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Q&A | Linda A. Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove & Kent Lineback

Aha moments are overhyped—innovation is often a messy process of articulating, rejecting, marrying and testing multiple ideas with contributions from many people. In Collective Genius: The Art And Practice Of Leading Innovation, authors Linda A. Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove and Kent Lineback give examples from companies like Pixar Animation Studios, HCL Technologies and Volkswagen to show how several smart people and genius ideas come together for creative problem-solving and innovation within the organization.

Hill is a professor at US’ Harvard Business School. Brandeau is head of technology at Pixar. Truelove is a PhD candidate at MIT Sloan School of Management and Lineback is the co-author of Being The Boss: The 3 Imperatives For Becoming A Great Leader.

In an email interview, the US-based authors explain how leaders can create a workplace conducive for creative abrasion, creative agility and creative resolution. Edited excerpts:

What is the “fundamental paradox" of innovation?

Collective Genius—The Art And Practice Of Leading Innovation: By Linda A Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove and Kent Lineback, Harvard Business Review Press, 298 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>1250
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Collective Genius—The Art And Practice Of Leading Innovation: By Linda A Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove and Kent Lineback, Harvard Business Review Press, 298 pages, 1250

For example, a Pixar movie takes roughly four-five years and 250 people to make. It requires the talents of a remarkably diverse set of individuals, from writers to animators to engineers. In order to be willing to share their talents, these individuals need to feel like their individual identity is valued and their ideas supported. And yet, to get a full-length CG (computer graphic-generated) movie made, these diverse individuals must focus on what they are trying to achieve collectively.

Your thoughts on a neat Eureka moment?

Many believe that innovation is the result of a solo genius having an “aha" moment, but this is a myth. Decades of research demonstrates that innovation is a process—it unfolds over time, and it is most always a collaborative effort. When you watch a Pixar movie, it’s easy to think that the creation process is the product of a brilliant director, but actually it’s the hard work of hundreds of people over several years.

What is the role of a leader in this?

Instead of trying to come up with a vision and make innovation happen themselves, leaders of innovation create a place—an environment—where people are willing and able to do the hard work that innovative problem-solving requires.

First, it means that as a leader you don’t have to have all the answers. Your job is to enable others to do their best work. As one of our leaders said, your job is to “set the stage, not perform on it". Second, it means that if you want to build willingness to innovate in your organization, you should focus on building a sense of community. In short, be sure your people share a sense of purpose and values and that there are group norms for how to interact and think about problems. Third, focus on building organizational capabilities—like creative abrasion, creative agility and creative resolution.

Could you explain these concepts?

We found that innovative organizations have mastered these three key capabilities.

Creative abrasion refers to the ability to generate a portfolio of ideas through discourse and debate. Innovative organizations know how to amplify, rather than minimize, differences. We don’t simply mean brainstorming, which asks people to suspend judgement and share their ideas no matter how “off-the-wall" or “half-baked". Creative abrasion is about having heated, yet healthy, arguments to generate a portfolio of alternatives. People in innovative organizations have learnt how to inquire, actively listen and advocate for their point of 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. This is about knowing how to do the kind of discovery-driven learning associated with design thinking—that interesting mix of the scientific method and the artistic process—in which you act, as opposed to plan, your way to the future. It is about running a series of lightweight experiments to find out what works and what doesn’t. These experiments are different than pilots. Pilots are the culmination of a series of experiments; they are expected to work. Experiments are about learning; a negative outcome can provide important insights.

The third capability, creative resolution, is the ability to do integrative decision-making so that diverse ideas can be combined or reconfigured to create a new solution. It is about not allowing one individual or group to dominate. Nor is it about compromising or taking the path of least resistance. Creative resolution requires an inclusive decision-making approach that allows for “both-and" versus “either-or" solutions to be embraced.

When Google was preparing to launch Gmail and YouTube, the company knew its existing data storage system was inadequate. In the infrastructure group, two teams emerged and coalesced around alternative solutions to this storage problem. Led by Bill Coughran and a group of chief engineers, the teams ran simultaneous experiments. After two years, when the time came to make an urgent decision, evidence suggested that team A’s evolutionary design based upon the old system was the better near-term solution. But to avoid losing the learning gained by team B, which had designed a new system from scratch, Coughran folded some of that group’s members into a new team that had formed to create the next next-generation storage system. This is one example of a “both-and" as opposed to “either-or" solution.

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