Leading for Innovation

I’m reading an impressive new book from Harvard Business Press, the massive 822-page Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice. It contains chapters by leading scholars like J. Richard Hackman, Joseph S. Nye, Michael E. Porter, and Rosabeth Moss Kanter. I first learned about this book when I received an email from one of my European colleagues, the Italian architect Maurizio Travaglini. Travaglini is the co-author of one of the chapters, along with Professors Linda Hill and Emily Stecker of Harvard, and Greg Brandeau of Pixar. What a great set of authors! Their chapter is titled “Unlocking the slices of genius in your organization” and it’s a wonderful and concise summary of what we know about leading for innovation.

I heard from Maurizio Travaglini soon after the 2007 publication of my book Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration. He was excited by my book, because his architecture firm is named “Architects of Group Genius”– what a coincidence! Travaglini’s firm designs spaces to foster collaborative creativity–for example, they desiged some special session rooms for the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

There are a lot of overlaps between this new article and the material I cover in Group Genius, and I’m honored that the authors quote my book extensively. Co-author Greg Brandeau of Pixar contributed many insights about innovation at Pixar, where they live and breathe the message of my book. As this article puts it, “most innovation is generated from the bottom up, by self-organizing teams of talented individuals” (p. 616). The article cites my writings on the Wright Brothers, on creative abrasion and diversity in teams, and they tell similar stories about Thomas Edison, IDEO, Pixar, Herman Miller, Gore, and even MIT’s legendary Building 20.

In my view, the most important contribution of the article is their list of five “paradoxes of innovation”–each one an opposition between two forces, in tension, and maximum innovation results when the two forces are optimally balanced for the business environment, industry sector, and goals of the company.

1. Individual identity — Collective identity

2. Support — Confrontation

3. Learning and development — Performance

4. Improvisation — Structuring

5. Bottom-up — Top-down

In my own research I’ve focused on these last two. I call it the innovation paradox: All innovation comes from a bottom-up, improvisational process, but it has to be guided by top-down structures if it is to result in successful business outcomes. It’s hard to get that balance exactly right, and the exact nature of the balance will vary with every organization. As this new book chapter says:

The leaders in our study understand that innovation is often the result of grassroots efforts. Hence, they encourage and reward both autonomy and attempts at co-design. These leaders encourage peer-driven processes of self-organizing and self-governing…Hierarchy is alive and well in these organizations, but it is used on an as-needed basis…The leaders of innovation that we have studied lead from behind, as opposed to leading from the front.

When you manage the right balance between improvisation and structure, between emergent bottom-up innovation and top-down guidance, you are leading for innovation.

Sand Dune Teams

In my 2007 book Group Genius, I showed that the most innovative organizations were improvisational and team-focused. Early in the book, I tell how W. L. Gore developed the Elixir brand of guitar strings, with a team that formed spontaneously and unofficially. In Chapters 8 and 9, I describe many companies that create temporary, cross-disciplinary teams to foster innovation (I call them “innovation labs”).

Now, I’ve just learned that the leading guru of teams research, J. Richard Hackman, believes that these improvisational, emergent, and fluid teams are the wave of the future.* He calls them “sand dune teams” to indicate that they are impermanent. His key points echo my 2007 book:

  1. These teams are best for “fast-changing contexts in which surprise is the rule”.
  2. They often emerge in emergencies (There’s a lot of research showing the role of improvisation in emergency and disaster response; in Group Genius, I begin Chapter 2 by telling a story about the 1980 Naples earthquake).
  3. They do best when they operate in organizational units of 30 people or less, so that “unitwide norms and routines” can be shared.

Hackman argues that we need a lot more research on these teams:

We have not yet identified the minimum conditions needed for sand dune teams. We don’t know what additional features and technologies would help them manage themselves well. Nor do we know whether such teams are feasible when their members are not colocated.

I agree that this is an exciting topic for future research in organizational behavior. I’m not thrilled by the “sand dune team” metaphor, however, because it suggests that the teams form in response to external forces largely outside of their control. My own research suggests, in contrast, that there’s an internal logic to the improvisational and emergent processes whereby such teams form; and, that organizations can take concrete steps to foster the effective formation of such emergent teams.

I look forward to future studies on this topic published by Professor Hackman.

*Hackman, J. R. 2011. Managing work by ever-shifting teams. The HBR Agenda 2011, p. 11.