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How Innovative Leadership Can Build Better Organizations

This article was based on the TEDxCambridge Talk, “How to Manage for Collective Creativity,”

by Linda Hill:


Understanding Innovative Leadership

Linda Hill is an ethnographer who uses anthropology to understand what makes a great leader.  She spent close to a decade observing exceptional leaders of innovation. Her team studied 16 men and women, located in seven countries across the globe, working in 12 different industries. They analysed and looked for patterns in what these leaders did. What they found was that in order to build organisations that can innovate time and again, we must unlearn our conventional notions of leadership.


What Is Innovation?

When many of us think about innovation, we think about an Einstein having an ‘Aha!’ moment. That, however, is a myth. Innovation is not about solo genius; it’s about collective genius. Let’s think for a minute about what it takes to make something like a Pixar movie.  No single flash of inspiration produces one of those movies. On the contrary, it takes about 250 people four to five years, to make a computer-generated movie.


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At the heart of innovation is a paradox. You have to unleash the talents and passions of many people, and you have to harness them into a work that is actually useful. Innovation is a journey. It’s a type of collaborative problem solving, usually among people who have different expertise and different points of view.


Trial and Error

Innovations are usually a result of trial and error. There are lots of false starts, missteps, and mistakes. Innovative work can be very exhilarating, but it also can be downright scary. So, when we look at why it is that Pixar is able to do what it does, we have to ask ourselves, what’s going on here?


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History and Hollywood are full of star-studded teams that have failed. Most of those failures are attributed to too many stars or too many cooks, if you will, in the kitchen. So why is it that large organisations like Pixar, with all of their cooks, are able to be so successful time and time again?


The Three Capabilities

When Hill’s team studied an Islamic Bank in Dubai, or a luxury brand in Korea, or a social enterprise in Africa, they found that innovative organisations are communities that have three capabilities: creative abrasion, creative agility, and creative resolution.


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Creative abrasion is about being able to create a marketplace of ideas through debate and discourse. In innovative organisations, they amplify differences, they don’t minimise them. Creative abrasion is not about brainstorming where people suspend their judgement. These innovators know how to have very heated but constructive arguments to create a portfolio of alternatives.

Individuals in innovative organisations learn how to inquire and how to actively listen. They also learn how to advocate for their point of view. They understand that innovation rarely happens unless you have both diversity and conflict. Creative agility is about being able to test and refine that portfolio of ideas through quick pursuit, reflection, and adjustment. It’s about discovery-driven learning where you act, as opposed to plan, your way to the future. It’s about design thinking with a combination of scientific method and artistic process. It’s about running a series of experiments that you can learn from.  

The final capability is creative resolution. This is about decision making that can combine and reconfigure opposing ideas in unique combinations to produce a solution that is new and useful. When you look at innovative organisations, they never go along to get along. 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 rather patient and more inclusive decision-making process that allows for solutions to arise.  


Fostering Successful Innovation

Why is it that companies like Pixar are able to innovate time and again? It’s because they’ve mastered these three capabilities that are necessary for innovation. They know how to problem solve collaboratively and how to learn by discovery to make integrated decisions.

If we want to build organisations that can innovate time and again, we must recast our understanding of what leadership is about. Leading innovation is about creating a space where people are willing and able to do the hard work of innovative problem-solving.

Innovative leaders focus on building a sense of community and building the three capabilities. They believe that leadership is about creating a world to which people want to belong. They stop giving answers and trying to provide solutions. Instead, they began to see the entire organisation as the source of innovation. The true task of an innovation leader is to create a space where everybody’s genius can be unleashed and harnessed to be turned into works of collective genius.


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