November 2014

What Fuels Innovation?

For Linda Hill ’77, the demands of innovation require a different kind of leadership. Her must-read book offers real-world insights on how to create a culture that nurtures innovation.

By Christine Connelly

Portrait by Mitch Weiss


Linda Hill ’77

With the recent publication of her book, it would seem that Linda Hill ’77 could finally put to rest her freshman English teacher’s admonishment that Hill was “the worst writer she had ever read.” Perhaps there is just a tiny bit of poetic justice that Business Insider named Hill’s Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation one of “The 20 Best Business Books to Read This Summer” in 2014.

Instead, for Hill, that Bryn Mawr moment has provided a lifelong lesson. “I learned at Bryn Mawr that you can strive for perfection, but you also need to be OK with falling short.” And, even more important for this prolific writer and the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, “sometimes you have to do something over and over again to get it right. I am always willing to try again the next day.”

Given that she co-authored Collective Genius with three other writers, this cheerful willingness to revise and rethink came in handy. “We wanted to write a book that combined our data with a fuller context—one that allowed the reader to learn from a master’s experience—but I was surprised by how hard it was to integrate the stories. We had no model for our rather unique structure among business books.”

Collective Genius features the insights of and lessons learned by a number of leaders of innovation. Covering a wide range of industries—such as information technology, law, and design—the book includes glimpses inside Pixar Animation Studios, HCL Technologies, Volkswagen, Pentagram, eBay, and Acumen, among others.

Hill and her coauthors refute the commonly held notion that successful leaders of innovation have to be visionaries themselves who single-handedly set a course for their organization to follow. Instead they argue that innovation can only be achieved—and sustained—in an environment where many members of the organization or “slices of genius” are “both willing and able to do the hard work that innovative problem solving requires.”

Through lively (even heated) debate, various learning styles, generational differences, and unique professional experiences, the authors experienced firsthand their own creative abrasion, one of three abilities that they argue are essential to an organization being able to innovate. “It was really helpful to have all four unique points of view and be pushed by each other even if it resulted in many, many more drafts,” Hill says.

The other essential abilities are creative agility (being able to test, adjust, and refine ideas) and creative resolution (knowing how to make decisions that integrate the best aspects of different or opposing ideas).

In tandem with these essential abilities, Hill argues that an organization must also be willing. This means “creating a sense of community with a shared purpose, common values, and clear rules of engagement.” With both willingness and ability on hand, all that is left is managing to both “unleash” and “harness” the many “slices of genius” that exist in one’s organization.

Therein lies the paradox—or paradoxes, according to Hill. Leading innovation and finding an organization’s “collective genius” takes courage and persistence. After all, the key is allowing experimentation while expecting performance, making room for improvisation while maintaining structure, having patience while sustaining urgency, supporting bottom-up initiative while providing top-down intervention, honoring the individual while creating a group identity, and offering support while being comfortable with confrontation.

As Hill asks, “Can a leader push for boldness and support the messiness and missteps that happen when you are bold?”

Yet, if she were to give any advice to President Cassidy as she commences her presidency at Bryn Mawr, it is to be bold. “The bolder you are in your ambitions, the greater your need is to innovate.”

Through all of her teaching, writing, consulting, and board work, Hill’s Bryn Mawr roots continue to nurture her work. “The College is where I learned to ask questions as well as frame and solve problems,” she says. “It is where I gained the confidence that I am fundamentally well-educated and infinitely resourceful. It is also where I learned humility about what I don’t know.”

She credits her liberal arts education with her continuing quest for both broad and deep understanding. “With interdisciplinary study comes breadth, while depth and expertise come through your major and take time,” Hill says. “By honing both, you are better able to collaborate and share your expertise.”

In fact, Hill continues to pay forward her certainty in the value of the liberal arts whenever she seeks out a new research associate. Her favorite majors to hire? Creative writing, religion, or art history majors. “I can teach them business along the way, but I want to be sure they know how to read critically and write effectively from the outset.”


From Collective Genius

Book Cover

Collective Genius

Search the literature and you’ll discover what we found—volumes of research on innovation and as many or more on leadership, but almost nothing on the connection between the two. Why is this so? Perhaps practicing leaders and management thinkers have simply assumed a “good” leader in all other respects would be an effective leader of innovation as well. If that’s the case, however, we must report it’s a deeply flawed and even dangerous assumption. Leading innovation and what is widely considered good leadership, we found, are not the same.

We know this because for more than a decade we’ve been studying leaders who were proven masters at fostering organizational innovation. The people they led, from small teams to vast enterprises, were able to produce innovative solutions again and again.

What we found in our research—confirmed, actually—was the critical role of the leader. That leadership matters to innovation should come as no surprise. Look beneath the surface of almost anything produced by an organization that is new, useful, and even moderately complex, and you’ll almost certainly discover it came from multiple hands, not the genius of some solitary inventor. Innovation is a “team sport,” as one leader told us, in which individual effort becomes something more. Somehow, in the language we’ve come to use, truly innovative groups are consistently able to elicit and then combine members’ separate slices of genius into a single work of collective genius. Creating and sustaining an organization capable of doing that again and again is what we saw our leaders do…. In studying these leaders, we found, above all, that leadership as it’s widely understood and practiced today isn’t what these leaders of innovation were doing.

The source of this discrepancy, we suspect, is that over the past few decades, the leader’s role has become equated with setting out a vision and inspiring people to follow. This conception of the leader’s role can work well when the solution to a problem is known and straightforward, but is counterproductive when it’s not. If a problem calls for a truly original response, no one can know in advance what that response should be. By definition, then, leading innovation cannot be about creating and selling a vision to people who are somehow inspired to execute that vision….

What we observed across all the diverse individuals and organizations we studied was a surprisingly consistent view of the leader’s role in innovation, which can be expressed this way: Instead of trying to come up with a vision and make innovation happen themselves, a leader of innovation creates a place—a context, an environment—where people are willing and able to do the hard work that innovative problem solving requires. One of the leaders we studied neatly summed this up by repeating a line he had heard from a CEO he admired. “My job,” he said, “is to set the stage, not to perform on it.”

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation by Linda Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove, and Kent Lineback. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.


A Career in Leadership

Linda Hill’s entire career has been about helping organizations and individuals lead change and innovation. As faculty chair of the Leadership Initiative at Harvard Business School, she has chaired numerous executive education programs, including the High Potentials Leadership Program. Her last book, with co-author Kent Lineback, Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives of Becoming a Great Leader was touted by the Wall Street Journal as one of the “Five Business Books to Read for Your Career in 2011.”

Named by Thinkers50 as one of the top 10 management thinkers in the world, Hill has worked with Accenture, The Economist, General Electric, IBM, MasterCard, Mitsubishi, Morgan Stanley, the National Bank of Kuwait, Pfizer, and Reed Elsevier. A special representative to Bryn Mawr’s board of trustees, she also sits on the board of directors of State Street Corporation, Eaton Corp., and Harvard Business Publishing; is a trustee of the Bridgespan Group and the Art Center College of Design; and serves on the board of advisors of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund USA, the advisory board of the Aspen Institute Business and Society Program, and the editorial board of Leadership Quarterly.

Comments on “What Fuels Innovation?”

  1. I have read this article on Linda Hill with great interest, and am surprised at the harsh comment of her freshman English professor about her writing ability. I was a Ph.D. student in the department of Psychology during the time Linda was at BMC. As a graduate teaching assistant, I ran the laboratory component of the Introductory Psychology course. Linda Hill was one of my students. She was so outstanding in her written assignments and classroom participation as to be unforgettable. Her written assignments were flawless. They were extremely well written, precise, and remarkably insightful. Her oral comments were well composed and to-the-point. Over the many years since then, I do not know that I have ever seen a more brilliant student. I am pleased that she has achieved the level of success that she so clearly deserved.