I can be a bit of a lone wolf at times. Not that I hate people in general, but my ego tends to get in the way of me interaction with others on occasion. I can figure out the solution to everyone’s problem if you just leave me alone and let me work. It’s the reason I like yard work: just me and my earbuds making my yard a better place. Unfortunately, reality doesn’t really match up with my ego.
The best work I’ve ever done is when I’m part of a team.
Linda Hill understands this better than most. The Harvard Business School professor studied 16 innovation leaders from 7 countries and 12 different industries for a decade. Her book Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation details her findings.
One would think that shadowing visionaries from companies like Pixar, Google, HCL, and others would point to innovation pouring out from these leaders. Their singular focus carries companies into new frontiers right?
In reality, these leaders distinguished themselves by creating the right environment. Not the right ideas alone. Hill spoke about 3 ways leaders can create that environment in her TED Talk How To Manage For Collective Creativity. They are accompanied by quotes from her study’s subjects.
“I set the stage, not perform on it.”
Creative abrasion sets the stage for focused and heated arguments to advocate for certain points of view. This can be hard to let happen, especially if you want everyone to get along like I do. To get ideas flowing, Hill encourages leaders to ignore the peacekeeper in all of us and bring on the friction.
“Leaders create a marketplace of ideas through debate and discourse,” she says. “It’s not about brainstorming. Innovation rarely happens without diversity and conflict.” Mentioned in this space before, friction arises when you find experiments that fail. It also comes when you embrace your individual disadvantages and defer to the strength of the team.
Getting along may be great when you are nearing shipment, but in the early stages of ideation there must be an opportunity to butt heads a bit.
“I’m not the visionary, I’m the architect.”
Creative agility is a theory many hold dear, and is easier to put into practice than some think. Hill uses the architect analogy, but I like to think of it from a scientific perspective. By testing and refining ideas through constant reflection and adjustment, we learn about our product and users along the way.
The key, according to Hill, is how you view the outcome of the experiment. Many embrace testing, but have a specific outcome already in mind. If successful, everyone is happy, but we know that isn’t always the case. Pilot programs that focus on being right can sometimes turn to blame when the experiment isn’t successful.
Learning doesn’t care about the outcome. Focus your team on finding the answer that’s best, not proving anyone right.
“I lead a volunteer organization.”
Creative resolution comes during decision time, but does not signal the end of experimentation. At Bottle Rocket, we are asking ourselves the tough questions right up to the end, because there might be a better way we hadn’t thought of. We relish polishing the underside of the table.
Resolving might be more about taking the best option at the time, or choosing to wait until you can learn more. Leaders must, “combine opposable ideas and reconfigure them in new combinations that are new and usable,” according to Hill.
“Never go along to get along,” she says. “Don’t compromise. Solutions can be ‘both,/and’ not just ‘either/or.'” Binary thinking can get you into trouble, because creativity often comes from an unlikely place.
We walk ideas down the hallway. Asking if the button makes sense in the position it’s in. Validating that the on-boarding screen is readable. Ensuring the server lag is acceptable for the typical user. If we can’t find the best answer with our peers, stall long enough to get deeper testing set up or a meeting with the top stakeholder.
Never stop learning.
Hill added a caveat from her study here. The innovative companies she worked with had a tendency to rely on more than just top-down thinking. Creativity often came from the youngest team members at the bottom of the organization. This continues the notion that ideas come from the unlikeliest locations.
Is it someone’s first sprint with the team? Hand them a marker and have them list the things they don’t understand about the product. If you can’t give them a solid reason, you might be onto something. Add them to the backlog and start iterating.