Faculty Program Spotlights

For Innovation, a New Kind of Leader

Setting the stage for productive collaboration—and company growth.

Regarded as one of the top experts on leadership, Professor Linda A. Hill chairs the Leadership Initiative at Harvard Business School (HBS) and is coauthor of Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation. She is also faculty chair of the HBS Executive Education program, Leading and Building a Culture of Innovation. Joining her for that program is Maurizio Travaglini, founder of the consulting practice Architects of Group Genius. Below, Hill and Travaglini discuss the program’s unique design and its benefits for senior executives.

Why does it matter whether a company is innovative?

Linda Hill (LH): CEOs—and investors—know that growth is a key driver of valuation. To meet growth goals, companies must be able to innovate. But innovation requires the right kind of leadership. I've heard more than one CEO say, "We put all the tools and processes in place for innovation, and it's still not happening. We've concluded that it's the culture—and the leadership." In other words, if you do not know how to lead innovation, you will not succeed as a senior executive today. That's what our Executive Education program is designed to address.

Maurizio Travaglini (MT): Companies need to continually adapt to new technologies, new cultures, and new ways of doing business. If they cannot do that, they will quickly become less competitive—or even irrelevant—and won't be able to attract talent.

What are some common misconceptions about innovation?

LH: Most people think innovation is just about coming up with new products, new services, or perhaps new business models. Or, they think innovation is solely the concern of tech companies, startups, or companies in newer industries. That's too narrow. We define innovation as anything new and useful that benefits a business. For example, we've seen wonderful innovations around cutting costs. That might mean structuring an organization in a better way or streamlining a business process—or rethinking it completely. A number of companies—both B2C and B2B—are finding new ways to improve the customer experience.

MT: Another misconception, as Linda mentioned, is that the right tools can solve the innovation challenge. Unfortunately, some companies spend millions on tools but don't put in place the environment and social processes needed to create something new. I'm not saying tools aren't useful, but the tools outside of the right context won't have an impact—or could even have a negative impact.

In addition, some leaders see innovation as just another task: "Yesterday we were addressing X, and tomorrow we'll focus on innovation. Let's hire a consultant." Others think they can address innovation through artificial intelligence or the right Big Data project. Those initiatives won't succeed because that's not how innovation works. Instead, leaders need to recognize the fundamental challenge—that people in today's organizations are trained to operate in a way that might support execution, but does not support, and in fact discourages, innovation.

Why did you start researching innovation leadership?

LH: Historically, HBS faculty, including myself, had done a lot of research into leadership and a lot of research into innovation and change, but the work had occurred in silos—the relationship between the two areas had not been adequately studied. Several years ago, I started working with a team to examine the connection between what leaders did and whether their organizations were able to innovate. Our group studied leaders in many different industries around the world who had built a team, a business unit, or an organization that had innovated time and time again.

What did you learn from these leaders?

LH: Some companies have proven their ability to innovate continuously, while others have one high-profile breakthrough and then struggle to repeat that success. Too often, people think that repeated innovation happens because the leader is a visionary—that one person has the big ideas and just needs to get others to execute, à la Steve Jobs. But we found that in organizations with a track record of innovation, the leaders did not define their role that way. While they might have strategic vision, the executives viewed their role as enabling others to innovate and create the future together.

Innovation needs to become a habit. All people in an organization, at all levels, need to think about their current tasks, goals, and mandates—and also about what they could be doing, which involves thinking in a more creative way about their work. This enables both incremental innovations and big breakthroughs. The challenge is building an organization that can do innovative problem solving, no matter what the problem is or what opportunity the company is trying to pursue.

What were the outcomes of this research?

LH: One result was a book, Collective Genius: The Art and Science of Leading Innovation, which I coauthored with Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove, and Kent Lineback. In addition, we built a new model for leading innovation. We had started out thinking that leading innovation would be very similar to leading change, but we were wrong. We found that we could not just apply John Kotter's well-known change model to innovation—we needed a new approach. So, based on our research, we built a framework that helps people understand what they need to create if they want their organization to be more innovative. This framework can be customized to accommodate executives' different leadership style and the unique aspects of national culture that drive how people typically work together.

MT: That flexibility is important. Through research and practice, we've discovered certain principles and approaches that are more constructive and likely to be successful. The framework doesn't tell you exactly what you need to do in your company. Rather, you discover how to adapt the framework to your own organization's needs.

What makes innovation hard?

LH: Our research uncovered several basic principles of innovation. First, innovation is the result of collaborative efforts among people who have different expertise and points of view. Innovation is rarely possible without diversity and frankly, without some conflict, because it requires honesty and straight talk. Ideas need to abrade against each other. Second, innovation requires discovery. You can't plan to innovate or tell someone to innovate tomorrow. It's a discovery learning process that is often iterative because innovations don't come out full-blown.

Third, innovations are rarely completely new—they come from combining two old ideas or an old idea and a new idea. Companies need a way of making decisions that enables the combination of ideas. If you compromise on a solution or you allow one group to dominate the discussion, then you don't get the both/and thinking you need in order to discover the most innovative solution.

Finally, innovation is scary. It's emotionally and intellectually taxing—and involves risk. It's characterized by trial and error, false starts, missteps, and failures. That's not comfortable for a lot of people.

Given those realities, how do leaders create the right conditions for innovation?

MT: Co-creation drives innovation. You can't innovate alone. The leader must create the right environment that enables people to create something new together. A key ingredient: Open permission to fail, learn, and fail again, until something works. In addition, people need to feel they can be candid and authentic, and can participate in true peer-to-peer collaboration. While it's very easy to say that people should feel free to take risks, express themselves, be honest and be collaborative, it's very hard to evolve an organization's culture in that direction.

LH: The culture of innovation starts with the leader's mindset. Leaders needs to see themselves more as stage setters than performers. That shift in mindset is not easy for talented people who have succeeded in the past by being the center of attention. The innovation leaders we studied were not at all lacking in strategic vision—but they knew how to make space for others to collaborate effectively and do that hard work of innovation.

The process of leading innovation is characterized by a number of paradoxes. For example, you have to be patient, but also urgent; you have to work bottom-up, but also top-down; you have to be confrontational, but also supportive. As a leader, you need to be aware of these tensions and learn how to balance them.

What are the goals of the program Leading and Building a Culture of Innovation?

LH: This Executive Education program is designed to help executives really understand the nature of innovation culture and take concrete steps that will increase innovation throughout their organizations. It's important to understand what this program is not—it's not a product strategy program. It's not a program about disruptive innovation in markets. It's not about executing change. Instead, it's a leadership program where you learn how to unleash the creative potential in your colleagues and create a more collaborative, innovative organization that can more effectively accomplish its strategic and operational goals. For example, leaders will be better able to lead their employees to innovate and take full advantage of emerging technologies.

We say that leaders who can nurture that kind of culture based on collaborative innovation are able to unleash the "collective genius" in their organizations—which happens when people work together to produce creative ideas with the potential to make a real difference. They can make the most of the organization's talent by creating a dynamic whole that's truly greater than the sum of the parts.

MT: Innovation culture is very different from what executives are accustomed to, so the program enables executives to experience an innovation-focused culture for themselves. As a result, participants will leave with a much better understanding of the social architecture they must create if they want to have an organization that can innovate. They will have a deeper understanding of the co-creative process they need to put in place.

How is the learning experience different from typical HBS executive programs?

MT: Through this program, we are creating a totally different social, emotional, intellectual, and physical space. We want executives to understand in real depth this phenomenon we call innovation. For that reason, participants will be constantly immersed in a workshop-style environment where they're busy co-creating and co-designing—that's the main vehicle for learning and development in this program. But we will also step back and debrief those sessions and discuss what it takes to create this kind of environment in an organization that doesn’t operate that way today. We’ll also offer insights from the research that will enable them to overcome resistance and avoid the traps other leaders have fallen into.

LH: The physical setup is very different from other HBS Executive Education programs, as participants won't even enter an amphitheater classroom. By learning firsthand what it feels like to experience an innovation culture and work in new ways, executives will gain insight into the behaviors and environmental factors that are most conducive to productive collaboration.

Who is on the teaching team?

LH: The combination of researchers and practitioners on the teaching team is a distinct aspect of the program. For example, Maurizio's strategic design-thinking firm specializes in setting up co-creation labs for companies trying to innovate. He is an expert in this arena—constantly creating environments in which people are willing and able to do this kind of difficult and scary work. Our group exercises are based in part on interventions Maurizio has designed.

We will also have Ryan Raffaelli, one of my colleagues at HBS, who will bring an important organization-wide perspective. He studies how innovations transform industries and how organizations reinvent themselves by redefining their innovation practices. By combining these different angles—research and practice, micro-interactions and cross-organizational transformation—we are bringing together the perspectives that will help leaders make innovation really work in their organizations.

What kinds of executives will benefit most from this program?

LH: This program is not just for R&D leaders or innovation specialists. As every part of the organization can innovate, the program is for all leaders who want their organizations to be more innovative. This includes general managers and other senior executives from any industry, any function, and any size company.

How will you help participants integrate and apply what they've learned?

LH: We don't tell participants how to lead—we help participants learn how to lead. To facilitate that, we have built in opportunity for journaling and reflection, as well as peer coaching and feedback. These activities help participants process what they experience in the program and figure out how they're going to approach innovation once they return to work. In addition, participants work in self-organized small teams—"brain trusts"—that can help to inspire innovation, develop new skills, and integrate program learnings. In these groups, participants will work on an innovation challenge specific to their organization. They will define and refine a key challenge, present it to their brain trust, and obtain helpful advice and feedback. This effort helps make the program learning more concrete and more meaningful—and provides a starting point for building innovation into their company's culture.