Leveraging Your Collective Genius

Interview with Linda Hill

Harvard Business School Professor and World Business Forum speaker Linda Hill gives The European Business Review her take on leading innovation.

Linda Hill is no stranger to working with “stars”, and in the world of leadership and management she is something of a star herself. We begin by talking about what key points she wants people – business leaders, that means you – to take away from her talk at WOBI’s World Business Forum. And what she wants is no small thing: “Really the main idea I want people to take away is that if we want to build organisations that can innovate more than once, time and again, we have to unlearn what we often think of as great leadership. Leading innovation is not about being a visionary who creates the vision and inspires people to follow it.”

This, you’re probably thinking, goes against pretty much every traditional idea of what a leader should be. And you’re right: as one of the leaders Hill studied said to her, “I stopped reading books on leadership because they say I’m supposed to have a vision. But if I’m trying to do something different, by definition I don’t have a vision!”

When it comes to driving innovation, traditional models of leadership fall woefully short. Yet Hill’s anti-visionary model is something many leaders, as she well knows from the “stars” she studies, find hard to stomach. “I usually study people who are really, really good at what they do, trying to learn to lead. And there’s a lot of research saying that people who are stars have more trouble trying to lead – because they can do a lot of it themselves, they never actually build an organisation that has that culture and capabilities, it’s still too individually driven.”

“We have to unlearn what we often think of as great leadership. Leading innovation is not about being a visionary who creates the vision and inspires people to follow it.”

So what, then, is great leadership all about? For Hill, the answer is simple: it’s about culture. And by this she means “creating an organisation where people are willing and able to do creative problem solving”.

“Most people have this idea in our head that innovation is about a solo genius having an “aha” moment, but innovation is really about collective genius.” In this sense, collective genius is harnessed through the process of “collaborative problem-solving”, which you get through a clash of ideas, most effectively achieved by bringing together people with diverse talents and perspectives. And usually there’s a fair amount of trial and error involved.

The role of a leader, then, is to create this culture and the capabilities needed to innovate. The obvious question: what are these capabilities? Hill identifies three. The first, “creative abrasion” – that is, how you create a market place of ideas. And how you do this “is through discourse and debate”. The second capability, “creative agility”: the process of how you test and refine that portfolio of ideas. This you do “through experimentation, or discovery-driven learning” – an example of this is what you see in design thinking, where you run a series of experiments rather than pilots. Why? “Because with experiments, when you get a negative result you’ve learned something, whereas with a pilot something went wrong or someone was bad.” Through pilots, and this creative process of “trial and error, missteps and false steps… you act your way, rather than plan your way.” And finally, the last capability is “creative resolution”. Because, despite what many imagine innovation to be, often “innovations aren’t completely new, they’re combinations of old ideas or reconfigurations of other ideas – often opposable ones. So you have to do decision making in a way that you can actually both make ideas and bring them together, rather than either/or.”

All this comes down to the way we “do” decision making. Hill calls this process “integrative decision making”, and what you see in organisations that practice it “is that they will not compromise just because it’s easier, they won’t allow one group to dominate. They have a much more patient and inclusive type of decision making, so you get both creation and the possibility of combining ideas.”

Again, this points us back to organisational culture. A leader’s job is to build this dynamic culture – one that is open to debate, failure, new ideas and, ultimately, innovation. But surely, I ask, changing an entire organisational culture must be a daunting task for any individual leader; so how do you make it seem doable? If you’re expecting a quick fix then you may well be disappointed, because apparently “there’s no real magic to it”. Again, it all comes down to the way you see yourself as a leader. And, more importantly, “whether you can let go”. Because what Hill wants is for leaders to step out of the limelight and accept that their role must be that of a “stage-setter”. Your role is no longer to be the visionary (even though you may well be one), instead “you’re trying to enable others.”

What great leadership really comes down to, Hill concludes, is this “understanding that other people might have as much creative energy and passion as you do.”

Hill cites as an example the woman charged with creating Nickelodeon’s Latin American business. As a great leader should, she focused on culture. “One of the things she did,” Hill recounts, “was force people, essentially against their will at first, to have to do more teamwork. They had lots of meetings, which ended up being productive, where they actually talked together about everything.” But it’s not just about talking: “she encouraged people not to simply advocate, but to always ask questions.” And she didn’t just make her employees ask questions, she asked them herself. “So for her, it was about making everyone collaborate more than they naturally would, and putting it into their heads that this is interrelated work that we can only get done together if we work as a deeply connected team.”

Another sign of a great leader, she allowed room for failure. Not because she was a lax boss – far from it in fact: as her team recounted, “it was one of the most demanding jobs they’d ever had”. But when someone made “an inevitable misstep”, she “didn’t come down and beat on them, as it were; she held them accountable but talked it through with them.” And this – the acceptance that failure is an inevitable step in the process of innovation – allowed her employees to take risks and, ultimately, successfully harness their collective genius.

What great leadership really comes down to, Hill concludes, is this “understanding that other people might have as much creative energy and passion as you do.” The first step on the path to being a great leader, then, is to “look at yourself and how you’re managing, and whether you’re giving people the right signals about how you really expect them to behave if you want them to take risks and discover.” And doing this means “letting go of yourself being the person who’s the centre, if you will.”

So, leaders, it’s time to step aside and let the talent you manage take their turn on the stage.

Linda Hill is the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, and author of several books on leadership. She most recently co-authored Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation (Harvard Business Review Press, 2014).



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