12 Sep 2014

Collective Genius


If you want to know what “collective genius” can look like, watch a Pixar film. Pixar Animation Studios produce the first computer generated (cg) feature film, “Toy Story,” nearly twenty years ago. More blockbusters followed, including “Finding Nemo,” and “Monsters, Inc.” Pixar has thrived because it has never stopped innovating.

Our guest on this edition of “The Business” is Harvard Business School Professor Linda Hill, one of the authors of the new book “Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation.” She says every one of these cg films has been an innovative tour de force, yet no solitary genius, no flash of inspiration, produced those movies.” Instead, she writes, they were the product of hundreds of people, years of work, and hundreds of millions of dollars.


Brian Kenny: Our guest today is Harvard Business School Professor Linda Hill. She's the faculty chair of the leadership initiative at HBS and has chaired numerous executive education programs. She is the co-author of numerous books and articles on leadership, including her very latest, Collective Genius, and we're going to discuss that today. To sum it up, Professor Hill knows a lot more about leadership than we could ever cover in a podcast, so thank you for being with us today.

Linda Hill: It's my pleasure.

BK: And I should mention you co-authored this book with three other people, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove, and Kent Lineback. What prompted you to write the book?

LH: So a few years back, I began to read all about how we needed to have leaders who knew how to build organizations that could innovate. So like a good professor, I went to the library, tried to find research on this. Turns out that the people who study innovation are quite separate from the people who study leadership. And indeed when I began to think about what we should be doing in our leadership courses, I needed to begin to do my own research and look at other research that might help us understand the connection between leadership and innovation.

BK: Conventional wisdom would say that the leaders who do the best job at creating innovation within their organizations are visionaries themselves. People like Steve Jobs, and I don't know, maybe Mark Zuckerberg, others like that who are just held up as these pantheons of innovation, but you would say that that's not necessarily so.

LH: I think the thing that we saw in our research--and again, I wasn't sure what we were going to find--is that if you are a visionary, yes, indeed, maybe you can drive a company, and maybe you can drive a lot of innovation, but fundamentally, if you want to build an organization that's capable of innovating time and again, you don't simply want to rely on one individual. So one of the first companies that I was happy to be able to study, to look at my research, was Pixar, one of Steve Jobs' companies. But when I went to Pixar, as you know one of my co-authors ended up being an executive who works there. When I went to Pixar, one of the things that I saw is that many of the leaders, there or people in leadership positions, were indeed visionaries. But they didn't see their role or their function as being a visionary when it came to being about leadership. What they described to me was, you know what, if you really want to innovate, if you think about yourself as being the visionary, then you're not going to be so innovative. My role is to create an organization in which people are willing and able to do innovative problem-solving time and again. So that different mindset got them to focus on a different set of activities. I was talking to one of the people who works in HCL Technologies, one of the companies that I studied—

BK: Also in the book.

LH: Yes, in the book. And I was talking to a young person who only graduated a year ago, and he proceeded to talk with me about how we believe in every day innovation. Let's face it, we're an outsourcing business, so it's not like we're going to get to work on the next Watson or whatever--I'm using his language. But every day, I should be able to come up with a new idea. So some of these ideas are clearly incremental.

BK: So how did they do that, though, because this wasn't the culture at HCL.

LH: You know, it was initially of course, because it was a pioneering company. HCL was, in fact, if you're going to look at it, and some people would say it was the company that first created the industry, the computer industry, when IBM left because, you know, India didn't have laws that made them feel comfortable with their IP, HCL was the first company that got created. When Vineet came in, it was number five, so here you have these visionary founders, and they lost their position, they're now number five. They bring in this young person to be this CEO, Vineet Nayar, he was in his early 40's, which in India is very young for a CEO. And he said, you know, we've got to turn this whole thing on its head. This is not about me, I don't have the answers, I'm not, I need to create this organization where we have the force of one, we need to have everybody understand that everyone can be, do extraordinary things, and they all need to be prepared to, indeed, come up with those new ideas. And so I really want to emphasize it's not simply about motivation, there are truly capabilities you have to build in the organizations that the people are actually able to get this stuff done.

BK: Can you talk a little bit about how he did that?

LH: What Vineet did was he really worked on three kinds of capabilities, which are very difficult in any organization, and maybe particularly in India, with its pretty hierarchical notion, in how juniors should treat seniors. But, so the first discipline is creative abrasion. If you really want to have an innovative organization, you need to be able to let, to create a marketplace of ideas, where there's really competition for those ideas, so you really want to create an organization where people--you have a fair amount of diversity, and you have a fair amount of conflict. So the capability you need to build is that the organization needs to be able to have two debates about ideas, which means candor. And how many times do we see candor? How often do we see candor in organizations? Not as much as we need, so those ideas can come out, you're allowed to voice them, and so this young person today said to me, you know, I didn't know I was supposed to really argue with my bosses. It's still hard for me to believe that I'm allowed to argue and bring my ideas up, right. So that idea that you would argue with your bosses, and indeed you--how do you have a healthy debate? Through that debate and discourse, create a really robust marketplace of ideas. The second one is creative agility, which is how do we actually test those ideas quickly? Test them, do experiments, get the feedback, make the adjustments, very much what we know about design thinking and how you should do things that way. These are organizations that understand, since you don't really know the answer, because it's innovative, you kind of act and learn your way to that feature.

BK: And failure is, failure is okay.

LH: Failure is okay. Reasonable failures, not so many times, but that's a piece of the puzzle. So what these organizations sort of say is we don't do pilots, we do experiments. Because a pilot means you failed, someone didn't get it right, it was supposed to succeed. We do experiments, we learn quickly, we make adjustments, we actually listen to the feedback, we can do that. Then the last capability is creative resolution, which is also a very tricky one. So this is the capacity to make decisions so that you actually can bring together opposable ideas. And the only thing that will allow you to be able to do that, frankly, is you're not, if you don't compromise too quickly, which happens a lot in organizations. It's just too much. Let's just finish, right? Usually, again, you've got to have that abrasion, you've got to work this stuff through. Compromise doesn't lead to most innovations that we see. Not at all, right?

BK: Right.

LH: And that's partly why we see these visionaries who are so persistent that can get that first business created. The second part of that, though, is you don't want to have any group dominate, because that's the other thing that happens in most organizations when you look at how they make decisions. It's pretty clear who's supposed to dominate. Either hierarchy determines who dominates, or expertise, even. But in these organizations, just because you're quote, “the expert”, doesn't mean that somebody else might not have a better idea, a newer idea. Because in part, if you're the expert, you're very tied to the status quo. You may be the least likely person to be able to reframe things.

BK: The Pentagram example to me was a fascinating one. And for people who don't know what Pentagram is, I love it, because it sounds like, you know, a secretive society of some--if you could just describe Pentagram and how they're set up, because I think it really plays off what you were just talking about.

LH: Well, Pentagram is a design firm. So it's a partnership that has lasted longer than most, particularly a global partnership. And there are designers from all the different design fields, from architecture to graphic design, et cetera. And they came together because they wanted to have a place where they could do the very, very best work. So to become a partner of Pentagram, you already have to be a rock star. All the partners have to agree on you being there, because you need to be a part of their community, so they'll be willing to work with you. And you have to live by certain rules. Equality and generosity are the two rules that they talk about. Equality means that we all get paid the same thing, with some adjustment, you know, based on where you live.

BK: That's pretty amazing.

LH: That's pretty amazing, because they're all really good. These are people who are very, very top, at the top of their fields, and that we're generous, and so there's no junior, senior partner. So once you're a partner, you're a partner. And there's a whole process. It's very complicated to become a partner, very carefully selected who's in this community, so you feel like these are your peers. But they all see it as that post-graduate education they need to keep the edge, keep that spark. So one of the things, one of their rituals that happens twice a year is that a partner has to present his or her work, and as you know, one of the people we write about, Kit [phonetic] who actually designed the cover of our book.

BK: Listeners can't see it, but it's awesome.

LH: We were, yes. We were very lucky. But anyway, what he described is what they all have to do to present their work and he talks about how he's sweating. This rock star has won every award, has things in, you know, has exhibits in MOMA, et cetera. When he presents to his colleagues to get their critique of his work, and he puts himself through that, because he wants to be pushed to that next level. The other thing that I think Pentagram brings up and, is this whole idea that many people say to me, well, you know, there are too many cooks in the kitchen. If you have too many geniuses, you're going to have a problem. You only want a few, because if you know, you're going to have a lot of them, how do they deal with their egos, et cetera? And so what you see in these situations, is these are people who deeply get, you know what, I work better when I'm working with other people at the top of their game. I'm willing because I'm a part of the community, where, among other things, we have a shared sense of purpose.

BK: Within many organizations, people aren't incentivized in a way that promotes collaboration. So how do you overcome the hurdle of what's in it for me?

LH: One of the things that these organizations all understand is, again, we're only human, and you need to keep things on one level to a human scale. So if we even go look at the Volkswagen example, you may recall, in their, one of the things that Luca did when he first got there was to have these events where people who never really met each other before, it was worth the investment to bring the whole global marketing group together, and to have them work, they actually worked in Frank Ghery’s building, a fabulous building that's right next to Brandenburg Gate. These people are very visionary and very symbolic. He's a marketer, so he would know that they didn't sit, they were standing most of the time really thought about the way the space should be organized to allow for them to break some of their patterns of how they interacted. And to do strategic thinking, you know, standing in different groups with wild rock music, et cetera, I think, you know, his German colleagues were a little bit wondering what was happening here for a bit. But it's really a part of let's--it's a new time, we need to interact in new ways, and using whatever I can to help shake it up, knowing that we're going to--there's lots more to follow here, but the first part is eye-to-eye, human contact, me knowing you, because you have to trust me deeply if you're going to take risks, give out, you know, really argue with me. And do all of that, we need to know each other.

BK: So one final question for you. The last part of the book is a glimpse into the future.

LH: Yes.

BK: What does it look like?

LH: Going back to what I said about Pixar, it took them 20 years to develop a computer-generated full-length movie, a lot of business people are telling us, the market doesn't give you that time anymore. And they're really having to rely, like on biotech, et cetera, a lot on universities, and private public partnerships, where can this basic research be done? So we thought it was important to actually look at private-public partnerships, because we think that's going to be important to competitiveness for most countries nowadays. A lot of the people we studied actually were involved in open innovation experiments, but we wanted to make sure we looked at some open innovation situations, because that is where it's going, because, you know, you can't--you don't have all the capacity inside your single organization, so you're going to have to partner with others. So that we think is the future, that it's not just about leading innovation in your own organization, but actually building the sense of community across diverse organizations.

BK: Well, the first step should be to go out and buy Collective Genius, I think.

LH: Oh, you're so kind.

BK: Published in the Harvard Business Review. Professor Linda Hill, thank you for joining us today.

LH: My pleasure.

To hear more visit – hbs.edu/thebusiness or subscribe on iTunesU and SoundCloud. You can also join the conversation on Twitter at #thebusiness

Post a Comment

Comments must be on-topic and civil in tone (with no name calling or personal attacks). Any promotional language or urls will be removed immediately. Your comment may be edited for clarity and length.