- SPIN-OFF COMPANY
Linda Hill is a professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. For years, she closely observed 16 global leaders in innovative companies from information technology to law to design—and geographies. After analyzing her field notes, she made the following conclusion.
To understand leadership in innovation, we must unlearn the previous notion of leadership. Being a leader of innovation is not about being a visionary. It`s about creating a space where each individual is a slice of genius that can be unleashed and harnessed into “collective genius”.
Professor Hill explains that leading innovation is the ability to create a space where talented people are willing and able to do the hard work of innovative problem solving. Leaders in companies like Google or Pixar explain about their leadership as ‘building a place where people want to belong and share their talents and passion’.
Where do people want to belong? They want to be in a world in the frontier. Edwin Catmull, founder of Pixar, said as follows.
“I lead a volunteer organization. Talented people don’t want to follow me anywhere. They want to co-create with me the future. My job is to nurture ideas from the bottom up and make sure it doesn’t degenerate into Chaos. Who am I? I am a human-glue. I am the social connector. I am the aggregator of viewpoints. I am never a dictator of viewpoints. Advice about how you exercise this roll? Hire who argues with you.”
What are the capabilities of innovative companies to make innovation time and time again? Professor Hill explains as follows.
i) Collaborative problem solving: They amplify differences in opinion not minimize it. They do heated but constructive discussions to make multiple portfolios of ideas. They understand that innovation rarely happens unless you have both diversity and conflict.
ii) Discovery driven learning: Running a series of experiments (=learning from both failure and success) not pilot studying (=arguing about who is right or wrong)
iii) Inequative decision making: They don’t just go on to get along. They don’t let one individual dominate even if that one is the boss or the expert. They also work patiently to come up with a win-win solution not an either-win solution.
I think I agree a lot with professor Hill’s opinion. Although there may be a really talented person that makes one or more creative breakthrough, a long-lasting company or laboratory that produces non-stop innovations over time may require more then just one talented brain. When hiring employees or chief for a start-up company or a laboratory, it would be rational to assume that a solo genius like Einstein or Edison may not come across. Instead, a strategy to create an environment where every employee is notified as ‘the source of innovation’ and is encouraged to work spontaneously with their own ideas and freely share opinions seems to stand a better chance.
However, many leadership trainers we encounter describe leadership as being a futuristic pioneer with charisma and strong vision. The atmosphere this kind of leader creates tends to be somewhat judgmental on employees with opinions that deviate from the superior’s. Voices of the minors and outliers are intentionally kept mute in the name of seniority or efficiency– even though those voices may turn out to have better creativity and real value.
In a different perspective, many employees are so afraid of being wrong. They are obsessed about minimizing mistakes and loosely think of it as indication of successful working. Many people don’t take risks to randomly throw unorthodox ideas because it means one will have to embrace more objections and failure, which easily outnumbers approval and success. Maybe we are just afraid of any negative impression other people might pick up from the mistakes or failures we make. I think we are too used to the notion that other people are apt to amplify negative impressions while being reluctant in giving compliments and support.
I agree with professor Hill’s opinion that having diversity in ideas is the key to making innovations happen. Surely the diversity one person can produce is limited even if that one is the expert or the boss. And we all agree that heated discussion and brainstorming among groups have great value. I think there are two main questions an innovative leader should deal with. One, what should the leader do to constructively utilize the chaos created when people finally start to freely share their many opposing ideas regardless of their level or specialty? Second, how could the leader nurture teamwork while minimizing destructive conflicts, offensive attitude, and hurtful comments that may emerge among opposing workers?
I think an innovative leader should give up being a dictator of sprouting ideas and opinions and engage more in infusing objectiveness and honesty into the decision making process among workers. I think leaders should learn more from Google where leaders let many ideas flourish on the agenda table, let each worker pick one they think is best, make their own teams, and discover the best solution by themselves. Yes, this approach seems messy and inefficient for short-term goals. But when it comes to making innovation, I think professor Hill made it quite clear that this strategy is the fastest shortcut available.
My thought is that we should reconsider our previous approach of human management by which people are usually divided into either being a competent employee or a free rider. Although to a different extent, each individual has a slice of genius and innovative potential within them. How big a harmony one could build up from those pieces of creativity may be the next generation indicator we should keep in mind about great leadership.