The New Rules of Leadership and Innovation

The most innovative organizations rely on a marketplace of ideas and make room for disagreement.

Leading innovation is not about creating a vision, and inspiring others to execute it.

When I heard Harvard business professor Linda Hill say those words in her TEDxCambridge talk, I stopped the video and went back a few seconds, just to make sure I  got that not right. The idea that successful companies are borne along by visionary leadership is so deeply ingrained, I thought I was hearing things.

Hill, the author of Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation,  says it was a surprise to her, too, that what we think of as great leadership doesn’t work when it comes to innovation. An ethnographer, Hill and colleagues used anthropological tools to look at the leadership and cultures of  16 innovative and successful businesses in seven countries, including Pixar and Google. What they found was that those companies had turned the ideas of conventional leadership on their head. Their leaders focused their energy, not on creating communities, but on cultivating three key capabilities.

In her talk, Hill described the capabilities and how they work as follows:

1. Creative abrasion. This is about being able to create a marketplace of ideas through debate and discourse. It’s not about not about brainstorming, where people suspend their judgment, but about knowing how to have heated but constructive arguments to create a portfolio of alternatives.

2. Creative agility. This is about being able to test and refine ideas a process of quick pursuit, reflection, and adjustment. It’s about discovery-driven learning where you act, as opposed to plan, your way to the future.

3. Creative resolution. This is about making decisions in a way that combines even opposing ideas in new combinations to produce useful new solutions.  

 “Innovative organizations never go along to get along,” Hill said. “They don’t compromise. They don’t let one group or one individual dominate, even if it’s the boss, even if it’s the expert. Instead, they have developed a patient and more inclusive decision-making process.”

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor of Convene.