Illustration by Lidia Lukianova

Scott Belsky is an entrepreneur, author, investor and all-around product obsessive. He’s the founder of Behance and author of two international best-sellers (Making Ideas Happen and The Messy Middle). Scott is also the Chief Product Officer at Adobe and, outside of this role, he actively advises and invests in businesses that cross the intersection of technology and design. SoDA’s Executive Director, Tom Beck, recently caught up with Scott to chat about leadership in times of rapid change, what it takes for creative collaboration to thrive with remote teams, trends that are accelerating in 2020 and the importance of keeping a focused commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion for the long haul.

TB      Do you have any advice you can share with founders and leadership teams trying to navigate the uncertainty and disruption of this year? How do you balance the need to stay focused on the vision/strategy of your business while being responsive enough (and strategically responsible enough) to pivot where you need to?

SB      It is natural to be tempted to make a change in times like these, either because you perceive a threat or an opportunity. And in many cases, change makes sense. But you have to make sure that the change you’re considering is consistent with what makes you and your company unique.

Making decisions based on fear often leads to trouble. During the early days of Behance, we undertook initiatives to imitate our competitors because we were afraid they were getting ahead of us. Later I realized we had wasted months going in the wrong direction for our company.

But going after a perceived opportunity can be just as bad if that pursuit takes you away from your company’s core mission and capabilities.

Before you make a significant change, focus on your North Star – the mission that drives you or your company. Make sure your changes advance that mission and are not simply an attempt to stave off fear or capitalize on what may turn out to be a fleeting opportunity.

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TB      When it comes to distributed teams and remote, creative collaboration, do you think 2020 will serve as a tipping point for accelerated change (structurally, socially and behaviorally) in how creative teams work? Are there specific “ingredients” that make for a more successful, productive and connected creative culture in this kind of environment?

SB      2020 will be an important inflection point, but one that simply accelerates a trend that was already in motion. Creativity and creative teams were already becoming far more collaborative and distributed before the pandemic hit. All of us working from home has forced the holdouts to jump on board with collaboration and created a natural stress test for the tools and behaviors we depend on to collaborate.

Some of the processes and tools that are essential for creative collaboration are becoming crystal-clear:

  • Shared assets, either through libraries or design systems, make sure that everyone has the latest versions of logos, colors, components, etc. at their fingertips at all times
    • Cloud-based projects let everyone see the current version of a project at any time
    • Co-editing allows a copy writer to edit the language in a mobile app while a designer tweaks the button design

Those are just a few of the pieces we see as essential and are building into Creative Cloud.

There are also behaviors that are essential for enabling remote collaboration and chief among them are openness and transparency. You can’t depend on the serendipity of getting ideas from a casual conversation in the kitchen or from someone looking over your shoulder as you work. You have to be deliberate about sharing what you’re working on, even before it’s “ready,” and be open to the suggestions and ideas that prompts in your colleagues.

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TB      As you look at the impact from what we’ve already seen this year, are there particular trends (related to digital products, emerging technologies or creative teams) that you see accelerating in 2020?

SB      One thing that’s clear to me is that remote, distributed teams can be highly effective. And that structure provides real advantages in opening up the world of talented people you can recruit and saving those people collectively thousands and thousands of hours stuck in traffic or waiting for a train.

I think we’ll come out of this period with a new commitment to “Intentional IRL” – making sure that when we do bring teams together in real life it’s for a specific reason – to get a new project off the ground, to dive deep on strategy or to build richer relationships, for instance.

TB      Two bigger trends are eliciting both optimism and concern in the creative community. On the technology side, AI and machine learning are creating powerful new tools that can augment and enhance creativity but might also automate tasks in ways that feel threatening to creators. On the human side, the ability to work and collaborate remotely makes a truly global marketplace for creative talent more possible. It’s a potential boon for perpetually talent-strapped organizations AND individual creators (from all over) fighting for access to opportunities. The downside, of course, could be pressure on wages for creators as they face global competition for their services.

What’s your view on this tension between optimism/opportunity and the concerns/threats that creators may feel in these times?

SB      I’m going to answer by talking about two core Adobe principles:

The first is that creativity is the most uniquely human endeavor. Artificial intelligence can do a lot of things, but it can’t replace human creativity. Creatives tell us, though, that they spend fully half their time on essentially non-creative drudgery – searching for stock images, removing objects from video footage or reformatting work for different platforms, for instance. So we see the role of AI as taking over some of that busy work so that people have more time to be truly creative.

We also believe that attribution and exposure create opportunities for creatives. We think creatives everywhere should get credit for their work and reap the opportunities that come from that recognition. But I don’t think opening up opportunity to more people will drive down fees. Unlike something like LCD screens or solar panels, creativity cannot be commoditized. Illustrations, logos, designs are all very idiosyncratic – no one else’s work is going to be quite like yours and it’s that personal style and unique approach that a client is paying for.

TB      Social justice, equality, inclusion and access to opportunity for the BIPOC community is a major issue in our communities and our businesses. (This is also true for LGBTQ+ and other excluded and marginalized communities). How are you tackling this issue within your own teams at Adobe? Where do you feel you can make the biggest impact? Any thoughts on how we can keep this issue front and center (and a committed priority) over the long term?

SB      It’s such an important issue and one that I’m glad is getting more attention right now. I’m proud of what we’re doing as a company to respond, including supporting the Equal Justice Initiative and investing more in broadening our talent pipeline (you can learn more about Adobe’s overall approach in this blog post).

Within the organization I lead, we have a large group of volunteers who are looking at how we can support those Adobe-wide initiatives. Internally, we’re developing ways to build a more diverse and inclusive team. And externally, we’re engaging with the creative community to support and amplify diverse perspectives.

How we keep the issue at the forefront is a key question. It takes deliberate, conscious effort to maintain focus. I also think there’s a virtuous cycle; when we examine these issues together, we find more ways we can make a difference. For example, our internal discussions about racial equity have already pointed out ways we can make our products more inclusive, improvements that we’ve already made in some cases.

TB      On a personal note, what are you reading (or listening to) these days that helps keep you challenged, inspired, learning and growing?

SB      Right now, I’m reading Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self Delusion by Jia Tolentino. It’s a book of essays about the world we’re living in today. It’s interesting and provocative, addressing themes like overstimulation, hyper-connection, and self-optimization. I also recommend Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger. The book is about the role of adversity in building community. As we work to build better teams, it really made me think.

TB      Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Scott. We’re grateful for your willingness to share your perspective and expertise with The SoDA Series and the creative community, at large. I know that 2020 has been a challenging and uncertain year for many – socially, economically and even physically. But we’re also seeing an incredible surge in community, creativity, resilience, social responsibility and even optimism… a renewed sense of belief that the tools (many of them digital), resources, ideas and opportunities available to us today can be used to design a healthier, more just and sustainable future. As my colleague, Justin Lewis (Founder at CEO @ Instrument), recently wrote:

We move forward out of a love for our people. We move forward out of a genuine passion for the work. And we move forward because we believe the work we will do matters more than the work we have done.

I truly believe that sentiment and appreciate you for being a catalyst, advisor and inspiration for the creative community.