3 Skills to Achieve Digital Leadership

How might we create a better world for the next generation? One that is not only economically healthy, but more importantly, one where we all thrive individually and collectively doing what we love doing while being respectful of our environment.

Dan Millan sprayed on a temporary construction wall in Luxembourg. Photo ©Jeremy Tai Abbett

It’s a question I posed to a group of leaders last week when I was in Luxembourg delivering a keynote on digital leadership. It’s a question I think of daily as a father of two young boys knowing that their world is strikingly different than the one I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s. It’s a question that most definitely can be seen as a wicked problem— a problem that traditional processes can’t resolve.

Over the past decade as an entrepreneur, and later as the creative evangelist at Google, I’ve met and worked with some of the most creative and innovative people in the world and have experienced a number of leaders in action. The three things that stuck with me are:

They nurture a culture where creative confidence can be felt throughout the whole organization. A company with creative confidence in its DNA is one that has big ideas, and more importantly, has the ability to act on them. Ed Catmull, President of Pixar and Disney Animation, made it a goal early in his career to develop computer graphics to the point where they could be used for feature films. Needless to say, he’s gone above and beyond his original goal including winning an Oscar in 2001.

Ed Catmull, President of Pixar and Disney Animation “On Curiosity” (video) 👫

Earlier this year I had the privilege to ask Ed how curiosity plays a role in the work place. It all starts with curiosity and a bias towards action. Without curiosity people stay within their comfort zones. Without a bias towards action (the ability to follow through) an idea cannot be verified. Imagine a company trying to survive in today’s ever-changing marketplace without a culture of creative confidence; without the ability to be curious. Pixar has gone on to produce 17 feature films each averaging a gross of $634 million per film.

They embrace critical thinking as a state-of-mind, not just as a technique. In 2105, Germany took in 1.1 million migrants straining the social services, and in turn, activating citizens like Harald Neidhardt (CEO of innovation agency MLOVE) and Mirko Bass (a business development evangelist at US tech multinational Cisco). Feeling the need to do something for the influx of migrants, they converted a 20-foot shipping container into a networked medical first response emergency station. With no precedent to build upon they were able to have the first one up and running within 6 weeks.

Mirko Bass and Harald Neidhardt of the Refugee First Response Center (RFRC). Photo © Julia Knop

I first met Harald at the fifth iteration of MLOVE Confestival; a weekend spent in an 18th Century castle with a group of forward thinking folk discussing a reality driven together with technology. Mirko I met a little later at another MLOVE gathering on the Baltic Sea. Collectively their critical thinking— being open-minded within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences —made the Refugee First Response Center (RFRC) a reality. In the end, it was their wanting to know, not just believe.

They understand that collaborative teamwork requires emotional engagement. Academic institutions are built on the premise of collaborative teamwork; collective learning is a platform for trial-and-error without the fear of being ridiculed for putting one’s self out there. Gillian Crampton-Smith, founder of the Computer Related Design department at the Royal College of Art, has been at the forefront of education and technology. I first met her in 2001 at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea when she was leading an ambitious group of international educators and students in Piedmont, Italy.

Meeting at IDII in 2002 with S. Joy Mountford (Apple) , Red Burns (ITP), David Kelley (IDEO), Bill Verplank (Interval Research), and others. Photo © Jeremy Tai Abbett

As one of the post-graduate students, I experienced first-hand how collaborative teamwork from the educators and the students shaped the projects, and more importantly, the institution as a whole. Norms were established among teams that either raised a group’s collective intelligence, or brought down a teams potential.

On successful teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion whereas teams that struggled were typically dominated by one person. Another norm was an inherent sense of empathy — a feeling with someone, not for someone else — in teams that excelled. Conversational turn-taking and social sensibility are aspects of what’s know as psychological safety. In other words, a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass one another when speaking up. The Interaction Design Institute Ivrea would go on to be the catalyst for projects such as Processing and Arduino.

When you start with creative confidence, critical thinking and collaborative teamwork you’ll have the skills to lead in a world being exponentially consumed by digital. 🚀