Everybody has a slice of genius

Harvard Business School professor Linda Hill, author of Collective Genius, believes leaders should create a context in which people are willing and able to innovate

Photo: S. Kumar/Mint
Photo: S. Kumar/Mint

Remember Sully, the lovable blue and purple monster in the animation movies Monsters, Inc. and Monsters University? His antics have made audiences across the world laugh. But did you know how much effort went into making Sully’s blue fur look realistic? The Sully you got to see was not the result of one man’s efforts—but the “collective genius” of several animators at Pixar, as Linda Hill would probably put it.

In a recent book titled Collective Genius (co-authored with Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove and Kent Lineback), Hill demolishes the myth of the “solo genius” who has an “aha moment” leading to breakthrough innovation. Instead, she argues, innovation is a collaborative effort, featuring many individuals’ contributions and several missteps.

In this interview, she explains the role leaders should play in the innovation process. Edited excerpts:

You say that innovation is not about solo genius, but it’s about collective genius. This flies in the face of a lot of management thinking.

I began to realize that the research on innovation was very separate from the research on leadership. So, even though we knew about how to innovate, we didn’t talk about what you as a leader need to do so that your organization can do these things.

When I began to explore that connection, and talk to leaders who led organizations that were very innovative, one of them said, ‘I don’t read books on leadership because when I read them, I begin to feel bad, because the book says on page 1, if you’re a really good leader, you better have a vision of where you’re going. But if you’re trying to do something that’s breakthrough, you don’t have a vision, you don’t necessarily even know how you’re going to get there. So I decided that these books weren’t relevant to my experience.’ That was very unsettling.

All the people that I studied were, in fact, visionaries. They just don’t define their leadership role as being visionary. They’re really in the place where visionary leadership is very much about leading change, as John Kotter and Warren Bennis have thought of.

Is the idea of the visionary leader overrated?

It’s not overrated when it comes to change. Since we need to innovate, which is a different process, we need to do things that are breakthrough. Many, many companies need to be transformed and need change agents. There are geniuses out there like (the late) Steve Jobs, who can create businesses. But I study Pixar, Steve Jobs’s other company (apart from Apple), and they are deep believers in collective genius, so I think also the image of what he believes about leadership is not accurate. Because, you look at this other company that he created and that operated (differently).

The evidence is that millennials are different. They don’t want to follow you to the future; they want to co-create the future with you. The idea of collective genius is just to capture the imagination of a lot of young people, because they want to be able to co-create.

One of the most telling lines in some of the talks you’ve given, is that leaders set the stage, but they don’t perform on it...

So, this is the challenge. All of these leaders can perform. And you would want them to perform, because they are so good and they are visionaries in some ways. But they understand that if they perform all the time, first, they’re going to take up all the space from other people who have their own talent that they can bring to the table.

Your role as a leader is to create the context in which people will be willing and able to do innovative problem solving.

There are three things that we’ve known for a long time about innovation. Most innovation is the result of collaborative work, of diverse individuals with different points of view and different expertise.

The second thing is that most innovation is the result of discoveries from learning. You don’t plan your way to an innovation, you act your way. It’s not surprising that so many individuals try to learn how to do design thinking, because that’s about discovery-driven learning: you work with your customer, prototype, learn rapidly, fail fast, etc. Almost all innovations have lots of missteps, false starts, mistakes.

And then the final thing we know is that most innovations are not completely new: using the combination of old ideas, (or) a reconfiguration of some old ideas, to solve a new problem or address a new opportunity. So you have to have a way of decision-making that you actually end up being able to combine ideas, as opposed to having one side win and one side lose. Those are Roger Martin’s ideas about opposable thinking. All these pieces of the puzzle have been written about. Because we were on the ground watching people do stuff, we were able to combine it in a more integrated way. So we’ve always known that’s true about innovation, yet there’s this myth of this solo genius having these ‘aha’ moments: there’s no research that supports that.

Can you give me an example of a company that does this really well?

My favourite example is Pixar because founder Ed Catmull is one of the finest leaders I’ve ever met. He also was very involved in the turnaround of Disney Animation. (At) Pixar, they say it’s like everybody has a slice of genius, and the art of leadership is to create a world to which people want to belong. So they understand the importance, the power of a culture you build, and the capabilities that will allow those people to really share, use, refine and learn their own slice of genius, so they can contribute to an organization whose purpose they really care about.

In our work on winning talent and emerging markets, we found that talented, passionate people want a couple of things: they want the opportunity to learn with people that they respect and enjoy, so they can contribute, they can actually have an impact on an organization whose purpose they care about. On any dimension, you’d have to say that Pixar is one of the most successful studios ever, financially, in terms of artistic achievement, technical achievement...

Good leaders need to create communities with a sense of shared purpose. How can everyone, with differing personalities and ways of thinking, be aligned around the shared purpose?

That is one of the hardest pieces of the puzzle. As you get larger and more diverse, it is harder to build that collective sense of identity. That is one of the deep challenges that large global companies have.

I was very impressed when one of the foremost CEOs of IBM understood, as he put it, “I can’t provide a vision for this company that will really align us because we’re too big and too diverse, so any vision I come up with will not really guide you. I’d rather make sure we can clarify our values, that we all agree on what we value, fundamentally who we are.” A number of years ago, he asked one of the most prestigious groups at IBM to create a way for 200,000-300,000 people to have a real-time live conversation with each other. They had what they called a values jam. The CEO said, “These are the values of IBM, this is why this company was founded. Are they still relevant today? If so, describe examples, or what doesn’t work.” After they finished the values jam, they all agreed, and the CEO weighed in as well. In the end he said, “Okay, we’ve had this conversation, we’ve heard all of this, and now here are the values of IBM. If you don’t agree with these values, leave, you don’t belong here, you’re not going to be happy, we’re not going to be able to trust and respect you.”

Different kinds of people make up an organization. How should leaders really step in and use these different kinds of people?

In most organizations where you see a lot of innovations or teams, they do hire carefully. A leader describes that she hired more for attitude and values, than competencies. Frankly, the world is changing so much you don’t really know what skills and competencies you’re going to need in the long haul. So one of (the things) she was looking for was the people (who) wanted to learn, expand, (be) curious...

So you as a leader need to at first be open to recognizing what the talents and passions of people are and let them let you know what those are. That means providing enough psychological safety that people aren’t worried about job security, that people aren’t going to not speak the truth to you about what they like to do and how they like to do it. When you build these kinds of cultures, people will tell you what they don’t know. Once you have people you can trust, who are open to telling you what they don’t know, and on the other hand, are looking for opportunities to be stretched..., then your job as a leader...is stage-setting—creating the right culture and those capabilities.

A part of stage-setting is helping those people identify what they are good at and what they should do. In those roles, sometimes you as a leader, are going to be very top-down.

Vineet Nayar (former CEO of HCL Technologies) says, “Sometimes I use just plain brute force to get done what needs to get done.” So, creating collective genius is not about abdicating responsibility or being passive: they’re very actively in the game, shaping the context, working with the people: they’re all pretty hands on. But they understand that balance between when you need to intervene, and when you need to step out. In the book, we talk about these paradoxes that are at the heart of innovation, and what we’re always doing on a daily basis is calibrating, or recalibrating: has it been going on long enough, is it too chaotic, do we need a little bit more urgency, do I need to step in to make sure that we actually harness our slices of genius and make them into something that’s collective?

There’s…a paradox: one side (is about) how you unleash people’s talents, thoughts and passions, and the other side is about how you harness them.

Neelima Mahajan is a senior journalist based out of Beijing.

An unabridged version of this interview can be read on www.foundingfuel.com, printed in an exclusive partnership with CKGSB Knowledge.

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