Skip to main content

BA as Creative Leader: What’s All the Fuss About?

Leadership is like genius, it is one of those concepts that is recognizable when you observe it in action, but is otherwise somewhat difficult to define.  And creative leadership is even harder to define because we haven’t been focusing on it in the context of business, unless we are talking about new product development.  But creativity and innovation in the business world is not just about product innovation.  It is also about innovative business relationships and alliances; ground-breaking processes that bring about efficiencies needed to be competitive; pioneering global supply chains and teams that take advantage of talent around the world; inventive technologies that blow away old models (think Kodak not converting to digital cameras quickly enough); modern approaches to public/private partnerships, and drastically improved project management and business analysis practices.

Leadership has been defined as:

  • The art of persuading or influencing other people to set aside their individual concerns and to pursue a common goal that is important for the welfare of the group; 
  • The ability to elicit extraordinary performance from ordinary people;
  • The capacity to integrate the goals of the organization with the aspirations of the people through a shared vision and committed action; and
  • The ability to motivate people to work toward a common goal.

While there are no gauges by which we can effectively measure the value of leadership, leadership is often the factor that makes one team more effective than another. When a team succeeds, we often remark about outstanding leadership abilities; when a team fails, the leader is likely to receive the blame.
Leadership is all about people. And it is about influence: it always involves actions by a leader (influencer) to affect (influence) the behavior of followers in a specific situation or activity. Three factors must be present for true leadership to take place:

  • Certain inherited characteristics that impart the inclination to become a leader;
  • Learned knowledge and skills about becoming a leader; and
  • The right situation that presents itself.

What does all this talk about Leadership have to do with Business Analysts?
So why are we talking about leadership with respect to BAs?  Because my posit is this: business analysts are well positioned to fill the gap in creative leadership at all levels of organizations.  To place themselves in leadership roles, BAs who have an inherent leadership disposition should begin now to elevate their role to one of creative leader: (1) to create the appropriate learning opportunities and (2) to influence their current situation and environment to be seen as that creative leader. I am laying down the gauntlet: challenging seasoned BAs to become creative leaders.

21st Century Leadership
In decades gone by, leadership in the business world was considered the province of just a few people that controlled the organization. In contrast, in today’s demanding, challenging, and ever changing business environment, organizations rely on a remarkable assortment of leaders that operate at varying levels of the enterprise. 21st century leadership looks very different from that of previous eras for several reasons:

  1. The economic environment is more volatile and complex than ever before;
  2. Much of the work is accomplished in teams, so there is a stronger than ever necessity for more leadership at differing levels of the organization; and
  3. Lifelong learning is at the heart of professional success. The most valuable employees will no longer stay in narrow functional areas but will be likely to work broadly across the enterprise.

As we transition from the traditional stovepipe, function-centric structures to the team- and project-centric workplace, we are seeing the emergence of creative leadership at the nucleus of 21st century business models. Work has been transformed from multiple workers performing a single task (many of these jobs have disappeared due to technology and outsourcing) to networks and teams that perform multiple activities on multiple projects, creating, inventing and re-inventing.  And 21st century projects are exceedingly complex so that we cannot manage them with the traditional command and control leadership style.
21st Century Change
Virtually all organizations of any size are investing in large-scale transformations of one kind or another. Contemporary changes are about adding value to the organization through breakthrough ideas, optimizing business processes, and using information technology (IT) and the Internet as a competitive advantage. These initiatives are often generated by mergers or acquisitions, new strategies, global competition, or the emergence of new technologies.

Other programs are launched to implement new or reengineered business systems to drive waste out of business operations. Still others are spawned because of the need to innovate, adapt, or evaporate.

While today’s organizations are engaged in virtually hundreds of ongoing projects of varying sizes, durations, and levels of complexity, many are trying to reduce the number of trivial projects to invest in more critical, game-changing strategic initiatives. Since business strategy is largely achieved through projects, projects are essential to the growth and competitive survival of organizations. They create value as a response to changes in the business environment, the competition, and the marketplace.
Management versus Leadership: Who has the Power?
There are subtle differences between management and leadership, and how each amasses power and strength.  The differences manifest themselves in how individuals motivate others.  Managers have subordinates, while leaders have followers.  Managers are often risk averse; whereas, leaders are risk seekers. [1]

Management is about Operating Effectively
Management know-how involves establishing and executing a set of processes that keep complicated systems operating efficiently. Managers have authority by virtue of their title and position.  Key facets of management involve strategic and business planning, budgeting, organizing, staffing, controlling, and problem solving.  Organizations tend to implement management processes to impose discipline and to control the looming chaos.  The predicament then turns out to be about the avoidance of becoming too bureaucratic so as to squash creativity and innovation.  Some say management is just about keeping bureaucracies functioning, so they often resist change that leads to innovation.

Leadership is about Changing Effectively
Leadership is a different set of processes, those that create a new organization and change it when the business environment shifts. Leadership involves establishing direction and aligning, motivating, and inspiring people to produce change. The irony is that as new entrepreneurial organizations grow to a sustainable scale through creativity and innovation, managerial processes need to be put into place to cope with the growth and control the unruliness.  As the organization succeeds and managerial processes are put in place, self-importance and arrogance break the surface and a strong culture that is dead set against change emerges.[2]  Whereas, 21st century creative leadership is all about welcoming and embracing change – in fact, creating disruptive change.  The astute and influential business analyst is primed to play a strong role in resolving the inevitable tension and conflict between resistance to change and the need to innovate.

To Lead is to have Strength that Inspires People
And then there is power.  Power is something that is bestowed on an individual by someone else that imparts the authority to get things done even when others resist; whereas, leadership is about inspiring people to want to get the same things accomplished that you do, and enabling them to do it.  Val Williams, executive coach, tells us that:

Power is often tied to position: being a CEO, a manager, partner, judge, parent, senator.  If you have power, you can impact the lives of others. Strength is not dependent on any position: The concept of strength implies not what you can do to others; but what you can create from your own resources. Where power sometimes motivates people through fear, strength leads people through inspiration. Strength connotes charisma, attractiveness. People more naturally follow a strong person. They are motivated to act by something beyond that person’s title.[3] 
Strength is very much like leadership.  People want to follow a strong person, one who is credible, attractive, results-oriented, and fun to work with.  Effective project leaders, including the business analyst, are effective at their craft through leadership and strength, not through power and authority. 

BA Leadership at the Project Level
BAs are in a leadership role in projects.  Informal straw polls that I have conducted in multiple companies indicate that project leadership is now shared between the PM and BA.  For complex projects, leadership should also be shared with the business visionary and the lead technologist(s). Indeed, every time a BA facilitates a group she is in a leadership role.  It is the context of the facilitated session that determines whether the results are incremental changes to business as usual, or innovative changes to the way we do things.

BA Leadership at the Enterprise Level (the Corporate, Strategic Level)
It is at the corporate level that we are experiencing the biggest gap in business analysts as creative leaders.  It is at this level that enterprise-focused BAs have the best opportunity to ensure the organization is being creative and innovative.  The Enterprise Analysis led by corporate BAs fill the yawning gap in capabilities between strategy and execution. Also see our Blog: for more information on BA proficiency at the corporate level.

The business analyst who is working at the corporate level provides information about opportunities to executives to develop a portfolio of valuable projects. The BA relieves the organization from what is called the burden of analysis that is needed, but often missing, to envision, experiment, and prototype to identify truly innovative solutions prior to investing in new change initiatives.  The Enterprise BA fosters the inspiration and a collaborative environment to bring about innovation.  I call this ICI-notBAU: Inspiration, Collaboration, Innovation-not Business As Usual.

Transitioning to World-Class Project Leaders
The talents of the Enterprise BA are more critical than ever to keep the focus on the business innovation. However, many companies fail to involve their best BAs at the corporate level in determining the most innovative solutions.  Too often, they keep BAs involved in eliciting tactically-focused, detailed requirements for projects, without spending enough energy on creativity and innovation prior to project execution. For BAs to be considered creative leaders operating at the corporate level, they must transition their skills, competencies, focus, and influence as depicted in the table below.

Apr3 Kitty1With so much riding on successful projects, the business analyst is emerging to fill the gap in creativity, analyze the business and the competitive environment, and provide the expert facilitation needed to achieve ICI-notBAU; the project manager has risen to the role of strategic implementer; and cross-functional leadership teams have become management’s strategic tool to convert strategy to achievement.  When the project manager and business analyst form a strong partnership with the business and technology teams, organizations will begin to reap the maximum value of both disciplines. As the business analysis and project management disciplines mature into strategic business practices, so must our project leaders evolve into strategic leaders of change.

It’s a  BIG Cultural Change

Finding the Creative Solution

Mature organizations devote a significant amount of time and energy to conducting due diligence and encouraging experimentation and creativity before rushing to construction.  These due diligence activities take the form of: enterprise analysis, competitive analysis, problem analysis, and creative solution alternative analysis performed prior to selecting and prioritizing projects. This new approach involves a significant cultural shift for most organizations – spending more time up front to make certain the solution is creative, innovative, and even disruptive.

The Business Analyst as Change Agent: Changing the Way We Do Projects
Culture in an organization is durable, because it is the way we do things around here. Changing the way we determine solutions to business problems, select projects, develop and manage requirements, and manage projects while focusing not only on business value, but also on innovation is often a significant change for organizations. Change is hard, and change takes a long time. But the need is urgent! We need to step up our game.

Rita Hadden, specialist in software best practices, process improvement, and corporate culture change, provides us with some insight into the enormity of the effort to truly change the way we do projects.[4] Hadden suggests you must have a management plan to deal with the technical complexity of the change and a leadership plan to address the human aspects of the change (I call this the Political Management Plan).

Creative leaders need to understand the concerns and motivations of the people they hope to influence. They ought to clearly define the desired outcomes for the change and how to measure progress, assess the organization’s readiness for change, and develop plans to minimize the barriers to success. The goal is to create a critical mass so BAs in the organization integrate creativity into their projects.  Therefore, to become leaders in their organizations, business analysts need to learn all about change management – becoming skilled change experts.

The Business Analyst as Visionary
The BA needs to document the vision in the business case and infuse a common vision into the team and all key stakeholders. A clear vision helps to direct, align, and inspire actions. Without a clear vision, a lofty transformation plan can be reduced to a list of inconsequential projects that sap energy and drain valuable resources. Most importantly, a clear vision guides decision making so that every decision that needs to be made is not arrived at through unneeded debate and conflict. Yet, we continue to underestimate the power of vision.

The Business Analyst as Credible Leader
The BA needs to develop and sustain a high level of credibility. Credible business professionals are sought out by all organizations. People want to be associated with them. They are thought of as being trustworthy, reliable, sincere – and creative. The business analyst can develop his or her credibility by becoming proficient at these critical skills, all of which should be part of your learning and development plan:

  • Thinking holistically; looking at the entire ecosystem surrounding the company and business process
  • Facilitating teams expertly
  • Setting direction and providing vision
  • Practicing business outcome thinking
  • Conceptualizing and fostering creatively
  • Building strong relationships
  • Using robust communication techniques  
  • Building high-performing teams
  • Listening effectively and encouraging new ideas
  • Seeking responsibility and accepting accountability
  • Focusing and motivating your group to achieve what is important
  • Managing complexity dimensions to reduce project risks
  • Welcoming changes that add value to the solution.

The Business Analyst as Trusted Leader
The BA needs to be trusted – capable of being believed. Above all, a BA must strive to be a reliable source of information. Credibility is composed of both trustworthiness and expertise.  In addition, colleagues often judge credibility on subjective factors such as enthusiasm and even physical appearance. At the end of the day, professional presence, ethics and integrity are the cornerstone of credibility.
Creative Leadership is Different
Creativity has always been important in the world of business, but until now it hasn’t been at the top of the management agenda.  Perhaps this is because creativity was considered too vague, too hard to pin down. Or even more likely, because concentrating on it produced a less immediate dividend than improving execution, it hasn’t been the focus of management attention. Although there are similarities in the roles of manager, leader, and creative leader, there are subtle differences as well. The table below shows the distinctions between these roles.




Creative Leader

Define what must be done



Planning and budgeting

n  Short timeframe

n  Detail-oriented

n  Eliminate risk

Establishing direction

n  Long timeframe

n  Big picture

n  Calculated risk

Establishing breakthrough goals and objectives

n  Envisioning the future mission and direction

n  Forging new strategy

Create networks of people and relationships

Organizing and staffing

n  Specialization

n  Getting the right people

n  Compliance


Aligning people

n  Integration

n  Aligning the organization

n  Gaining commitment

Aligning teams and stakeholders to the future vision:

n  Innovation

n  Urgency

n  Out of the Building expectations

n  Political mastery

n  Global teams

Ensure the job gets done

Controlling and problem solving

n  Containment

n  Control

n  Predictability


Motivating and inspiring

n  Empowerment

n  Expansion

n  Energizing

Building creative teams 

n  High performance

n  Trust

n  Empowerment

n  Courageous disruption

n  Innovation

Exhibit 4-4: Comparing Managers, Leaders, and Creative Leaders

A Culture of Creativity

Since creativity is the ability to produce something novel, we have long acknowledged that creativity is essential to the entrepreneurship that starts new businesses.  But what sustains the best companies as they attempt to achieve a global reach?  We are now beginning to realize that in the 21st century, sustainability is about creativity, transformation, and innovation.  Although academia has focused on creativity for years (we have decades of research to draw on) [5] the shift to a more innovation-driven economy has been sudden – as evidenced in the fact that COEs today lament the absence of creative leaders.  

As competitive positioning turns into a contest of who can generate the best and greatest number of innovations, creativity scholars are being asked pointed questions about their research.  What guidance is available for leaders in creativity-dependent businesses?  How do we creatively manage the complexities of this new global environment?  How do we find creative leaders, and how do we nurture and manage them?  Does every project solution need to be innovative? The conclusion of participants in the colloquium, Creativity, Entrepreneurship, and Organizations of the Futureat Harvard Business School was: “one doesn’t manage creativity; one manages for creativity.”[6]  Management’s role is to get the creative people, position them at the right time and place, remove all barriers imposed upon them by the organization, and then get out of their way.

Innovation: the Real Business Need
We are challenging BAs to re-think their approach, to not just record what the business is doing or wants to do, but to operate as a lightening rod to stimulate ICI-notBAU To do so, business analysts are also re-thinking the role of the customers and users they facilitate, looking upon them as a creative resource that can imagine, invent, and re-invent.  Good, sometimes great ideas often come from operational levels of organizations when workers are given a large degree of autonomy. 

To stay competitive in the 21st century, CEOs are attempting to distribute creative responsibility up, down and across the organization.  Success is unsustainable if it depends too much on the ingenuity of a single person or persons, as is too often seen with start-ups that flourish for a few years and then fall flat; they were not built to last, to continually innovate.  It is no longer about continuous improvement; it is about continuous innovation.  It is the BA who works across and up and down organizations – getting the right people at the right time and in the right place – to fan the flames of creativity. If not the BA, then who?

What does Creative Leadership look like?
There are many distinguishing beliefs and characteristics in the observable behavior of creative leaders.  According to John McCann, educator, facilitator and consultant, creative leaders:

  • Believe in the capability of others, offer them challenging opportunities, and delegate responsibility to them
  • Know that people feel a commitment to a decision if they feel they have participated in making it
  • Understand that people strive to meet other people’s expectations
  • Value individuality
  • Exemplify creativity in their own behavior and provide an environment that encourages and rewards creativity in others
  • Are skillful in managing change
  • Emphasize internal motivators over external motivators
  • Encourage people to be self-directing.[7]

Constructive Dialogue
McCann poses the question: “So where can creativity, ambiguity, tension, and decisiveness come together in a healthy environment that regards the integrity of the individual and the value of the organization equally?”  He then makes the case that this is accomplished only through constructive and well-facilitated dialogue, precisely the BA’s trade craft.[8] 

The value of lively discussion is that it encourages an exploration of ideas and shared learning about what is possible. Groups of individuals with differing perspectives can be more insightful, more effective than can individuals. The IQ of a team has the potential to be much greater than the IQ of one person.  Better decisions are almost always reached by groups of diverse thinkers than by individuals.  According to McCann, this coming together of creativity, ambiguity, tension, and decisiveness is accomplished through the skilled and credible facilitator (who but the BA?) who sets the stage for groups to engage in productive dialogue.  The BA is perfectly positioned to be that credible leader and facilitator who sets these conditions in motion that lead to creativity: Participants are willing to have their beliefs examined and reexamined;

  • Participants look upon each other with respect and realize the benefits that come from open and candid discussion; and finally,
  • There is a facilitator who holds the context and allows everyone to participate equally.[9]

Expert Facilitation
The business analyst as creative leader combines open dialogue using expert facilitation and creativity-inducing tools (discussed in future articles) for stimulating the sharing of unique ideas.  Just as the IQ of the group rises higher than that of any one individual, the CQ, creativity quotient, can potentially be much greater as well.  Therefore, organizations desperately need BAs who can encourage creativity and help groups raise their CQ. 

An Art and a Discipline
As BAs learn to use expert facilitation as their foremost creativity-inducing tool, they are prudent to take into account the views of John Kao, director of the Idea Factory and author of: Jamming, The Art and Discipline of Business Creativity. According to Kao, for individuals to feel they are truly responsible for their own decisions, they must be instilled with what Kao calls a “Creativity Bill of Rights.” When performing their craft, BAs instill these beliefs:

  • Everyone is creative.
  • All ideas deserve an impartial hearing.
  • Creativity is part of every job description.
  • Shutting down dialogue prematurely and excessive judgment are fundamental transgressions.
  • Creativity is about finding balance between art and discipline.
  • Creativity involves openness to an extensive variety of inputs.
  • Experiments are always encouraged.
  • Dignified failure is respectable; poor implementation or bad choices are not.
  • Creativity involves mastery of change.
  • Creativity involves a balance of intuition and facts.
  • Creativity can and should be managed.  The expert BA instinctively knows when to bring the dialogue to a close.
  • Creative work is not an excuse for chaos, disarray or sloppiness in execution.[10]

Thinking “Outside the Building”
“The greatest future breakthroughs will come from leaders who encourage thinking outside a whole building full of boxes.”
Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Arbuckle Professorship at Harvard Business School and author of  SuperCorp (Crown, 2009).
So, what kind of barriers do we expect to encounter when BAs make an attempt to become the creative leader organizations need today?  There is a formidable set of customs that exist in any organization that the creative leader must learn to penetrate.  In her Harvard Business Review column, it is the cultural barriers that Rosabeth Kanter calls “inside the building thinking” that may pose the strongest obstruction to innovation.  While we are all familiar with “out of the box” thinking, Kanter pushes the envelope and asks us to consider both “inside the building” and “outside the building” thinking. 

Inside-the-building thinking is the hallmark of establishments, whose structures inhibit innovation. Once the architecture is set, vested interests divide up the floors and reinforce existing patterns and practices. Even change-oriented inside-the-building thinkers take organization and industry structures for granted. They pay most attention to similar-looking competitors in markets already served. They focus on enhancing the use of existing capabilities rather than developing new solutions to emerging problems.[11] 

What does this mean for the skilled and credible facilitator who sets the stage for groups to engage in productive dialogue?  Business analysts have got to be cognizant of the fact that their first inclination – and the first tendency of their groups of stakeholders – will be to limit their options by focusing on similar companies doing comparable things.  So it is up to the business analyst to beware of and encourage the group to penetrate the inside-the-building boundaries.

What does a Real Focus on Innovation Look Like?
Kanter provides us with a few examples:

  • New product development companies place engineers in customers’ facilities to shorten feedback loops for rapid prototyping of new products.
  • A bank in Brazil increases its attractiveness to top talent by mounting crime-reduction and cleanup efforts in bank neighborhoods.
  • To speed innovation, one company identified consumers’ needs by living in people’s homes.
  • Interconnected systems can transform life outside, as well as inside, school buildings to improve learning. In one low-income community, a network of nonprofit organizations focusing on the entire ecosystem of a student’s world has demonstrated dramatic improvements in school performance and college attendance.
  • In health care, we see many examples.  Primary care, family medicine, and nurse practitioner groups performing work that is typically done in hospitals. Paraprofessionals administering screenings and immunizations. Public schools serving as frontline disease prevention and monitoring centers. Clinics operating in retail drug and mega-retail stores. 
  • Innovation teams set apart from business operations teams that accomplish real transformative improvements in record time.

Kanter urges us to use system thinking and open mindedness when working with stakeholders to innovate, solve a problem, or seize a new opportunity.  To unleash creativity, BAs have got to challenge their stakeholders to use not only systems thinking, but also complexity thinking and out-of-the-building thinking, to look at the entire ecosystem that surrounds their organizations.  It is then that we have set the stage to bring about lasting innovation.

Putting it All Together: What Does This Mean to the Business Analyst? Becoming a Creative Leader

“Leadership is the capacity to mobilize people toward valued goals; that is, to produce sustainable change — sustainable because it’s good for you and for the people who matter most to you.”  Stew Friedman, Author, Professor, Innovator

Stew Friedman, Practice Professor of Management at the Wharton School, former head of Ford Motor’s Leadership Development Center, and author of “Total Leadership: Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life posed this question to business leaders across the country: “What kind of leadership do we need now?”  The most often response was: adaptive, flexible, and innovative.   Because of the ever-present sense of turbulence in most of our lives these days, the leadership attribute that comes to mind most often is the means for dealing with chaos. According to Friedman, it boils down to this: playful creativity.[12]  Friedman’s philosophy is reasonably straightforward.  Friedman believes that leadership can exist in every person, regardless of the organizational level or title.[13]

Creative leaders produce sustainable change.  We have provided lots of food for thought as you strive to become the creative leader, and strive you must because creative leadership is gravely needed for your organization to survive.  Your power will come from your professional presence, your credibility and expertise, and your ability to inspire groups to get creative things done – to bring about disruptive change.  As organizations mature in their use of business analysts, you may derive some of your power from positioning in the company, but without a doubt, it is through creative leadership that you will thrive.

Look for Next Month’s Article: How Capable Do Business Analysts Need to be to Ignite Creativity?

Don’t forget to leave your comments below. 

[1] Val Williams. Leadership versus Management. Online at: (accessed August 2010).
[2] John P. Kotter, Leading Change (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1996).
[3] Val Williams. Leadership: Strength versus Power. Online at: (accessed August 2010).
[4] 3. Rita Chao Hadden, Leading Culture Change in Your Software Organization: Delivering Results Early (Vienna, VA: Management Concepts, 2003).
[5] Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. The Creativity Crisis. (Newsweek, July 19, 2010), 44-50.
[6] Teresa M. Amabile and Mukti Khaire. Creativity and the Role of the Leader. (Harvard Business Review: October 2008) Online at: July 2010).
[7] John M. McCann. Leadership As Creativity: Finding the Opportunity Hidden Within Decision Making and Dialogue (National Endowment for the Arts) Online at: (accessed July 2010).
[8] Ibid.
[9] John M. McCann. Leadership As Creativity: Finding the Opportunity Hidden Within Decision Making and Dialogue (National Endowment for the Arts) Online at: (accessed July 2010).
[10] John Kao, Jamming, The Art and Discipline of Business Creativity.(New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1996)
[11] Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Column: Think Outside the Building (Harvard Business Review, The Magazine: March 2010). Online at: (accessed August 2010).
[12] Stew Friedman. Become a More Creative Leader – Think Small. (Harvard Business Review, Blogs: June 15, 2009). Online at: (accessed August 2010).
[13] Marci Alboher. Hot Ticket in B-School: Bringing Life Values to Corporate Ethics. (New York Times, May 29, 2008). Online at:  (accessed August 2010).