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"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."
Antoine de St. Exupery

The leader's mandate is not only to set direction or provide vision; he or she must instill a sense of possibility in people. While innovation can, and should, come from anywhere and everywhere in an organization, it is the leader's job to encourage it - and to provide opportunities for it to germinate and grow. Innovative leadership is a must - but no longer enough; leaders have to stoke the fires of creativity and imagination in their people too.

Managing vs. Leading: What's the Link to Innovation?

In his 1989 book, On Becoming a Leader, Warren Bennis delineated the differences between leaders and managers. Among them:

  • The manager administers; the leader innovates.
  • The manager is a copy; the leader is an original.
  • The manager has a short-range view; the leader has a long-range perspective.
  • The manager has his or her eye always on the bottom line; the leader's eye is on the horizon.

And to a certain extent, this is true. Managers, by the nature of their role, are concerned with given processes and responsible for concrete outcomes within a certain time frame. Their strata, as Elliott Jaques would say, are fairly narrow. Leaders (owners, executives), by the nature of their roles, have to look into the future and chart a course for their organizations.

But, at the same time, innovation cannot be the sole province of leaders. As Alan Murray argues in the Wall Street Journal, in the new economy, "value comes increasingly from the knowledge of people, and where workers are no longer undifferentiated cogs in an industrial machine..."

Managers, and their direct reports, can innovate - though it may look different. Instead of fundamentally changing the direction of the organization and its future, for instance, a frontline manager might create an improvement to a specific process. In other words, they innovate within the scope of their strata or roles.

Collective Genius

Linda Hill, Greg Brandea, Emily Truelove, and Kent Lineback, authors of Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation, sought to figure out why some companies are able to continually innovate while others stagnate. They discovered that innovation is "a team sport," not an individual pursuit.

"[L]eaders can draw out the slices of genius in each individual and assemble them into innovations that represent collective genius. The question is not 'How do I make innovation happen?' but, rather, 'How do I set the stage for that to happen?'"

The notion of innovation as a team sport is also supported by Rob Cross, Andrew Hargadon, Salvatore Parise, and Robert J. Thomas. After studying more than 20 organizations, they concluded, "The myth of the lone genius dies hard.... [M]ost innovations are created through networks - groups of people working in concert."

Slices of Genius

An example of "collective genius"? Hill describes a problem faced by Bill Coughran, then senior vice president of engineering at Google. Because of the immense amount of data processed by the Google File System (GFS), there simply wasn't enough storage. One team wanted to add systems on top of the current GFS. Another wanted to scrap it altogether and build something new.

Coughran "let innovation happen." He gave both teams the time and room they needed to test their solutions and determine which was more viable. He met regularly with the teams, asked tough questions, and helped the engineers to sharpen their methods. Hill writes, "He wasn't passive." Instead "He let them play it out. His job as a leader was to figure out when to step in."

Leading Innovation

Hill, et al, argue that the leader's role in innovation is to "create a community that is willing and able to innovate." It is to create a fertile environment by - as Coughran did - actively encouraging innovation, letting teams experiment with their ideas, letting them test and prove (or disprove) them, and figuring out when to step in.

While true innovation oftentimes comes from leaders, they can do more to stay on the cutting edge by soliciting the "slices of genius" from their teams. The myth of the lone genius does die hard - but it's past time to replace it with the truth of collective innovation.


Larry Hart

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