The rise of comb-creatives: future leaders for a new era of business

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If we look back through the ages, the value of a worker was closely correlated to their specialisation. The Agricultural Age favoured farming and manual productivity skills, the Industrial Age favoured mechanical and engineering skills, and the Information Age favoured knowledge and analytical skills.

Over the past decade, the power of specialisation began to diminish as outsourcing, automation, digital innovation and a global labour supply took over the business world. We moved into a new era known as the Conceptual Age, where companies began to value those who processed strong creative qualities such as design, storytelling, empathy and meaning. As highlighted in a 2010 study of leading CEOs by IBM, creativity was now seen as the most critical factor to future success.

Looking forward to the next decade, we will see new disruptive forces cause the next major economic change in business. Building on the principles taken from the Conceptual Age, we will move into the Agile Age.  In this new era of business, companies will need to be more nimble and lean, replacing ‘feel good’ innovation with unconventional, ground-up entrepreneurial execution woven into the cultural fabric of an organisation.

What will the ‘Agile Age’ look like? What skills will we need to cultivate to become future leaders? What steps can we take to prepare for the Agile Age? These are the questions we must answer if we are to become the future superstars, leaders and CxOs of business.

Introducing the ‘Agile Age’

The ‘Agile Age’ will see hyper-changeable consumer trends, hyper-competition and hyper-disruption change the economics and structure of business. Traditional market boundaries will blur even further as mobile-first and direct-to-consumer ecosystems grow in power. Automation will replace tasks that have long seen as manual and safe from technological change.  Agility will no longer be the restricted to the startup ecosystem as it rapidly becomes the new organisation buzzword for corporate strategists and CxOs. As this new era of business dawns, venture-backed enterprise and traditional corporates will more closely align in mindset and innovation capability, requiring companies, employees and leaders to pivot and adapt more quickly than every before.

To survive in the Agile Age, we will see companies re-think their approach to resourcing and innovation in order to execute more effectively. It will no longer be good enough to rely on disparate specialised agencies, lofty consultants and external innovation networks. Companies will need in-house resources who can flex and contribute across multiple functions, bring insights across multiple markets and bring proven entrepreneurial experience to innovation. For companies to execute a new resourcing strategy, a cultural change will be seen every level of an organisation, with a focus on every employee embracing a more entrepreneurial skill set that reaches outside of the conventions prevalent in each industry vertical.

As Piyush Gupta – CEO of DBS Bank – eloquently put in a recent Mckinsey interview

The key questions are cultural—are you able to create a company that has got adaptability, energy, and nimbleness and where the vast majority of employees are willing to act and think like entrepreneurs?

Who are the future leaders of the ‘agile age’?

As in the Conceptual Age, leveraging the power of creativity will still be vital, yet it will not suffice on its own. The Agile Age will see the rise of people who bring together creativity across disparate industries and with deep operational skills. Using the analogy of a hair comb, with a wide horizontal spine with deep vertical teeth, the next generation of super employees will be what we refer to as ‘comb-creatives’.

The future leaders of the Agile Age will be those who can cultivate a new set of traits  – creativity, adaptability, passion, empathy, culture, bravery, logic, curiosity and humility. In addition to these new traits, they will need to combine corporate and high-growth startup experience, removing the historic disconnect between these two ecosystems.  In a new era of business, corporations will act more like venture capital firms, incubating and growing new disruptive products from the inside. We will see comb-creatives lead this revolution as they bring entrepreneurial experience across multiple geographies, markets and digital channels. The resulting organisation will now be able to see past bias and industry convention, to drive real competitive advantage.

In the Agile Age, companies will need to execute and adapt more quickly than ever before, causing the future leaders of business to play a more direct role in executing change. We will see a movement away hierarchical leadership and dictatorial management, to leaders who maintain deep operation skills as move into more senior roles. To be a comb-creative will mean caring less about job titles and organisation structures, and more on digging deep to add value as companies innovate in new ways. Seniority and leadership will no longer be mutually exclusive to on-the-ground execution.

Steps to becoming a comb-creative

Think more.

George Bernard Shaw – founder of the London School of Economics – is reported to have said “Few people think more than two or three times a year”. It is good to spend more time thinking. In fact, we should aim to think several times a week. You can inspire new thinking yourself by researching, learning and building insights across multiple areas, no matter what your day job dictates. Read more and learn to remove opinion and bias when consuming information.  Find statistics to inform decisions.  From a study of human behavior to agile project management skills, the value of thinking about new topics in new ways, and combining knowledge in unique ways, will set you on the path to becoming a comb-creative.

How about taking a new perspective on your future career from a book like ‘what got you here, won’t get you there’ by Marshall Goldsmith? Maybe give the mash-up of neuroscience and marketing a try with Braininflence. In the world of comb-creatives, it is a broad spectrum of knowledge that supports your ability to try out new things on the ground. Comb-creatives are not only book smart, they are unconventional thinkers who build real experience by starting companies, learn lessons from failure and use data to question hype.

Step outside your job title, department and even your industry.

Exposure to different environments, industries, and cultures will improve your value at work. You can take corporate experience and mash this together with start-up experience. You can take brick-and-mortar industries and mash them together with digital-first companies. You and your team should make it a raison d’etre to learn multiple areas of business, culture, and design so they can make improvements from a holistic and informed perspective. The skills that were once in demand can change. AI and automation can replace entire departments. Consumers will seek out new ways to satisfy their needs instead of using your service. You can start today by looking for projects outside of your day job. You can ask to sit in meetings outside your area of expertise. For any forward-thinking HR departments and managers, they will see passion and value in those wanting to broaden their horizons.

Don’t lose deep skills, keep them alive. 

Keep your skills present and alive. Don’t stop using Illustrator just because you are now a Creative Director. Don’t stop using Excel just because you are a Strategy Director. Don’t forget about your creative PowerPoint skills just because someone more junior is covering this role. Don’t let seniority cause an outflow of skills. Build your skill set so that you can sit on the board and also be comfortable executing on the front-line. There is no place in the Agile Age for those who rely on past performance and job titles to ensure continued success. Stay relevant and stay hungry.

Work abroad. 

Working in different countries will give you new perspectives. It will broaden your mind so that you can dive into any new situations as products, digital business and companies increasingly move into a global marketplace. The exposure to different ways of working, cultures, and personalities will take your creative skills to another level. When building global experience, it is important to learn local knowledge whenever possible. Make a conscious effort to discover the fabric of a country, go beyond the walls of the media, tourist traps, and common perceptions. Find out how business is really done.

Learn to be disruptive without disrupting your career. 

The buzz around innovation and digital disruption can cause ‘blue sky’ thinking without a focus on value and results. Learn how to think differently without blindly accepting hype and trends. If you work for a retail bank, a piecemeal change to digital services might not cut it. What may be more valuable would be to increase profit and retail utilisation of the bank’s retail space through an artisanal coffee partnership. If you aim to disrupt without informed knowledge and a focus on value, you will simply become a disruptive employee. What you want to be is a value innovator, as the book Blue Ocean Strategy highlights very well. Keep adding value to the company and you will find you are in a better place to drive change without going it alone. You should still embrace popularised trends such as mobile innovation but go beyond the sugar coating and rhetoric to build real end-to-end digital change outside of your industry walls. Greyspace explore these ideas further here and here.

Explore and observe.

Next time you are sat in a coffee shop, try looking at the menu branding and consider how it could be improved. Even if you have never considered design in your career, think about design in the everyday happenings of your life. When you find yourself in new places or in new situations, observe as closely as possible and don’t be afraid to ask questions to build your own informed insights. When you next meet your niece or nephew, observe how they use mobile apps and new products. Think about how what you find out might apply to the future of your company. You can learn a lot by observing how a teenager uses Snapchat to give themselves a princess crown, yet completely ignore all the paid content Snapchat wishes they would view.  As you explore, start to dig further into data. Look less at forming opinions, and more about thinking differently based on evidence – or as the economists and authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner would say – Think like a freak.  Consider alternative views and come out with a broad knowledge that will help you flex and maneuver in a world that is full of change and surprise.

Nothing worth having comes easy

If you want to be a leader in the Agile Age, you need to be prepared to dedicate a large amount of time to learning new things. You need to remove bias and dogma, and instead, apply new knowledge to new situations. Sometimes this will mean going against convention and at times failing. You must be prepared to embrace failure and learn from it. This is not easy when our instinct is to avoid risk and pursue stability.

Becoming a comb-creative not only takes time and effort, it also requires humility and adaptability. We must consider our careers as a journey, not a singular destination. For some, this is quite a change from the structures of linear education, entitlement, and promotion. If you find the prospect of following the path of a comb-creative daunting, that’s nothing to worry about. It would be very strange for anyone to immediately accept the possibility of honing creative skills in parallel to knowing many things across many industries. The good news is that even the smallest steps forward along the comb-creative path will bring benefits. The expertise that you have built is still immensely valuable, afterall this forms part of your ‘teeth’, and you can begin to widen your experience by following the steps outlined in this article.

For those already on this path, you should feel comfort in the depth and breath you are building. You can embrace the eclectic interests and skills you hold. If you have always thought you had more to offer outside the constraints of a linear world, your value will begin to shine in the Agile Age.

The forces of change in the Agile Age will leave no company, consultant or internal role untouched. Organisations that respect, recruit and cultivate comb-creatives will be best placed to adapt and drive from the front.
Stephen Barling. MD and Chief Creative @ Greyspace
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