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.

Ten Rules for Stifling Innovation

In the summer, professors get to read books they’re too busy to look at during the semester.  I’m now reading a classic 1983 book on business innovation: The Change Masters, by Rosabeth Moss Kanter.  It’s amazing that she gets everything right; her key points are in best-selling management books being published today.  (See my June 9th posting “How long will it take?” for another story about how long we’ve known how innovation really works.)

Kanter analyzed six companies in depth; four of them were innovators and two were not. Somewhat tongue in cheek, Kanter proposed a list of ten “hidden messages” that the non-innovating companies sent their employees every day, writing “Imagine something like this hanging on an executive’s wall, right next to the corporate philosophy”:

1. Regard any new idea from below with suspicion-because
it’s new, and because it’s from below.
2. Insist that people who need your approval to act first go
through several other levels of management to get their signatures.
3. Ask departments or individuals to challenge and criticize
each other’s proposals. (That saves you the job of deciding;
you just pick the survivor.)
4. Express your criticisms freely, and withhold your praise.
(That keeps people on their toes.) Let them know they can
be fired at any time.
5. Treat identification of problems as signs of failure, to discourage
people from letting you know when something in
their area isn’t working.
6. Control everything carefully. Make sure people count anything
that can be counted, frequently.
7. Make decisions to reorganize or change policies in secret,
and spring them on people unexpectedly. (That also keeps
people on their toes.)
8. Make sure that requests for information are fully justified,
and make sure that it is not given out to managers freely.
(You don’t want data to fall into the wrong hands.)
9. Assign to lower-level managers, in the name of delegation
and participation, responsibility for figuring out how to cut
back, layoff, move people around, or otherwise implement
threatening decisions you have made. And get them to do it
10. And above all, never forget that you, the higher-ups, already
know everything important about this business.