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August 26, 2014

The Key to Building a Culture of Innovation

Innovation is clearly a hot topic with many leaders today. It’s often seen as the major driver of a company’s success. Yet how exactly do you foster innovation within your company?

According to a group of researchers who’ve studied this question for more than a decade, many leaders are doing all the wrong things when it comes to encouraging creative thinking.

“Every day, we hear more leaders call for increased innovation from their organizations. They recognize what’s now obvious. In a world of rapid change, the ability to innovate over and over is probably the only enduring competitive advantage an organization can have,” writes Linda Hill, professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School, in a recent magazine piece about her research for the Harvard Business Review.

Hill co-authored the recently released book, Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation, with fellow researchers Greg Brandeau, former CTO of Pixar and Disney; Emily Truelove, a doctoral candidate at MIT; and former executive Kent Lineback, a best-selling author and coach. The writers spent hundreds of hours studying industries as wide ranging as filmmaking, e-commerce, auto manufacturing, professional services, high tech and luxury goods.

What was the writers’ biggest surprise from years of research and discussions with leaders from around the world? None of the innovative leaders operated in the way that is often described as the key to leadership success. They didn’t rely on a clear and compelling vision and then work to inspire others to pursue that vision. Instead, they focused completely on collaborative team building.

“They (the innovative leaders) didn’t see themselves as setting a direction and then leading the charge,” the researchers wrote in the HBR article. “… They knew they could not be ‘chief innovator’ or the driver of innovation who proactively ‘made it happen.’ They had learned that casting themselves as a ‘Follow me!’ leader was far less likely to produce the collective genius.

“Instead, they consistently saw their role as that of creating a context or setting – it could range from a team to an entire firm – where people are willing and able to do the hard work innovative problem-solving requires. As one of them told us, ‘My job is to set the stage, not to perform on it.’”

This insight is in line with what I see with many successful, innovative leaders today. Leaders who want to drive lasting change inside their organizations tend to be those who truly appreciate the collective insight of their employees. They seek out input and encourage creative thinking. They know the best decisions are those that reflect the diverse opinions of their workforce.

As I’ve seen time and again with top executives, collaboration is not just a nice-to-have. It’s essential to a company’s long-term success. As Hill and her colleagues described, some of the most creative leaders they followed – at companies like Google and Volkswagen, to name just a few – realized the importance of getting out of the way and letting their workers come up with their own creative solutions to pressing problems.

What’s your next plan to foster honest dialogue – and creative thinking - at your company?

-David Grossman


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