Leading Innovation

In the past, a CEO’s view of innovation was often limited to the budget allocated to the company’s R&D division. R&D was a distant organizational specter, somehow beyond the conventional reach or understanding of the company’s leaders.

Now, with innovation having become an issue for the CEO, providing leadership to those who are charged with innovating is part and parcel of senior management’s responsibility. The trouble is that those who work in innovation often defy traditional leadership. They are smart, are experts in their fields, and often consider their peers to be as equally smart people doing similar things in other organizations rather than executives in their own organization.

The challenge in providing leadership to these groups is powerfully mapped out by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones in Clever and their Harvard Business Review article, “Leading clever people”. “How do you corral a group of extremely smart and highly creative individuals into an organization, and then inspire them not only to achieve their fullest potential as individuals, but to do so in a way that creates wealth and value for all your stakeholders?” they ask.  “If there’s one defining characteristic of these people, it is that they claim they do not want to be led. Clearly, this poses an enormous challenge for corporate leaders. Smart executives may not have the answers to all the questions, but the best of them understand the problem of not effectively managing their intellectual know-how and those who generate it.”

This is not simply a question of developing ways of leading smart millenials with a very different attitude to work.  The issue of how to lead those involved in innovation is long standing.  Edison was not a corporate yes-man.

Providing intellectual leadership on the tortured subject of leading innovation is Linda Hill, the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. She is the coauthor, with Kent Lineback, of Being the Boss and author of Becoming a Manager. More recently, her research (along with Greg Brandeau and Emily Stecker Truelove) has looked at exceptional leaders of innovation in a wide range of industries—from IT to law to design—throughout the world.  This led to the 2014 book Collective Genius.

“People ended up thinking that leadership is about being visionary. But when you’re talking about innovation, that whole charismatic visionary thing is a problem. Most innovations are the result of collaborative efforts, discovery-driven learning, and more integrated decision making. The tasks, roles, and responsibilities of leaders and followers are very different when you really think about innovation as your goal, about discovering something that doesn’t exist at the moment, about solving problems,” says Hill (winner of the Thinkers50 Innovation award in 2015).

We put it to Linda Hill that one of the things you always hear about leadership is that despite all the executive programs, all the training, and all the books, there’s a shortage of leaders. And similarly with innovation; despite all the books on and study of innovation, it remains largely a mystery to most organizations.  “Yes. I think that is because people don’t really understand the connection between leadership, what leaders think they’re supposed to be doing, and what it actually takes to build an organization that can be innovative,” she responded. “They’re disconnected disciplines. I don’t think we have much insight into what an individual leader should be doing or thinking about, or how people should think about what the role of that leader should be if she wants to be innovative.

“Everybody has a slice of genius in his organization. How do you combine those slices of genius in integrated ways to come up with solutions to problems? Some people would say, you don’t want that many geniuses, because then there’s the too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen problem. Well, there are organizations that have figured out how you can have lots of cooks in the kitchen and still have them cook an absolutely fabulous meal.”  Slice and then roll the innovation dice.


Greg Brandeau, Linda Hill and Emily Stecker Truelove, Collective Genius, Harvard Business Review Press, 2014

This was originally published in What we mean when we talk about innovation by Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove (Infinite Ideas, 2016).

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