By Jeri Denniston, Chief Marketing Strategist, Denner Group International
Takeaways: Innovation is about unleashing the creativity at the bottom to encourage truly innovative ideas and solutions. Rethink leadership roles as those of connectors, social architects and aggregators of ideas. Act your way to the future rather than plan.
Linda Hill, Management Professor at Harvard Business School, shared a TED Talk based on her book, Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation. Over nearly 10 years she and three colleagues observed innovative leaders up close in several countries to determine what it is that made their companies innovative. The bottom line, she said, is that we need to unlearn what we’ve been taught about leadership.
Invert the organizational pyramid
Innovative leadership is not about creating a vision and getting your staff to implement it. It is about managing collective creativity, amplifying conflict and discourse without unleashing chaos. You have to turn the organizational structure on its head and unleash the creative genius from the bottom up.
Innovation, said Hill, is about creating a space for three capabilities:
Creative abrasion is about having heated, constructive arguments to create a portfolio of ideas. People learn how to actively listen and also how to strongly advocate for their position. Innovation rarely occurs unless you have both diversity and conflict.
Creative agility is about continuously testing and refining your portfolio of ideas. Instead of creating a strategic plan and implementing it, you “act your way to the future” through discovery-driven learning. This includes design thinking where the focus is on running a series of experiments, not a series of pilots. Test and refine. Test and refine.
Creative resolution is decision-making that combines opposable ideas to reconfigure in new combinations that produce useful solutions. It is patient, inclusive decision-making that allows for “both/and” solutions to arise, not just “either/or”.
Innovative organizations like Google and Pixar allow talented people to play out their passions by having multiple experiments running in tandem. Teams form and re-form as needed and everyone has access to the leaders at the top.
“Leadership is the secret sauce”, she says. Leading innovation is about creating the space where people are willing and able to do the hard work of innovative problem-solving. It’s about building a sense of community – a world to which people want to belong – and building those three capabilities described above.
What can we do to make sure all the small voices, the disrupters in the organization, are heard?
As Google has done under Bill Gate, you nurture the bottom up. Be the social architect that encourages discourse, differing viewpoints and multiple ideas, no matter how far-fetched. Bestow credit in as broadly as possible. Pixar, for example, includes the list of babies born during a film’s production in the credits at the end of each film.
Bill Gates encourages people to co-create with him while preventing them from degenerating into chaos. His role, according to Hill, is to be the human glue, a connector, an aggregator of viewpoints.
As innovative leaders we need to redefine our leadership role – not by title, but by function: role model, coach, nurturer. We need to hire people who argue with us, not those who agree with our viewpoints.
Instead of providing all the answers or solutions, leaders must “see the young sparks at the bottom as the source of innovation. Transfer the growth to the bottom. Unleash the power of the many by releasing the stronghold of the few,” says Hill.
If only the multi-state bank and the newspaper I worked for earlier in my career had done this. I recall my first month of training at the bank. I was sent out to a branch office to study how it operated and produce a report. One of my suggestions was to increase the salary of the tellers since they were the first line of contact with the customers and they frequently were responsible for million dollar cash drawers. Yet they received the lowest salaries and had no voice in the way the branch should work with customers.
At the newspaper, I frequently offered ideas which were squashed because that “wasn’t the way we do things around here”, or they jeopardized the power of the few. Never mind that the old ways weren’t working any more. I tried to implement innovative leadership techniques among my own small staff, but that was hard to do when no other departments, let alone other managers in my department, were doing anything similar.
What a breath of fresh air to hear Linda Hill talk about how really innovative companies turn the pyramid on its head! Give your staff at the bottom the opportunity to rethink their jobs, to offer solutions to everyday problems they face, and as Hill says, “create the space where everyone’s slices of genius can be unleashed and turned into collective genius”.
Watch the TED Talk. Buy her book. Change your thinking about leadership.