What allows a creative enterprise—a film studio, a design firm, a start-up—to flourish? It’s an old question, but one that has become increasingly relevant in the transition to an information economy. In the new book Collective Genius, a creative team came together to offer their insights: Linda A. Hill, of Harvard Business School; Greg Brandeau, of Pixar and Walt Disney; Emily Truelove, of the MIT Sloan School of Management; and Kent Lineback, an experienced executive and co-author with Hill of Being the Boss. Hill was interviewed by Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook.
How did you come to be interested in this topic? Why is it so interesting to you?
I became a professor of business because I feel that unless you develop the economy, everyone suffers. And I became interested in innovation, in part, because we have so many complex problems and opportunities out there in the world, both in business and in society at large that need innovative solutions. We need a lot of new thinking and new ways of doing things in order to address them. That is why I am interested in business, and particularly, in what leaders of businesses do that makes the difference. If we can build organizations that are willing and able to innovate time and again, then I think we can create better societies. That is what drives me personally.
What do you think are the biggest misunderstandings that people have about what it takes to lead a creative effort?
Many people believe in the myth that innovation happens when a solo genius has an “aha” moment, but that is usually not the way. In fact, most innovations happen through collaboration, with many false starts and missteps along the way. Often, innovations result from combinations of many ideas, even old ideas being combined in new ways or being applied to new circumstances.
Think about it this way: when we are trying to do something truly new—when we are far out on the cutting edge—we cannot know (by definition) where to go or maybe even how to get there. Instead, we have to act and learn our way forward, to discover what that new future is going to be.
So, great innovation leaders see their role not as visionaries, but as social architects. This does not mean they lack vision. To the contrary, many are quite visionary. But because they understand how innovation really happens, they reject that leadership ideal. They understand that their job is to set the stage, not perform on it.
What do creative workers most need from a leader?
Think about what it takes to create a film at Pixar. No solitary genius, no flash of inspiration, produced those movies. It takes about 250 people working diligently for 4 to 5 years to make one film.
To help us understand the process, someone from the studio drew us a diagram listing the 13 departments required to make a movie, and the basic order in which they did their work. And then he added in a ton of feedback loops to try to capture for us how interrelated, iterative, and frankly messy the steps of the process truly are.
Throughout the making of a Pixar film, the story evolves. Different shots and scenes move through the production pipeline at different speeds and not in order. Some move quickly, while others take months or longer because they represent unprecedented artistic or technical challenges—like Sully’s fur in Monsters, Inc. or the shadows under the cars in Cars. Ten seconds of film (like in the movie Up when the boy hands the chocolate to the big bird) can take even the most gifted animator six months to perfect.
And at Pixar, no part of a movie is considered finished until the entire movie is done. Halfway through the making of one movie, an animator gave a character a slightly arched eyebrow, suggesting a mischievous side. The director saw this moment in a daily review of the work in progress and said, “No, no. That’s out of character. Nicely done, but lose it.”
A few weeks later, the director came back with a different reaction. He’d been thinking about those few seconds of film and concluded they should put it in. Because an animator added his personal take—what we call his “slice of genius”—the director was able to reconceive the character in a subtle but important way and improve the story.
You see, the unavoidable paradox at the heart of innovation is the need to unleash the talents of individuals and harness those talents in the form of a solution that is useful to the organization.
Innovation is a journey, a collaborative problem-solving process—most often among people with diverse perspectives and expertise. And very rarely are innovations developed full blown; rather, they are created through a process of trial and error, false starts, missteps, and even mistakes. The process can be exhilarating. But as many of us here know all too well, innovative problem-solving can be downright scary, as one of our leaders put it.
Can you give a few examples of this balancing act in action?
Let’s look at another example, the infrastructure group at Google. This group is responsible for keeping Google’s search engine and applications up and running 24/7—you can imagine what a wicked set of problems that presents.
When Google was preparing to introduce Gmail and YouTube, they knew their data storage system at the time was inadequate. Bill Coughran (then the SVP of engineering) and the infrastructure group were charged with tackling this mission-critical task.
Instead of picking a team, Bill elected to let small project teams emerge and organize, as he put it, “spontaneously around different solutions.” Two separate groups soon coalesced around promising alternatives. One group, Big Table, proposed an evolutionary approach building upon the current system. The other, Build it From Scratch, thought it was time to build a brand new system.
Separately, both teams were allowed to work full-time on their ideas. Even working at breakneck speeds, the process took two years. In periodic engineering reviews, Bill and his braintrust (which is how he referred to his leadership team) worked to “drive debate” and “inject honesty” (to use their words) into each team’s thinking.
Both teams were encouraged to build prototypes so they could “bump up” against reality and discover for themselves the pluses and minuses of their proposed solutions. The Build It from Scratch team shared their prototype with the Operations group whose beepers would go off in the middle of the night if a problem arose with the website. They heard loud and clear about the limitations of their design.
As the evidence came in, it became clear that the Big Table system was the better alternative for the time being—frankly, the need for a solution was becoming urgent. But to ensure that the knowledge gained by the Build it From Scratch team was retained, Bill asked members of that team to join a new team that was emerging to take on the next big infrastructure challenge.
One of the engineers had complained to Bill early on that they were all too busy for the “inefficient” practice of running parallel experiments. But by the end of the process, that engineer told us that he saw the wisdom of letting smart people play out their particular passions. If people had been forced onto one big team, their focus might have been about winning and proving whose solution was right rather than learning and discovering the best solution.
Bill and the leaders at Pixar both understood that most innovations are the result of bottom-up, not top-down initiatives. As Bill told us, “talented, passionate people don’t want to follow you to create a better future; they want to co-create it with you.” So he intervened in a top-down way only when necessary. He explained to us that finding the right balance between patience and urgency wasn’t easy. His dilemma was to give the two teams the time they needed to develop and test their ideas, all the while urging them forward as quickly as possible to meet Google’s bold ambitions and pressing needs.
What abilities do these successful organizations share?
History is littered with star-studded teams that fail. Such failures are often attributed to the pitfalls of having “too many cooks in the kitchen.” So why are organizations like Pixar and the infrastructure group at Google—which are full of talented people—able to innovate time and again?
Whether we were looking at an Islamic bank in Dubai, a luxury goods retailer in Korea, or the global marketing division of a German automaker, we found that innovative organizations are communities that have mastered three capabilities critical to innovation: creative abrasion, creative agility, and creative resolution.
Creative abrasion refers to the ability to generate a marketplace of ideas through discourse and debate. Innovative organizations know how to amplify, rather than minimize differences. We’re not just talking about brainstorming, which asks people to suspend their judgment and share their ideas no matter how “off-the-wall” or “half-baked.” Creative abrasion is about having heated, yet healthy, arguments to generate a portfolio of alternatives. People in innovative organizations have learned how to inquire, actively listen, and advocate for their point of view. They understand that you rarely get innovation without diversity of thought and conflict.
Creative agility is the ability to test and refine ideas through quick pursuit, reflection, and adjustment. This is about knowing how to do the kind of discovery-driven learning associated with design thinking—that interesting mix of the scientific method and the artistic process. Creative agility is about acting your way, as opposed to planning your way, to a solution. It is about running a series of experiments, not pilots. Pilots are often about being right—when they don’t work, something or someone is to blame. Experiments, by contrast, are about learning—and a negative outcome can provide important insights.
The third capability, creative resolution, is the ability to do integrative decision-making so that diverse ideas, even opposable ones, can be combined or reconfigured to create a new solution. In innovative organizations, people are not willing to go along to get along. They do not allow one individual or group to dominate—not the bosses, not the experts. They do not compromise or take the path of least resistance. Creative resolution requires a patient and inclusive decision-making approach that allows for “both-and” versus “either-or” solutions to be embraced.