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Exploding myths about how great leaders lead innovation

Kenny MacIver — February 2016
Existing models for leadership are disconnected from what’s really required to build organizations that can innovate time and time again, says Harvard Business School’s Linda Hill.

From the globalization of markets to the digitalization of industries, business leaders are under more pressure than ever before to drive a constant flow of innovation within their organizations.

But according to Linda Hill, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and co-author of the bestseller Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation, there remains a poor understanding among business executives — and indeed academics — about the processes that inspire, fuel and sustain innovation and the skills needed to lead it.

“What’s wrong with the way we’re approaching innovation today?” she asks in our exclusive Big Thinker video interview. “The main thing is we still seem to live by this myth that innovation is the result of companies recruiting a solo genius who has a series of ‘aha moments,’” she says.

Having researched how outstanding leaders have championed innovation at companies as diverse as Pixar, Pfizer and Volkswagen, she is convinced that innovation is rarely down to one genius, and that many executives are blind to the fact.
Vital spark?

“We’ve known that for a long time yet business leaders still act like this is the way innovation happens. When we look at organizations trying to figure out how are they going to innovate — and they know they must be able to innovate a lot these days if they want to sustain success — many still think it’s really just a question of finding your own genius and, hopefully, lightning will strike more than once so they can build success over time.”

But she is emphatic: “That is not the way innovation happens and relying on that model is not the way to go about it.”

That will certainly be seen as controversial thinking in technology circles, where many believe that “breakthrough innovation really only happens in start-ups,” and that large companies struggle to release such creative forces. For Hill the evidence points in a different direction, which is underscored by the high failure rate of start-ups and their inability, in many cases, to scale.

“Our models for leadership have not been connected to what’s really required to build organizations that can innovate time and again.”

Some of that, at least, comes down to the way leadership and innovation have been treated as two distinct areas — in business schools, where top leadership talent is nurtured, and within companies themselves.

“The models we’ve developed about leadership have not been connected to what’s really required to build an organization that can innovate time and time again,” she says. And leading innovation is a skill-set in itself.

“When you look at the connection between leadership and innovation you realize that what it takes to lead business change or to lead execution is not what it takes to lead innovation,” says Hill who was the recipient of the Thinkers 50 Innovation Award for 2015.

And, more than ever, that is something many business managers need to add on to their existing capabilities. “Leadership has always been hard but it’s getting harder because you have to be able to lead change and execution, and be able to lead innovation too. And these demand different mind-sets and different skills from individuals.

• 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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