unleashing collective genius

January 25, 2016 0 comments

What many of us consider ‘great leadership’ does not work when it comes to leading innovation.

456-3Although there is a great deal of research on leadership and on innovation, very little looks at the connection between the two. Along with three collaborators, I have spent over a decade studying exceptional leaders of innovation from diverse countries and industries. Some led teams, others led vast enterprises or global networks. All built organizations able to innovate not once, but time and again.

After observing these leaders up close and personal, we found that building organizations able to innovate routinely requires ‘unlearning’ conventional notions about leadership. Leading innovation is not about creating and selling a vision to people, and then inspiring them to execute that vision. Instead, leading innovation is about creating the context in which others are ‘willing’ and able to innovate.

What is innovation? We define it as something both new and useful. It can be a product, service, process, or way of organizing. It can be incremental; it can be breakthrough. While many believe the myth that innovation results from an individual flash of genius like Einstein having an ‘ah-ha’ moment, we know innovations rarely develop that way. Instead, innovations emerge from collaborative problem-solving processes—most often among people with diverse perspectives and expertise. Innovation is not about solo genius; it is about ‘collective genius’. Leaders of innovation find ways to unleash people’s individual genius and harness it all together time and again.

While all the leaders we studied are, in fact, visionaries, that is not how they define their leadership role. Instead, their mindset and priorities reflect their understanding of how innovation really happens. As one leader said, “My job is to set the stage; not perform on it.” They focus their attention on building innovative communities with three key critical capabilities: creative abrasion, creative agility, and creative resolution.

456-2Creative abrasion is the ability to generate a marketplace of ideas through discourse and debate. Innovative organizations know how to amplify, rather than minimize differences. This is not about brainstorming, suspending one’s judgment, and sharing ideas no matter how ‘off-the-wall’ or ‘half-baked’. Rather, creative abrasion entails having heated, yet healthy arguments to generate a portfolio of alternatives. People in innovative organizations actively listen, inquire, and advocate their point of view. They understand that you rarely get innovation without diversity of thought and conflict.

Creative agility is the ability to test and refine ideas through quick pursuit, reflection, and adjustment. Typically associated with design thinking, this discovery-driven learning is a mix of the scientific method and the artistic process in which you act, not plan, your way to the future. It is about running a series of experiments, not pilots. Ideas tested in pilots are supposed to work, and when they do not, something or someone is to blame. Experiments, by contrast, are about learning; either positive or negative outcomes can provide insights.

The third capability, creative resolution, is the ability to do integrative decision-making so that diverse ideas, even opposable ones, can be combined or reconfigured to create new solutions. No one individual or group is allowed to dominate—neither bosses, nor experts. Nor is it about compromising or taking the path of least resistance. Creative resolution requires a patient and inclusive decision-making approach that allows for ‘both-and’ versus ‘either-or’ solutions to be embraced.

Many of us do not live in organizations that are capable of creative abrasion, creative agility, and creative resolution. These capabilities are tremendously demanding, and not just for leaders. It is hard work and emotionally taxing for everyone involved.

So how do innovation leaders convince others to undertake what can be exhilarating, but challenging work? First, they understand that a strong sense of community is the foundation for innovative organizations. They know innovation is voluntary. No one can be compelled to make a contribution or to care about a problem. Unless people freely open their minds and hearts, they are unlikely to contribute their best ideas or endure the sense of vulnerability that innovating creates. People will face the personal challenges of innovation when they feel part of a community engaged in tackling something larger than anyone could accomplish alone. This sense of belonging and purpose is what animates a community. This is what enables people to withstand the inevitable conflict and tension that happens when people innovate together.

Beyond purpose, two other organizational elements foster employees’ willingness to innovate: ‘values and rules of engagement’. In order to form a community, members have to agree on what is important. By shaping the group’s priorities and choices, values influence individual and collective action. We found four values that innovative organizations embrace: bold ambition, collaboration, learning, and responsibility. We also found that specific rules of engagement are necessary for strong, innovative communities to flourish. Leaders attend carefully to how people in the group ‘interact’, the essence of collaboration. To ensure people feel safe to contribute ideas, there must be mutual trust, respect, and influence (words easier to say than practice). Leaders also pay attention to how people in the group ‘think’. Successful innovation depends on a group agreeing on basic ground rules for how to approach problem solving. These rules call for everyone to question everything, be data-driven, and take a holistic view. This is a very brief summary of deep and complicated work.

Innovation is a journey, a collaborative problem-solving process, where discoveries happen through a process of trial and error, false starts, and even mistakes. The process can be exhilarating. But as many of us know all too well, it can also be downright scary. Leading an organization whose appetite is much bigger than its current capabilities is not for the faint-hearted.

Leaders must understand that an unavoidable paradox lies at the heart of innovation: the need to unleash the talents of individuals and, meanwhile, harness those talents to address a problem or opportunity of importance to their organization. Our definition of innovation—something new and useful—reflects this paradox: it is relatively easy to think of many new ideas, but it is much more difficult to convert those ideas into something new that actually solves a problem for the collective good.

To recap, leaders of innovation do three essential things:

  • They create collaborative organizations. Research shows that innovation is almost always a group effort that requires the interplay of ideas that occur during the interactions of people with diverse experience and points of view. Collaboration is the backbone of the process.
  • They foster discovery-driven learning. Innovation is a problem-solving process, and leaders must instill mindsets throughout their organization of trying, learning, adjusting, and then trying again. This means not punishing people for mistakes made when trying new things.
  • They encourage integrative decision-making. This requires leaders to actively keep opposing options on the table as long as possible, explore every aspect of the option, and then combine the best version of each.

The leaders we studied understand that innovation ‘takes a village.’ One leader told us, “The art of leadership is creating a world to which people want to belong.” Another leader’s goal was “inverting the pyramid to unleash the power of the many and loosen the stranglehold of the few to increase the speed and quality of innovation every day.” “Talented people do not want to follow you to the future; they want to co-create that future with you,” another told us. The challenge is to nurture the bottom up, yet not degenerate into chaos.

Managing this paradox—unleashing passions and talents on the one side, while on the other side, harnessing them for the power of the collective—is what makes leading innovation so hard. In the midst of shifting priorities, effective leaders of innovation must constantly recalibrate their approach to suit the context. They encourage team members to support one another ‘while simultaneously’ challenging and provoking each other through robust debate. They also foster experimentation, continuous learning, and high performance. This is no small task.

You can see this radically recasts the role of the leader. Instead of developing a vision and pushing an innovation agenda personally, leaders of innovation create a place—an environment—where people are willing and able to do collaborative problem solving. While many situations call for visionary leadership, leading innovation is different:
it charges the leader to welcome contributions from everyone in
an organization.

So why do some teams flourish, while so many others—even star-studded teams—fail to innovate? We can sum up our belief in one word: leadership. To thrive in today’s competitive environment, leaders must reimagine their roles. Too many leaders today seek followers who execute and believe their key leadership task is to set direction. They minimize differences, while focusing on ‘where we are going.’ But leaders of communities that innovate see their key leadership task differently: They believe that their task is more that of a social architect, shaping the context. They amplify differences and demonstrate a relentless focus on ‘who we are,’ to ensure that diverse ‘slices of genius’ are unleashed and leveraged into works of ‘collective genius.’

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