Creating collaborative leaders

Innovation relies on collaboration, which needs a leader who can nurture talent

Few would disagree that innovation is the key not just to business success but to survival. But while innovation consistently tops the CEO wish list, or is cited as a number one challenge, many firms struggle to get it right.

Linda Hill, Wallace Brett Donham professor of business administration and faculty chair, leadership initiative, at Harvard Business School, believes that’s because leadership and innovation are often explored separately, whereas organisations need to address both subjects together. Making innovation happen requires a special type of leader.

And she adds that while many people believe the “myth” that innovation comes from a single moment of individual genius, that’s just not how it works. So, how can HR create the conditions to help it happen?

Hill, who is co-author of Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation, was speaking to HR magazine at an exclusive event for the HR in the Boardroom programme alumni. Read on for some of her top tips for creating a culture of innovation and the people who can lead it.

A collective activity

We need to get rid of the myth of the lone creative genius. “Most innovations are the result of collaborative problem-solving by diverse individuals,” Hill explains. “That’s collective genius and collaborative effort. The role of the leader is to unleash the diverse slices of genius in their organisation and harness them.”

In her book, Hill and her co-authors explore organisations where successful innovation happens time and again, such as Pixar, thanks to ‘collective genius’ and effective leadership. She says: “If you want innovation, you need collaborative problem-solving among diverse individuals and you have to do discovery-driven learning.”

The problem is leaders are often fed the idea that they need to be ‘visionaries’, whereas Hill argues that leaders need to unleash and gently guide the “talent and passions” of others, at all levels of the organisation. “It’s not about you as the leader,” she explains. “There is a role for a visionary leadership in leading change, but leading innovation is different.”

Culture of community

Hill’s innovative leaders all manage to build what she terms a “culture of community”. They are great at articulating what makes their work meaningful and tend to have excellent communication skills. “There is an emergent bottom-up approach, which is where most innovation comes from,” she adds.

Even though the organisations she has studied all have very different cultures, they all had common sets of core values. “They have bold ambition and while they don’t value risk, they know there will be failures – they just want them to be intelligent failures,” Hill says. “They value learning, collaboration and a sense of responsibility.”

And although they are good at encouraging and guiding collaboration, that doesn’t stop these leaders being decisive and intervening when they need to.

A “culture of community” means understanding that innovation is both emotionally and intellectually tasking, and making sure people are comfortable enough to take calculated risks. “There has be enough psychological safety for people to want to take those risks,” Hill says. “Collaboration is hard work; even if you have the tools, people will only collaborate if it’s worth it to them.”

But in a tough economy, Hill acknowledges external pressure means “there’s not a lot of psychological safety at work for anybody”. “Boards say they want more innovation but there are so many pressures to be short term,” she points out, adding that it took Pixar 20 years to create the first CG film. “Thinking that way is not necessarily something most CEOs feel comfortable doing, but we all need to learn how to work within these new models.”

Be deliberate

Experiential learning for leaders is becoming more popular and can help to inspire new thinking about innovation. But to truly reap the benefits of experiential programmes, you need to do it in a “more deliberate way”, says Hill.

She advises asking two questions. What kind of leader are you going to need in the future compared to the present? And what kinds of experiences would you give them now compared to 15 years ago? For example, she suggests, should it be a requirement for all leaders to spend time working in digital?

For experiential learning to be effective, it needs to be “messy” and have “bold ambition”. It’s about offering messier, less structured opportunities – such as working in diverse teams to come up with ideas that benefit society and drive profit. “Give people more opportunities and experiences to work on things that require them to be entrepreneurial and work with people who are different,” Hill suggests. Effective assignments could also include helping your high potentials to sit on the boards of not-for-profits.

If you are putting people into diverse working groups, finding experienced coaches to help them is a good idea. “You need people who can act as ‘bridgers’,” explains Hill. “Think through the kinds of experiences you want them to have, the coaches you want to put them in touch with, and the role models you want them to see,” she says.

And although traditional career paths mean people can be obsessed with climbing the ladder, don’t discount the value of lateral moves. “People can be reluctant to move laterally, but lateral movement can be critical for collaboration,” she explains.

Not the usual suspects

Do you know who your ‘positive deviants’ are? Find them, and solve your innovation challenges, as Hill believes many of the people you need are already inside your organisation.

“Who’s collaborating anyway, even in a hostile environment?” she asks. “Those are your positive deviants. Study them. They have to be your champions, not senior managers. The solution is already in your organisation. Tap into the people who are already solving the problem for you, then build systems and processes that support them.”

She worries that often the people who are most supportive of innovation are “invisible” in the organisation because they are so collaborative. Their style of decision-making even means they get passed over for senior roles.

This is something HR needs to be aware of. “[Great collaborators] are not trying to be the smartest person in the room, and they are not the most outspoken; are they behaving in ways that are getting missed by your competency list?” asks Hill.

She adds HRDs increasingly have more power and influence in organisations because they understand talent, but says talent needs to go beyond the top of the organisation, to the frontline. “You need to think about talent more broadly in flatter, leaner organisations,” she says.

And when it comes to high potentials, Hill suggests letting people put themselves forward as opposed to using your standard performance criteria: “Why not give people the opportunity to volunteer to develop their leadership skills? They may uncover talents you didn’t know they had.”

Join the boardroom

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