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Three tenets for leading sustainable innovation

Kenny MacIver — February 2016
Today’s CXOs need to shun the limelight and create collaborative, discovery-driven environments in which innovation can flourish, says Harvard Business School professor Linda Hill.

Business leaders instinctively know innovation is the key to sustainable success. But, according Harvard Business School professor Linda Hill, most display a leadership style that limits their organization’s potential to innovate.

Having spent years observing management practice at some of the world’s largest companies, Hill argues that most successful leaders of innovation exhibit three strong characteristics:

1. Leaders create collaborative organizations  “The process of innovation needs to be collaborative because innovations most often arise from the interplay of ideas that occur during the interactions of people with diverse expertise, experience or points of view. Anyone who really wants to lead innovation needs to recognize that and think about how they enable people to engage in such collaborative problem-solving processes.”

2. Leaders foster discovery-driven learning  “Innovation usually arises from an often-lengthy period of conscious experimentation and repeated trial and error,” she outlines with her co-authors in Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation. “That may contradict the myth that great new ideas spring in full and final form from the mind of the inventor, ready to be applied. But, rather, innovation is usually a messy process that is about searching for a solution by creating and testing a portfolio of ideas. So leaders can’t plan to innovate; they have to actuate innovation.”

3. Leaders support and encourage integrative decision-making  Rather than choosing one group’s proposal from a set of conflicting ideas or imposing a compromise that dilutes the potential impact of an innovation, Hill says leaders find a way of encouraging groups to combine their different ideas to create a new solution that is even more innovative.

New leadership mind-set

Putting those three tenets into practice, however, often requires a change in management style and a break with conventional management thinking.  “Your mind-set as a leader has to shift,” says Hill. “So despite that fact that the leaders I’ve studied are visionaries in their own right, highly talented and full of ideas, they know that in order to foster innovation they need to make space for others. As one of them puts it, “as a leader of innovation I’m a stage setter, I’m not the performer on the stage.’”

That is no easy transition when many have been taught in business school and elsewhere that their job is to step into the limelight and perform. “Of course, leaders want to play, to show they’re credible and have great ideas, but one of the real challenges of talented people is to make space for others so their ideas can be brought together. It’s not always easy, but if you want to build a sustainable organization, you must start by working on yourself.”

• 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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