Book Excerpt: ‘Collective Genius’

Leaders of innovation teams are successful when they collaborate, engage in discovery-driven learning, and make integrative decisions. Read an excerpt from the book Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation, by Linda Hill and coauthors.
by Linda Hill

Collective Genius: The Art of Practice of Leading Innovationbook excerpt

Leading Innovation

From Collective Genius: The Art of Practice of Leading Innovation

By Linda A. Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove and Kent Linebeck

Though each of our leaders and their firms differed in key ways, all leaders paid particular attention to making sure their organizations were able to:

Engage in discovery-driven learning
Make integrative decisions

Our leaders' uniform emphasis on fostering these three capabilities will not surprise anyone familiar with existing research on innovative prob¬lem solving. Much evidence exists for the importance of each. However, they have been most often studied separately. Because our focus was on leadership in action, we were able to observe how these three interrelated organizational skills work in concert as leaders and their groups undertake to create something novel and useful. Based on those observations, we have developed an integrated framework for understanding, describing, and pre¬scribing how leaders build organizations capable of consistent innovation by focusing on these essential abilities.

Leaders Create Collaborative Organizations

Lore perpetuates the myth of innovation as a solitary act, a flash of creative insight, an Aha! moment in the mind of a genius. People apparently prefer to believe in the rugged individualism of discovery, perhaps because they rarely get to see the sausage-making process behind every breakthrough innovation.

Three decades of research has clearly revealed that innovation is most often a group effort. Thomas Edison, for example, is remembered as prob¬ably the greatest American inventor of the early twentieth century. From his fertile mind came the light bulb and the phonograph, along with more than a thousand other patented inventions over a sixty-year career. But he hardly worked alone. As many have observed, perhaps Edison's greatest contribution was his artisan-oriented shops—a new way of organizing for innovation he created that has evolved into today's R&D laboratory with its team-based approach.

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The process of innovation needs to be collaborative because innovations most often arise from the interplay of ideas that occur during the inter¬actions of people with diverse expertise, experience, or points of view. Flashes of insight may play a role, but most often they simply build on and contribute to the collaborative work of others. Edison may get the credit for his inventions—it was his laboratory, of course—but each one typically arose from years of effort that included many others. Certainly he contributed many ideas himself, but he was equally an inventor and a leader of invention.

Collaboration was obviously a hallmark of Pixar's approach. Without the interplay and collaborative contributions of large numbers of people, it could not make a CG movie. One of Pixar's unusual features as a studio was that all three functions of the organization—art, technology, and business—were considered equal partners in the process of making great films. No one voice dominated, as often happened at other studios.

Another major shortcoming of the diagram in figure 1-1 is that it fails to convey how collaborative the process of making a CG film at Pixar actually was. Pixar instituted a number of practices that fostered collaboration among all the groups and individuals involved. Key among them was the "dailies"—gatherings of Pixar staff to watch and discuss presentations of work in progress. Such meetings occurred at other studios too, but at Pixar a wide array of those working on the production, not just a select few, attended and contributed ideas and comments regardless of their role or level. Thus, not only did individuals receive feedback and guidance on their own work, but they were also able to see the work of others and understand how that work related to their own.

The collaborative nature of innovation is what leads us to talk of slices of genius that come together to create collective genius. No individual contribution will suffice to create a final solution, especially for large, complex problems. But each contribution—through collaboration—plays its part in creating collective genius. In the right organizational context, with the right leadership, a group can amplify the diverse talents and ideas of its individual members.

Leaders Foster Discovery-driven Learning

Innovation usually arises from an often lengthy period of conscious experimentation and repeated trial and error. As intuitive as it sounds, this characteristic also contradicts yet another myth of innovation, that great new ideas spring in full and final form from the mind of the inventor, ready to be applied. Innovation rarely works that way, and that's why the innovation process is usually so messy, which is what we tried to convey in figure 1-2 of the real CG movie-making process.

Since innovation is a problem-solving process, it's really about searching for a solution by creating and testing a portfolio of ideas. It often takes time even to frame a problem in the right way, especially if it's complex.

Consequently, innovation is a process of trial and error, often to embarrassing degrees, even for the most skilled innovators. Thomas Edison used a cut-and-try method—test out an idea to see if it works, reject or refine it, and try again. Hence, Edison's famous definition of genius: "1 percent inspiration; 99 percent perspiration." Missteps, dead ends, and rework are inevitable and must be accepted, even encouraged. Innovation requires a mind-set of try, learn, adjust, try again. In a conversation we had with Catmull about Pixar's enviable track record, he reminded us that "our appetite always exceeded our ability" and that they are in the "business of hitting home runs." He went on to add, however, that if Pixar had "no failures," which he defined as a "less than spectacular outcome," then that would suggest it had lost its passion for doing cutting-edge work. This is why at Pixar, no one got beat up for making a mistake or for trying something that didn't work.

Some who study innovation make much of the difference between idea generation and idea implementation. That's understandable, because ideas must be created before they can be tested or implemented. However, once experimentation begins the distinction quickly makes less sense. Ideas beget experiments and experiments beget more ideas, and any difference between ideation and implementation quickly fades. We know that none of the many innovative companies we studied made much of the difference between the two.

Pixar certainly followed the discovery-driven approach. Yes, it prepared scripts and storyboards in advance of production, but even that process was iterative. People acted out scenes and drew characters again and again, until the characters and story seemed exactly right. But after that, during production, every story element continued to be tested and to evolve based on frequent reviews of work in progress.

Leaders Support And Encourage Integrative Decision Making

Leaders and their groups can resolve problems, disagreements, and conflicting solutions in one of three ways. The leader or some dominant faction can impose a solution. Or the group can find a compromise, some way of splitting the difference between opposing options and viewpoints. Unfortunately, domination or compromise often leads to less than satisfying solutions.

The third way, integrating ideas—combining option A and option B to create something new, option C, that's better than A or B—tends to produce the most innovative solutions. Making integrative choices, which often combine ideas that once seemed in opposition, is what allows difference, conflict, and learning to be embraced in the final solution.

Albert Einstein hinted at the integrative nature of the process when he said, "To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science."8 For him, innovation was about "'combinational chemistry' … about taking ideas, half-baked notions, competencies, concepts, and assets that already sit out there and recombining them … What's new in many instances is the new mix."

So important is integrative decision making that innovative organizations and their leaders don't just allow it, they actively encourage it. They keep opposing options on the table as long as possible because they know fruitful integration can occur only after people have devoted sufficient time to debating options or testing them through trial and error. They also refuse to make trade-offs or accept compromises that merely produce a least-bad solution or allow people to feel good.

The CG process at Pixar was based on the use and value of integration because that process followed a simple principle: no part of a movie is finally done until the entire movie is all done. Anything and everything remained open to revision until the very end. People at Pixar knew that integrative decision making often involved more than simply and mechanically combining ideas.

For example, at a point midway through making a Pixar movie, an animator gave a character a sideward glance and a slightly arched eyebrow. Only a split-second long, it nonetheless hinted at some slyness or irony in the character; maybe he didn't mean exactly what he just said. It was an aspect of the character's personality that hadn't been seen before that scene. The director saw this moment in the daily review of work in progress and said, "No, no. That's out of character. This is the most innocent, straightforward guy you'd ever meet. What you see and hear is what you get. Nicely done, but it doesn't fit here. Lose it, please."

Then, two weeks later, the director came back with a different reaction.

"I've been thinking about that moment, that little revelation, where we see a side of this guy we've never seen before. It makes his character richer and more interesting. In fact, it will help set up and explain some events that happen later. Let's keep it. Tone it down a notch. But put it back."

Though it was a small thing, adding that touch of irony improved the character and the story. It happened because an animator almost inadvertently added his understanding of the character, his slice of genius, in the process of animation, and that led the director to reconceive the character in a subtle but important way.

The problem, as it emerged in subsequent discussions, was that this new character twist couldn't just appear suddenly halfway through the story. The viewer would react the way the director reacted initially. So earlier scenes had to be adapted to hint at this aspect of the character so that the viewer's reaction would be, "Oh, yeah, I saw that coming," rather than,

"What!? I'm confused!" Also, of course, later scenes, which were already in various stages of production, had to be revised to take advantage of this new character element. If the story had been fixed and immutable, if the director hadn't been able to hold opposing views of the character in his mind until they could merge, none of that could have happened and the story would have been worse for it.

At Pixar, people knew the heart of a good movie was a good story, and they knew stories would get better throughout the process of making them. The stories got better through constant iteration; through trying dif¬ferent approaches, including approaches that at first seemed inconsistent; through the involvement of lots of talented people, like that animator; and through a willingness to wait and see what worked and what needed tightening or expanding.

When Pixar finished Toy Story 2, which took an incredible toll on all involved, it assembled a cross section of people to explore ways of avoiding so much pressure in making future films. One of the key suggestions was to lock the story—not allow any further changes after some point early in the process. Constant story iterations and changes are the source of much stress because they almost always have implications that ripple throughout the film and force multiple changes, as we just saw.

In that postmortem, one employee recalled that John Lasseter, director of the film and a cofounder of Pixar, responded to the idea by saying, "We need to focus on quality and that only happens by iterating. If we lock in the story, we will be disappointed. I can't do it. I know it would save us pain, but Hollywood is littered with films that refused to change." By refusing to lock a story, Pixar was able to put a variety of ideas on the table and keep them there until they began to gel, often in ways that no one could ever have anticipated.

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