: at an individual level, team level and organisational level. They know that you can learn from every person in an organisation and an experienced team member can learn from a newer member of the team. Remove the hierarchy and you get better knowledge management.

Organisations such as Pixar use feedback in a smart way. They train their employees to give feedback often and in a friendly manner so that people will get used to it and won’t get upset when someone suggests that they do something differently. One technique they use is to get employees to show what they have been working on every day using a central computer system. This way no one hides work from team members. The next morning all teams gather for a short run-through of the project with the supervising animator and the film’s director. When feedback is received daily it becomes less threatening.

Another technique they use is feedback meetings. The idea here is to challenge work and make it better. These meetings are short and intense and people give detailed feedback. This can be a high pressure environment but everyone knows the purpose of these meetings and wants to know how they can improve their work.

The core transferable lesson here is the less you lead with your ego the better. Ego is also known as pride, vanity or “the stubborn shell” you sometimes protect yourself with. Your ego is the invisible chain that keeps you away from what’s possible. Be more open to suggestions and ideas and you will also have more fun when you work.

Sofie Sandell is an international speaker, trainer and author and also lectures four courses in digital marketing at INSEEC University in London. You can find out more at and connect with her on Twitter @Soffi_Propp