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Linda A. Hill on the Creative Power of the Many

The Harvard Business School professor explains how leaders can harness collective genius to achieve innovation success.

Imagine you asked two teams to tackle the same challenge, and the groups came back to you with entirely different proposals. Would you instinctively green-light the one that seemed more promising? Or would you allow both teams to play out their approaches for some time (maybe even years) before deciding how to proceed?

Successful leaders of innovation would make the second choice, according to Linda A. Hill, the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration and faculty chair of the Leadership Initiative at Harvard Business School. She says that what matters most for achieving breakthroughs is giving people the chance to debate, experiment, fail, and try again. It’s up to the person in charge to encourage these behaviors, which in turn unleashes people’s creativity.

After examining more than a dozen of the world’s most inspiring executives for their new book Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation (Harvard Business Review Press, 2014), Hill and her coauthors, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove, and Kent Lineback, found that contrary to conventional thinking, visionaries aren’t necessary for innovation. In fact, at times, they may even impede problem solving by not including others. Instead, highly effective leaders act as “social architects,” building a collaborative space in which all team members are encouraged to take a seat at the table and participate. Once the leader puts this kind of support in place, Hill explained in a recent conversation with strategy+business, a marketplace of ideas—and, ultimately, the winning solution—can emerge.

S+B: In your book, you argue that innovation demands a specific style of leadership.
It starts with patience, and the conviction that everybody has a slice of genius. In too many places, people aren’t given the opportunity to demonstrate their own brilliance. In a persistently innovative company, however, people at all levels are encouraged to show their full selves at work, to share their strengths with colleagues from other areas, to take risks, to raise questions, even to disagree.

When you can unleash the power of the many like that, in a truly collaborative and productive spirit, it sparks what we call collective genius. The greatest leaders of innovation know how to generate this phenomenon because they focus on setting the stage, not necessarily performing on it. They make space for others to pursue their talents and passions. And in doing that, they create a world to which people want to belong. After all, when a company is truly at the cutting edge, its leaders may not know exactly where they’re going. They may not even know how to get there. What they do know is how to get the most from their team.

“The greatest leaders of innovation focus on setting the stage, not necessarily performing on it.”

S+B: What’s their secret?
Our research suggests that successful innovation leaders work in similar ways and value similar capabilities. The first capability, which we call creative abrasion, means being able to spark heated but constructive debates that amplify differences as opposed to minimizing them. You rarely get innovation without diversity and conflict. Conflict is what generates a marketplace of competitive ideas. In typical brainstorming sessions, people tend to shy away from conflict, accept half-baked notions, and move on. Instead, you want people to keep pushing and challenging one another until they’ve developed a robust pipeline of viable options that are not only creative but also useful—that address a real problem or opportunity.

Generating a portfolio of ideas is fruitless without the second capability, creative agility, which is about testing and refining ideas with feedback, reflection, and adjustment. Similar to what we see with design thinking, the idea is to act and learn as quickly as you can, and then make necessary adjustments. When you do an experiment, it’s OK to get a negative outcome, as long as you learn from it.

The third capability, creative resolution, is about making decisions in a way that combines ideas—enabling the team to see both/and (as opposed to only either/or) solutions. Innovative organizations don’t go along to get along. They don’t compromise because it’s the easiest path, and they don’t let one group dominate. They develop a patient, inclusive, and transparent approach to decision making that allows them to bring together different ideas in new configurations. That’s what generates winning solutions.

S+B: Can you give us a few real-world examples?
Most people don’t think of the law as a profession ripe for innovation. But Amy Schulman, the former general counsel and executive vice president of Pfizer, didn’t share that perception. Soon after she joined Pfizer in 2009, she created the Pfizer Legal Alliance (PLA), an ecosystem comprising 19 external law firms that would perform as a team. Her top priority was to bring together a wide variety of lawyers—and create an environment where they’d be willing not just to cooperate but to genuinely collaborate, which required unprecedented trust. Perhaps most striking, she abandoned the traditional “billable hour” and used a structure of flat fees for the PLA to lessen competition. But besides putting in place the proper governance structure and IT collaborative tools, Schulman worked as a quiet influencer, enacting other practices and policies that required her colleagues to try out new patterns of communication and interaction—to act as if they trusted each other (often before they actually did). Over the longer term, this allowed deeper relationships to develop and allowed the lawyers to deliver more proactive, efficient, and innovative solutions.

Similarly, when Vineet Nayar became president of HCL Technologies in India in 2005 and saw a need for culture change, he began by reaching out to an unexpected group—not experienced managers, but young frontline employees. He wanted to invert the organizational pyramid and transfer the ownership of HCL’s success to those who were closest to the customer. So early in the process, he asked these young staffers to help launch an internal campaign called “Employees First, Customers Second.” He leveraged the company’s intranet to do it, creating new platforms that now enable all of HCL’s 100,000-plus employees to share and gain support for their ideas. The model helped recast the role of the manager. And it sparked thousands of people to make everyday incremental achievements, while creating the right environment for periodic breakthrough innovations to emerge. No longer was a manager’s job to set direction and make sure staff did not deviate from it. Rather, it was to empower employees to take the lead in creating new value propositions for clients. The change paid off: During the time that Nayar led HCL, from 2005 to 2013, its operations expanded to 32 countries and its revenues increased sixfold.

Empowering employees was also important to Bill Coughran [then senior vice president of engineering at Google], who once ran two parallel experiments to solve a critical data-storage problem: One team pursued a more evolutionary approach, while another sought to build a whole new system. Coughran let the experiments go on for two years, with the teams working at breakneck speed. All the while, Coughran pressed them to do rapid prototyping and rigorously test their solutions. In the process, the teams discovered for themselves the limitations and the strengths of their particular approaches. In the end, the evolutionary approach proved to be the better medium-term solution, but the knowledge gained by the second team wasn’t lost. Some of the teams’ members were folded into a new group that was forming to develop the next-generation data storage system. The truth is, many innovation efforts fail. But by running rapid experiments and generating and testing a wealth of ideas, you increase the probability that at least one of them is going to succeed—and you create a place where people are both willing and able to do the hard work of innovation.

S+B: How can leaders create that kind of environment?
To develop people’s willingness to innovate, you need to build a foundation. And the foundation of any community starts with having a sense of purpose: Who are we? Why are we together? What makes it worthwhile for us to take a risk? At work, building a foundation means determining a team’s shared values and establishing rules of engagement that are conducive to innovation.

After that, sustaining a community means holding people accountable for how they treat one another. If people can assume others are well intentioned, have something to offer, and deserve to be heard, imagine how freeing that is. If people are allowed to question everything, expected to think holistically, and expected to provide evidence for their point of view, imagine how much more productive debates can be.

Research has shown that people do all kinds of innovative things and exercise leadership in incredible ways outside of work. Their coworkers inside the organization just have no idea. In fact, in many companies, people have actually learned not to bring their whole selves to the office or not to share their ideas—which is unfortunate because that kind of environment prohibits their ability to work together constructively. In many organizations, a lot more potential is there, just waiting to be unleashed. My colleague at Harvard University, Ellen Langer, has written and spoken extensively about this concept.

“In many organizations, a lot more potential is there, just waiting to be unleashed.”

S+B: How does collective genius spread?
What I’m suggesting may feel relatively unnatural to some executives. But people at the top need to behave in ways that suggest what they expect from the rest of the organization. Innovation really comes from the bottom up. I think the trick is to get leaders to think differently about what their role is. When you let more people play out their passions, you get unbelievable outcomes.

Author profile:

  • Jen Swetzoff is deputy managing editor of strategy+business.
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