The importance of creative leadership

I was just reading Tim Kastelle’s post “Our Job is to Invent the Future” on his great blog which reminded me about the primary need for anyone who is in business to be leaders rather followers.

Tim’s post was seemingly in opposition to another book I was looking through this afternoon called “Making Strategy Work (Making Strategy Work (Amazon Link)), a compilation of essays containing a section on “testing before doing” by Robert Sutton of Stanford U, which stated the need for evidence before action.  Now as my previous post stated I’m a big believer in scientific method or “evidence based management” (EBM) where it is needed, but I really think that people need to understand where you can measure something, and where you need to make a logical jump that no matter how much market research you do, will never come up in a focus group.

Robert Sutton’s example is of the CEO of 7-Eleven, upon walking into one of his stores and  receiving bad attitude from the clerk spending millions of dollars on an outstanding service program, including awarding one of the 7-Eleven franchisees who had perfect service ratings $1 Million dollars and another bunch of initiatives, but after the fact realising that customers of 7-Eleven didn’t really care about the interaction with the employees, rather they just wanted to shop as quickly as possible.  In this case, a really simple bit of market research such as a COMB analysis would’ve pointed out the misdirection of effort towards something that, while important, wasn’t really the greatest concern of the organisation.

Although analytical approaches such EBM are completely the right way to go when performing analysis in domains that aren’t new to the world (like customer service), when you’re playing a completely new game, you need to take some leadership rather than following.  Last night I was watching Mad Men season 3 where the inimitable Don Draper is faced by focus group market research which opposed his idea for an ad campaign for cold cream but he went with it anyway, stating that if someone was to hold another focus group after his campaign ran for a year, it would back him up.  I really thought about the creative leadership that CEOs like Jobs with the iPad who created products, that on first view and market sentiment wouldn’t have passed traditional market research, but through focussed leadership were given the go, and found success (admittedly this paragraph is begging for a post on ethnography and its importance in new product development and research).

Breakout successes that construct or reinvent market segments like the iPad, or Netflix, or Zipcar will never come out of market research or focus groups.  These products require creative leadership, someone who sees a market need before anyone else does, even consumers.  Solely following market whims (for it is an incredibly useful skill) usually results in firms who won’t ever be outstanding innovators.  For companies to get really successful they need to understand when to be research and market driven, and when to let creativity rule.

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