I have a confession to make. I'm a business professor whose ambition has been to help people learn to lead. But recently, I've discovered that what many of us think of as great leadership does not work when it comes to leading innovation.
I'm an ethnographer. I use the methods of anthropology to understand the questions in which I'm interested. So along with three co-conspirators, I spent nearly a decade observing up close and personal exceptional leaders of innovation. We studied 16 men and women, located in seven countries across the globe, working in 12 different industries. In total, we spent hundreds of hours on the ground, on-site, watching these leaders in action. We ended up with pages and pages and pages of field notes that we analyzed and looked for patterns in what our leaders did. The bottom line? If we want to build organizations that can innovate time and again, we must unlearn our conventional notions of leadership.
Leading innovation is not about creating a vision, and inspiring others to execute it. But what do we mean by innovation? An innovation is anything that is both new and useful. It can be a product or service. It can be a process or a way of organizing. It can be incremental, or it can be breakthrough. We have a pretty inclusive definition.
How many of you recognize this man? Put your hands up. Keep your hands up, if you know who this is. How about these familiar faces? (Laughter) From your show of hands, it looks like many of you have seen a Pixar movie, but very few of you recognized Ed Catmull, the founder and CEO of Pixar -- one of the companies I had the privilege of studying.
My first visit to Pixar was in 2005, when they were working on "Ratatouille," that provocative movie about a rat becoming a master chef. Computer-generated movies are really mainstream today, but it took Ed and his colleagues nearly 20 years to create the first full-length C.G. movie. In the 20 years hence, they've produced 14 movies. I was recently at Pixar, and I'm here to tell you that number 15 is sure to be a winner.
When many of us think about innovation, though, we think about an Einstein having an 'Aha!' moment. But we all know that's a myth. Innovation is not about solo genius, it's about collective genius. Let's think for a minute about what it takes to make a Pixar movie: No solo genius, no flash of inspiration produces one of those movies. On the contrary, it takes about 250 people four to five years, to make one of those movies.
To help us understand the process, an individual in the studio drew a version of this picture. He did so reluctantly, because it suggested that the process was a neat series of steps done by discrete groups. Even with all those arrows, he thought it failed to really tell you just how iterative, interrelated and, frankly, messy their process was.
Throughout the making of a movie at Pixar, the story evolves. So think about it. Some shots go through quickly. They don't all go through in order. It depends on how vexing the challenges are that they come up with when they are working on a particular scene. So if you think about that scene in "Up" where the boy hands the piece of chocolate to the bird, that 10 seconds took one animator almost six months to perfect.
The other thing about a Pixar movie is that no part of the movie is considered finished until the entire movie wraps. Partway through one production, an animator drew a character with an arched eyebrow that suggested a mischievous side. When the director saw that drawing, he thought it was great. It was beautiful, but he said, "You've got to lose it; it doesn't fit the character." Two weeks later, the director came back and said, "Let's put in those few seconds of film." Because that animator was allowed to share what we referred to as his slice of genius, he was able to help that director reconceive the character in a subtle but important way that really improved the story.
What we know is, at the heart of innovation is a paradox. You have to unleash the talents and passions of many people and you have to harness them into a work that is actually useful. Innovation is a journey. It's a type of collaborative problem solving, usually among people who have different expertise and different points of view.
Experiments are usually about learning. When you get a negative outcome, you're still really learning something that you need to know. Pilots are often about being right. When they don't work, someone or something is to blame. The final capability is creative resolution. This is about doing decision making in a way that you can actually combine even opposing ideas to reconfigure them in new combinations to produce a solution that is new and useful. When you look at innovative organizations, they never go along to get along. They don't compromise. They don't let one group or one individual dominate, even if it's the boss, even if it's the expert. Instead, they have developed a rather patient and more inclusive decision making process that allows for both/and solutions to arise and not simply either/or solutions. These three capabilities are why we see that Pixar is able to do what it does.
Why is it that Pixar and Google are able to innovate time and again? It's because they've mastered the capabilities required for that. They know how to do collaborative problem solving, they know how to do discovery-driven learning and they know how to do integrated decision making.
Some of you may be sitting there and saying to yourselves right now, "We don't know how to do those things in my organization. So why do they know how to do those things at Pixar, and why do they know how to do those things at Google?" When many of the people that worked for Bill told us, in their opinion, that Bill was one of the finest leaders in Silicon Valley, we completely agreed; the man is a genius.
Leadership is the secret sauce. But it's a different kind of leadership, not the kind many of us think about when we think about great leadership. One of the leaders I met with early on said to me, "Linda, I don't read books on leadership. All they do is make me feel bad." (Laughter) "In the first chapter they say I'm supposed to create a vision. But if I'm trying to do something that's truly new, I have no answers. I don't know what direction we're going in and I'm not even sure I know how to figure out how to get there." For sure, there are times when visionary leadership is exactly what is needed.
But if we want to build organizations that can innovate time and again, we must recast our understanding of what leadership is about. Leading innovation is about creating the space where people are willing and able to do the hard work of innovative problem solving.
Some of you may be wondering now, what are these people thinking? They're thinking, "I'm not the visionary, I'm the social architect. I'm creating the space where people are willing and able to share and combine their talents and passions." If some of you are worrying now that you don't work at a Pixar, or you don't work at a Google, I want to tell you there's still hope. We've studied many organizations that were really not organizations you'd think of as ones where a lot of innovation happens.
We studied a general counsel in a pharmaceutical company who had to figure out how to get the outside lawyers, 19 competitors, to collaborate and innovate. We studied the head of marketing at a German automaker where, fundamentally, they believed that it was the design engineers, not the marketeers, who were allowed to be innovative. We also studied Vineet Nayar at HCL Technologies, an Indian outsourcing company. When we met Vineet, his company was about, in his words, to become irrelevant. We watched as he turned that company into a global dynamo of I.T. innovation. At HCL technologies, like at many companies, the leaders had learned to see their role as setting direction and making sure that no one deviated from it. What he did is tell them it was time for them to think about rethinking what they were supposed to do. Because what was happening is that everybody was looking up and you weren't seeing the kind of bottom-up innovation we saw at Pixar or Google. So they began to work on that.
They stopped giving answers, they stopped trying to provide solutions. Instead, what they did is they began to see the people at the bottom of the pyramid, the young sparks, the people who were closest to the customers, as the source of innovation. They began to transfer the organization's growth to that level. In Vineet's language, this was about inverting the pyramid so that you could unleash the power of the many by loosening the stranglehold of the few, and increase the quality and the speed of innovation that was happening every day.
For sure, Vineet and all the other leaders that we studied were in fact visionaries. For sure, they understood that that was not their role. So I don't think it is accidental that many of you did not recognize Ed. Because Ed, like Vineet, understands that our role as leaders is to set the stage, not perform on it. If we want to invent a better future, and I suspect that's why many of us are here, then we need to reimagine our task. Our task is to create the space where everybody's slices of genius can be unleashed and harnessed, and turned into works of collective genius.
saving score / loading statistics ...