Written by Sam Wood
I’m not proud to admit it, but I haven’t completed a ‘structured’ course of learning since finishing university almost 3 years ago. In my defence, I was at Uni for what felt like a very long time.
One of the objectives and key results (OKRs) I set myself at the start of last quarter was based around upskilling. I’m pretty good with reading blog articles, although less disciplined with reading books (the key result of three books in the quarter went… poorly). Despite this, completing a course was something I actually did manage to achieve.
Completing a course through IdeoU has been on my radar for a while now. I’m a huge fan of the Ideo Futures podcast as a source of inspiration and of learning, which is where I heard about IdeoU from. The Ideo company is one I find inspiring too. They are particularly well renowned for their advanced design thinking approach, which covers everything from some of the most popular modern products to digital experiences.
Moreover, I openly admit that I am very inexperienced and am still learning how to be an organisational leader. If Alpha Digital is going to be the breakout success we know it can be, everyone in the business needs to step up, especially myself.
The IdeoU course I chose to complete is called Leading for Creativity. One of the overarching themes of this course (and indeed reflected in all content released by Ideo) is the importance of curiosity.
The course encourages leaders that want to lead creative teams to move away from the mindset that the leader must have all the answers. They should instead be focused on asking the right questions that allow their teams to come up with the answers.
This immediately became the first point for me to improve on. Whether intentionally or not, I’m not sure, but my study at uni had led me to develop a habit of asking leading questions where I believe I already know the answer.
The course was structured into three main leadership perspectives:
- Leading with a strong point of view
- Leading through culture
- Leading alongside your team
Leading with a strong point of view
Think of this as the typical charismatic, inspirational leader. The one with a vision and inspires others to take risks to join them on the journey. This role was likened to an explorer, setting sail for new land. By taking risks and inspiring their crew along the way they are able to reach new heights (or rather lands). If you are starting something new, changing course or taking a big risk, this role should be in play.
Be Elon Musk – got it.
I am not the super charismatic type who excitedly tells everyone they meet how they are going to change the world, so I started small. Part of this lesson included defining your organisation’s purpose and vision. Next is to list the main challenges you are likely to face on the way to achieving that vision.
These challenges were turned into something we have already started using to solve problems – for example, ‘How might we’ questions. An inspiring question itself, that is specific enough to include who we’re problem-solving for and what part of their journey we’re addressing, but not so specific that it includes or leads the team to a predetermined answer.
These challenges were turned into something we have already started using to solve problems – ‘How might we’ questions. An inspiring question, that’s specific enough to include who we are problem-solving for and what part of their journey we’re addressing, but not so specific that it includes or leads the team to a predetermined answer.
The question I came up with as part of the course was: “How might we (Alpha Digital) decrease recruitment lead time?”
Perhaps not the most exciting question but one that directly addresses a problem we (and many other digital agencies) often have. We win a big contract, we have specific needs, but there are a million and one other agencies out there vying for the same talent. I still don’t have the answer, but we’re getting more active with some of the fantastic university student groups to help us better connect with recent and future graduates.
It’s a start!
I found (and am still finding) this way of framing a question difficult, but it is incredibly worthwhile. It’s really helped me step away from asking leading questions and has kickstarted a number of exciting initiatives at Alpha Digital.
Leading through culture
Is your culture one which stifles or encourages creativity?
Inspiring everyone to take the leap and work towards the now shared vision of the organisation is great, but what are you doing to ensure the organisation supports the team doing the creative work?
When you lead through culture, the course likened the role you play to that of a gardener. It is your job to set the conditions to allow your team to flourish, nurturing them or their ideas as they’re developing, and eliminating any problems that may arise (removing weeds).
The part of this lesson I found particularly interesting was the exploration of ‘nudges’ in the form of rituals. A nudge is something designed to prompt the receiver to respond in a certain way that is desirable for the business. There has been a lot said about nudges in recent years and I fully encourage anyone interested in behavioural economics to do a bit of reading on the topic!
We were asked to brainstorm a new ritual for our organisation that helped solve a gap or tension in the culture, turning into a ‘How might we’ question to solve the problem. I would encourage everyone to give this a go – I’m even going to try and incorporate it into my personal life for things I think could be improved!
Leading alongside your team
Being present, engaged, and accessible to your team are all key to the final lesson of leading for creativity. Instead of being instructive, the final leadership role encourages offering guidance to reach the goal. The course likens this sort of role to that of an authentic and relatable coach. One where outside of crisis moments (maybe a time-out after the opposition has gone on an answered scoring run?) the coach does not instruct but encourages each person to play their role in the team.
I see this role as the consolidation of the previous two lessons, with an added element of guidance. For example, you might run a brainstorm with your team on how to better service an unmet segment of your market. You craft the ‘how might we?’ question, pose it to your team and, whilst pushing the pace, stay out of the way unless prompting is required.
Taking what was learned during the brainstorm, the team might go away and do their own research. This may occasionally require your guidance, or if they get stuck, your instruction. Finally, once the team has decided on the few best paths or solutions, it is your job as the coach to make the tough final decision.
As I saw this role largely as the culmination of skills learned in the previous two, I have not focused too much on improving this aspect of my leadership just yet, although I am not at all discounting its importance.
So that is it!
The key takeaways for me were:
- Learn to ask better questions
- Develop a clearer vision (and work on being more inspiring)
- Identify parts of the company culture that could do with a ‘nudge’ in the right direction
Was the course worth it?
I think so. While it wasn’t a particularly cheap course, it was well run, with strong content and additional helpful resources provided after the fact. I probably won’t rush back to do another IdeoU course just yet, but I’d recommend at least looking into it you’re interested in improving your leadership in the creative space!
Get in touch if you have any questions!
Sam Wood was appointed CEO of Alpha Digital in July 2020.