If You Don’t Lead Innovation, You Aren’t a Leader. (And you won’t stay in business very long.)

by Jesse Lahey on August 11, 2014

Conventional wisdom says creativity is the realm of advertising, and innovation the job of product development.


We wouldn’t expect to find the IT or Finance departments bursting with innovation.

But Google could never have grown from a startup in 1998 to the market dominator, with over one million servers, without an IT team that was constantly working on never-tried-before ways to handle the load and storage needs of its exploding user base. (Google now has over one million servers handling one billion search requests a day.)

And Pixar Animation Studios would not have made 14 of the 50 highest-grossing animated films of all time, without an IT team to keep up with the award-winning animators’ artistic innovations – and to inspire them to go further. “The art challenges technology,” says John Lasseter, chief creative officer of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios. “And technology inspires the art.”

It’s the 21st century. The business environment is changing so fast that to survive and thrive, your organization needs every department to innovate – again and again, continually and consistently.

Innovation cannot be compelled or commanded; it’s completely voluntary. But it’s rare for an organization to consistently create new and useful innovations. As the new book Collective Genius points out, great leadership is necessary to both unleash the talents of individuals and harness the creativity into a collective solution.

Myth: Innovation is a solitary act, a flash of creative insight, an Aha! moment in the mind of a genius.
Reality: Innovation is most often a group effort.
Implication: Leaders create collaborative organizations that provide an interplay of ideas from people with diverse expertise, experience, or points of view.

Myth: Great ideas spring in full and final form from the mind of the inventor.
Reality: Innovation is a problem-solving process of framing a problem in the right way, and creating and testing a portfolio of ideas.
Implication: Leaders encourage learning by discovery. They support experimentation, intellectual diversity, and constructive conflict – and they tolerate intelligent missteps.

Myth: The leader’s role is to set a vision and inspire people to execute that vision.
Reality: To create something truly new and useful, you as an individual cannot know exactly where to go.
Implication: Leaders of innovation see their most important role as creating the intellectual space for the team to collectively do the work of innovation.

As I’ve written before on the topic of Influence 3.0, it used to be sufficient to manage: working through people to get things done. Then the world changed, and we needed to lead: casting a vision and inspiring people to get the RIGHT things done. Now, we must engage: cultivating, stimulating, unleashing, and focusing a team to serve a shared purpose that they define and shape together.

The world is changing fast. Over and over again, your team must tackle those “deliciously wicked” problems that call for a truly original response. As smart as you may be, you don’t have all the answers; in such a rapidly changing environment, you don’t even have all the questions. Regardless of your scope or department, you need a team that innovates; you need to engage creativity at both the individual level and the organizational level. You need to be a leader of collective genius.

If you haven’t figured that out, you aren’t a leader … or at least, you won’t be one for very long.

Don’t Miss Our Interview with Greg Brandeau!

Greg has served as chief tech executive at some amazing companies (such as NeXT, Pixar, and Disney), working with amazing people (such as Steve Jobs, Edwin Catmull, and John Lasseter). Along the way, he discovered that some companies innovate time and time again, and other companies do not. He and three colleagues researched this and wrote Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation, the new book published by Harvard Business Review. Their results may surprise you. Be sure to catch our upcoming interview with Greg!

Jesse Lahey, SPHR, is the host of the Engaging Leader podcast and managing principal of Aspendale Communications. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. If you know anyone who would benefit from this information, please share it!

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