Linda A. Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove & Kent Lineback, ‘Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation’

Linda A. Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove & Kent Lineback, ‘Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation’

Review of Linda A. Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove & Kent Lineback, Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation (Harvard Business Review Press, 2014)

The Introduction to Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation calls for a different kind of leader who creates organizations both willing and able to innovate.  From that innocuous opening, this new study quickly moves to engage the challenges and complexities confronting those wanting to enable innovation.  Much of the complexity is captured in six paradoxes – from “support” and “confrontation” to “bottom up” and “top down” – that create ongoing tension.  These are then summarized in a “fundamental paradox” between “unleashing” and “harnessing” the talents in an organization.  Through the dozen case studies that follow, these paradoxes demonstrate not only the potential of different kinds of leaders but the value of different kinds of thinking about leadership in fostering and driving innovation.

In less capable hands, such a reliance on paradoxes or tensions in describing leadership might reflect indecisive or incomplete analysis.  For Linda A. Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove, and Kent Lineback, it instead conveys with evidence and assurance the complicated realities of new organizational forms and behaviors.  In fact, despite its presentation of a series of individual leaders, the book establishes a category of its own that yokes together the best of conventional analyses of leadership and innovation.  The result is an invaluable guide to enabling collaboration and collective behavior at a time when innovation and creative problem-solving are increasingly the norm.

The first major section of Collective Genius addresses how leaders create a willingness to do the hard work of innovation.  There are three major challenges here:

  • Purpose: Why we exist
  • Shared Values: What we agree is important
  • Rules of Engagement: How we interact with each other and think about problems

Defining these elements helps to create a context in which others can innovate.  Looking at Volkswagen and Pentagram, the design agency, the authors offer practical instances of encouraging risk-taking, trying new ideas, and building solutions together to form a greater sense of community.

The second major section takes on how leaders can create the ability to do the hard work of innovation.  It is also defined in three aspects:
  • Creative Abrasion: The ability to generate ideas through discourse and debate
  • Creative Agility: The ability to test and experiment through quick pursuit, reflection and adjustment
  • Creative Resolution: The ability to make integrative decisions that combine disparate or even opposing ideas

Together, these organizational skills correspond to the major elements of the innovation process – collaboration, decision-based learning, and integrative decision-making.  Tracking efforts at Pixar, eBay in Germany, and Google, the authors offer examples of how practically these skills can be operationalized and also integrated with each other.  

Amidst all the discussion of innovation processes and organizational behavior, how exactly do leaders fit here?  They may be visionaries – but don’t have to be.  Even if they are, they don’t hold forth and inspire from the mountaintop.  Instead, the role of the leader is re-cast again and again in these pages.  Vineet Nayer, of HCL, is a “social architect”; Larry Smarr of Calit2, “a dot-connector extraordinaire”; and managers at Google, according to then CEO Eric Schmidt, “aggregators of viewpoints, not dictators of decisions.”  What is consistent in Collective Genius is that traditional formal authority gives way to nimble orchestration, informal facilitation, and contributions to community-building.

The real hero for Hill and her co-authors, as a result, is less the individual than the innovation eco-system.  Successful leaders, they conclude, work to create innovation environments “in which the unique slices of genius in their organization are rendered into a single work of collective genius.” Moreover, and this is ultimately the book’s most illuminating lesson, that collective genius not only yields more sustainable innovation but transforms leadership itself. 

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