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Why diversity and conflict are key to leading innovation

February 2016
Organizations thrive on ‘creative abrasion,’ argues Harvard Business School’s Linda Hill, with different ideas and perspectives battling constructively for success.

Fundamentally, as a leader, if you want to foster sustainable innovation you have to amplify the differences in your organization, not minimize them. You don’t get innovation without diversity and conflict, and that means leaders need to build a capability for ‘creative abrasion.’

Creative abrasion is the ability to establish a marketplace of ideas to generate, refine and evolve a multitude of options through discourse, debate and even conflict. Potential solutions emerge from this process; they almost never spring complete from a solitary mind in a mysterious flash of insight.

The issue is that many leaders don’t want conflict or indeed a great deal of diversity in the way people approach particular problems. And that puts them in an uncomfortable position when it comes to innovation.

As a leader, a key focus is on execution: you typically want to standardize things, to minimize differences. So one of the pressures leaders face — and, in an age of innovation, why leadership has become so hard — is that the choices you make around execution are going to be very different from those you make when thinking about innovation.

Sharing the leadership challenge
As an individual leader, it’s hard to be good at both the art of execution and innovation, which is why we see in most organizations an ever-greater focus on the leadership team. Indeed, current research suggests that if you cannot build a really robust leadership team then you are likely to derail as a chief executive.

It just doesn’t happen these days that CEOs can pull off corporate successes without significant support and buy-in from other top executives — the chief technology officer, chief innovation officer, chief human resource officer and others. As one of the leaders I’ve worked with puts it: ‘Nowadays people don’t want to follow you to the future, they want to co-create the future with you.’

• 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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