Innovation is elusive and full of contradictions. It’s about breaking from convention and going in a new unprecedented direction, but also requires incredible teamwork.
That’s why heading up innovative companies requires a set of skills unlike those required of the leaders of traditional companies, argues Linda Hill, professor of business administration at Harvard University.
Hill teamed up with Greg Brandeau, former CTO at Pixar and Disney, MIT researcher Emily Truelove, and executive coach Kent Lineback to explore what qualities are most important to innovative leaders. In the spirit of collective effort, the four came together and wrote Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation, examining those unique qualities that distinguish great innovative leaders from great leaders as we’ve long thought of them.
Purpose makes people willing to take the risks and do the hard work inherent in innovation.
“Direction-setting leadership can work well when the solution to a problem is known and straightforward,” they write in Harvard Business Review. “But if the problem calls for a truly original response, no one can decide in advance what that response should be.”
If innovative leadership is not about creating a shared vision, then what is it about? Here are some key concepts explored by Hill and her coauthors.
Leading a team of innovative people is not about the genius of one person, but rather about overseeing the process of what Hill and her coauthors call collective genius. “Leaders can draw out the slices of genius in each individual and assemble them into innovations that represent collective genius,” they write.
Naturally, this requires some sense of cohesion, which is why establishing a clear purpose is important. “Purpose is not what a group does but who is in it or why it exists. It’s about a collective identity,” Hill and her coauthors write. “Purpose makes people willing to take the risks and do the hard work inherent in innovation.”
But taking risks inevitably leads to disagreement. That’s why managing disagreement is another important responsibility of innovative leaders. This kind of passionate disagreement, as Collective Genius calls it, is tricky to oversee, and requires creating a sense of shared values. It’s these values that can bring everyone on a team together.
While they differ from company to company, there seems to be a common set of values essential to innovative leaders, according to Collective Genius: “Bold ambition, responsibility to the community, collaboration, and learning.”
Delegating jobs and moving toward a fixed large goal is another sign of a traditional effective leader. But that doesn’t work when it’s important for a company to constantly come up with new ideas. While a great leader sets clear goals and steers the organization toward those goals, an innovative leader instead encourages trial and error as a way to discover new ideas and approaches.
Great leaders of innovation . . . see their role not as take-charge direction setters, but as creators of a context in which others make innovation happen.
For trial and error to work, it’s important to establish what the Collective Genius writers call rules of engagement, which help keep members of a team on-task and working well together. “The tensions inherent in collaboration may not only slow down progress but even threaten to tear a creative community apart,” they write. “Rules of engagement can help control those destructive forces—for example, by keeping conflict focused on ideas rather than personalities.”
When overseeing a team encouraged to come up with innovative ideas, there comes a point when decisions about which direction to take must be made. Innovative leaders don’t choose between ideas, but often have to figure out a way to combine ideas to get to a better result.
“All too often, leaders and their groups solve problems through domination or compromise,” Hill and her colleagues write. “Innovation requires integrating ideas—combining option A and option B, even if they once seemed mutually exclusive—to create a new and better option.”
Results drive companies, and it can be challenging to stay patient when it takes time to arrive at results. But new ideas take time to develop. The best innovative leaders allow for this time, while also creating a sense of urgency that keeps everyone moving swiftly, according to Hill and her team.
“Great leaders of innovation . . . see their role not as take-charge direction setters,” they write, “but as creators of a context in which others make innovation happen.”