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Building a culture that stimulates ‘collective genius’

Kenny MacIver — February 2016
Innovationis less about breakthrough moments and more to do with channeling organization-wide intelligence, says Linda Hill of Harvard Business School.

Why are many companies one-hit wonders when others are able to build success by innovating time and time again? It’s a question that has fascinated Harvard Business School professor Linda Hill for more than half a decade. And having dug deep into the sustained successes of Pixar Animation Studios, eBay, Pfizer, Volkswagen and other industry-leading companies, she believes it boils down to an ability to tap into ‘collective genius.’


When it comes to innovation, many leaders have traditionally seen their role as providing the vision for product strategy and company direction, or else they seek out and endorse a solo genius whose ‘light bulb moments’ will set the company’s direction, Hill observes in our exclusive Big Thinker video interview.

It means they structure their organizations accordingly. “If you see your role as a leader as being the person who has to come up with the great vision for innovation and get people to follow you, then you set things up around your vision and how you are going to get that done,” she says.

However, three decades of academic research has confirmed that innovation is most often not achieved in that way, she says. Rather, it is the result of organizations structuring collaborative activity so that diverse sets of individuals can build towards an overall innovation, she argues in her bestselling book Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation.

“What I see happening in companies that are able to innovate and really sustain their success is that they have broadened their notion of what innovation is about and who can participate in it. As such, they have built an organizational context that allows people to be willing and able to engage in innovation processes.”

A slice of genius
Such companies certainly take seriously approaches to achieving breakthrough innovation, she says, but they also appreciate that innovation can be about any aspect of the organization, about how products, services, structures and business models can be enhanced.

And that calls for a different kind of organization. “Because they have this broad definition that innovation is really a collaborative activity that a diverse group of people are engaged in, they hire differently and build the culture and capabilities required to utilize talent right across their organization,” she says.

“Innovative organizations need leaders who create and sustain an environment that unleashes the slice of genius in each of their people and then combines that ‘collective genius’ into a single work of innovation.”

• Photography: Webb Chappell

First published
February 2016
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About: Linda Hill
Professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and the co-author of ‘Collective Genius,’ Linda Hill is an authority on leadership and innovation. That focus sees her working with numerous global figures, from the president of Pixar to the Prime Minister of Japan.

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