Creativity and innovation. These are the two things all global companies strive for and they are achieved with great leadership. However, what many of us think of as great leadership does not work when it comes to leading innovation.
An innovation is anything that is both new and useful, but it is not always about creating a vision, and inspiring others to execute it. When many of us think about innovation, we think of those “Eureka” moments, as we’ve discussed here. But innovation is not about solo genius, it’s about collective genius.
At the heart of innovation is a paradox. You must unleash the talents and passions of many and turn them into work that is useful. Innovation is a journey. It’s a type of collaborative problem solving, usually among people who have different skill sets and very different opinions.
Linda Hill, a management professor who studied leadership for more than a decade, found that at the centre of innovation for companies such as Pixar or Google, there are 3 key elements: creative abrasion, creative agility and creative resolution.
Creative abrasion is about being able to create a marketplace of ideas through debate and discourse. In innovative organisations, differences are amplified, not minimised. Creative abrasion is not about brainstorming, where people suspend their judgment. Instead, these companies know how to have very heated but constructive arguments, to create a portfolio of alternatives.
Individuals in these organisations learn how to listen and how to advocate their opinion. They understand that innovation rarely happens unless you have both diversity and conflict. Creative agility is the ability to test and refine that portfolio of ideas, through quick pursuit, reflection, and adjustment. It’s about discovery-driven learning where you act, as opposed to planning out your future.
When you look at innovative organisations, the people never go along just to agree with one another. They don’t compromise. They don’t let a single individual or a group take dominance. Instead, they have developed a rather patient and more inclusive decision making process, that allows for a variety of solutions to arise, instead of just one.
A good example of this is an infrastructure group in Google. It’s the group that has to keep the website running 24/7. When they were about to introduce YouTube and Gmail, they knew their current storage system wouldn’t cut it. Instead of creating a single team to tackle this, they allowed several teams to tackle their own alternatives. First there were many suggested solutions, but then it trickled down to 2 – one that proposed to remake the system from scratch and the other – to build on the existing system. Each team could build their own prototype and present it.
As the evidence came in, they decided to build on the existing system. This is what Hill means by creative resolution. At first many had said they didn’t have time to run two experiments simultaneously, but afterwards – they admitted they would have spent most of their time trying to convince the others that their approach was the right one.
Instead of the leader making all the decisions, they inverted the pyramid and looked at the people closest to the end-product for innovation. Top leaders only set the stage. They don’t perform on it. If we want to invent a better future, we must reimagine our task. Our task as a leader is to create a space where everyone is heard and everyone can innovate, because that is the only way to achieve true collective genius.
If you enjoyed this Leadership Guidebook entry, check out the others!
Leadership Guidebook: How to Inspire Action
Leadership Guidebook: The Importance of Safety
Leadership Guidebook: Encouraging Women to Lead