I had the opportunity to hear Linda Hill of Harvard Business School discuss her current research last week. I'm always interested in listening to academics because they take such a different view of business. Right now, Professor Hill is looking at innovation, and specifically, the type of leadership that enables innovation within an organization.
It's an interesting idea - how do some companies become more innovative, while others don't? Is there a recipe for innovation? Are there specific skills or competencies that you can recruit for to enable innovation? Her research is really looking for a magic bullet - how do you define innovation, and then how do you bring it into your organization?
Hill's defines this leadership challenge as "creating an organization that is willing and able to innovate". As she expanded on the definition, the qualities need to make the organization "willing" aligned with a lot of what we've heard when discussing employee engagement: Shared Purpose, Aligned Values, Clear Rules of Engagement, Collaborative. However as she talked about making an organization "able" to innovate, she went in a different direction. In this area she defined 3 focuses: Creative Abrasion, Creative Agility and Creative Resolution. Her argument was that if you have an engaged and aligned team, you can generate ideas and have high degrees of debate. You can test ideas quickly, running pilot projects, or test cases. You can also make collaborative decisions. She pointed out that in this kind of environment, consensus is not easy to achieve, but you can reach resolutions.
Professor Hill pointed to examples from Pixar and several other companies who have participated in her research, sharing their experiences and approaches. One of the comments from Pixar hit home. The participant said "I don't read these types of books, because they say 'You're the leader, set direction' but by definition, I don't know where I'm going." Hill's response was that leader sets direction by creating the organization culture. It's an interesting way to think of a leader - as someone who sets the scene, not the person who directs the action.
Professor Hill's book is not yet published, but I'm adding it to my watch list. I'm very interested to hear more stories from the companies she's worked with. I think she's on to something in holding leaders accountable for creating a culture of innovation, and can't wait to read more of her research.