Friday, July 4, 2014

Review of 'Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation,' by Linda A. Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove & Kent Lineback (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2014)

The Introduction to Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation calls for a different kind of leader who creates organizations both willing and able to innovate.  From that innocuous opening, this new study quickly moves to engage the challenges and complexities confronting those wanting to enable innovation.  Much of the complexity is captured in six paradoxes – from “support” and “confrontation” to “bottom up” and “top down” – that create ongoing tension.  These are then summarized in a “fundamental paradox” between “unleashing” and “harnessing” the talents in an organization.  Through the dozen case studies that follow, these paradoxes demonstrate not only the potential of different kinds of leaders but the value of different kinds of thinking about leadership in fostering and driving innovation.

In less capable hands, such a reliance on paradoxes or tensions in describing leadership might reflect indecisive or incomplete analysis.  For Linda A. Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove, and Kent Lineback, it instead conveys with evidence and assurance the complicated realities of new organizational forms and behaviors.  In fact, despite its presentation of a series of individual leaders, the book establishes a category of its own that yokes together the best of conventional analyses of leadership and innovation.  The result is an invaluable guide to enabling collaboration and collective behavior at a time when innovation and creative problem-solving are increasingly the norm.

The first major section of Collective Genius addresses how leaders create a willingness to do the hard work of innovation.  There are three major challenges here:
  • Purpose: Why we exist
  • Shared Values: What we agree is important
  • Rules of Engagement: How we interact with each other and think about problems
Defining these elements helps to create a context in which others can innovate.  Looking at Volkswagen and Pentagram, the design agency, the authors offer practical instances of encouraging risk-taking, trying new ideas, and building solutions together to form a greater sense of community.

The second major section takes on how leaders can create the ability to do the hard work of innovation.  It is also defined in three aspects: 
  • Creative Abrasion: The ability to generate ideas through discourse and debate
  • Creative Agility: The ability to test and experiment through quick pursuit, reflection and adjustment
  • Creative Resolution: The ability to make integrative decisions that combine disparate or even opposing ideas
Together, these organizational skills correspond to the major elements of the innovation process – collaboration, decision-based learning, and integrative decision-making.  Tracking efforts at Pixar, eBay in Germany, and Google, the authors offer examples of how practically these skills can be operationalized and also integrated with each other.  

Amidst all the discussion of innovation processes and organizational behavior, how exactly do leaders fit here?  They may be visionaries – but don’t have to be.  Even if they are, they don’t hold forth and inspire from the mountaintop.  Instead, the role of the leader is re-cast again and again in these pages.  Vineet Nayer, of HCL, is a “social architect”; Larry Smarr of Calit2, “a dot-connector extraordinaire”; and managers at Google, according to then CEO Eric Schmidt, “aggregators of viewpoints, not dictators of decisions.”  What is consistent in Collective Genius is that traditional formal authority gives way to nimble orchestration, informal facilitation, and contributions to community-building.

The real hero for Hill and her co-authors, as a result, is less the individual than the innovation eco-system.  Successful leaders, they conclude, work to create innovation environments “in which the unique slices of genius in their organization are rendered into a single work of collective genius.” Moreover, and this is ultimately the book's most illuminating lesson, that collective genius not only yields more sustainable innovation but transforms leadership itself. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

Building New Strategies for Creative Excellence: Michael Porter vs. Chuck Porter

On Thursday evening, June 19, I had the privilege of presenting ideas for 'building new strategies for creative excellence' at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.  The session grew out of a White Paper with the same title co-authored with my Berlin School of Creative Leadership colleague, Professor Paul Verdin.  Guiding both session and paper were a series of contrasts drawn between the strategic thinking of Harvard Professor Michael Porter and the strategy Paul and I identified in the words and work of advertising legend Chuck Porter.  (The full paper is downloadable here.)

The Executive Summary reads:
Strategy is changing amidst volatile markets, disruptive technologies, and transformed customer and public relationships. Contrasting some of the major tenets of traditional strategic thinking, an analysis of the work and words of Chuck Porter enables the mapping of several key principles of a new strategy of creative excellence.  These include 1) forming an adaptive commitment to strategic intent and ongoing public engagement, 2) fostering communities of participation as part of generating a wider cultural conversation of creative work, 3) building trust through imaginative, often offbeat and interactive storytelling, and 4) moving beyond competition to highlight the value emerging through creative breakthroughs or community-building.

The following images give a further sense of the contrast we draw between the 'Five Forces' model of industry competition that shape firm strategy of Michael Porter and the emergent Forces that enable value creation we associate with Chuck Porter.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Cannes Lions as Global Creative Leadership Classroom

The Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity held each June is the world’s leading celebration of brand communications and creativity.  The official programme of the week-long festival combines a dizzying array of industry and agency showcases, formal seminars, lectures, workshops, teaching academies, and award shows.  Arguably even more happens unofficially, with agency and holding companies gathering their global talent and leadership, often with clients, in meetings and parties, and with informal business meetings and social gatherings occurring around the clock. 

For each of the last five years, the Berlin School ofCreative Leadership has partnered with Cannes Lions to offer the premiere educational programme among the many held at the festival.  The Cannes Creative Leaders Programme (CCLP) begins with six intensive days of leadership training in Berlin followed by six days of the festival curation and closed-door sessions with industry leaders in Cannes.  While individual faculty, industry speakers and sessions provide many specific insights to programme participants, CCLP also emphasizes how more generally to learn from the festival itself – from Cannes as a model classroom for creative excellence.  The result is a fresh approach to sustaining creative and intellectual stimulation both within individual businesses and at other idea and creativity festivals. 

Here are a handful of the touchstones we urge participants to adopt in making the most from the festival:

·      Relevance
Why should I care about what’s said or shown on the stage at Cannes when we are pursuing creative excellence?  It’s a large question but an essential one: beyond the hype and personality cults and justifiable admiration for strong imaginative work, what is relevant to my own creative leadership and why?  Is a brand, client or consumer problem being defined and an original solution being plotted, one or both of which may be relevant to my own situation (either now or in the foreseeable future)?  Direct relevance and applicability are not the only tests of value, of course, but particularly in sessions featuring high-profile individuals or agencies, we do well by asking what concretely are the ideas or insights being shared and how are they relevant to our own work.  Too often, on big stages in Cannes and elsewhere (from other live events like MIPTV for television professionals to online offerings like TED), we partake in what I call “popcorn creative thinking” – easy and even enjoyable to consume in the moment but failing to provide any real nourishment or impact.  The more we question relevance and value, the more sharply we gather knowledge and insights from others that can help to make us better leaders.

·      Inspiration
Part of what animates Cannes is a core tenet of creative leadership and all creative work: inspiration.  We’re inspired by the examples of new standards of work that move the industry forward and even improve society, the innovative solutions to business and human problems, and the perspectives of leading voices and thinkers.  Inspiration doesn’t always readily pass the relevance test, but it is vital to advancing creative excellence.  The challenge is to know how to take the inspiration of a Cannes session or speaker (or, again, those at any number of other events) back home to enrich our own work.  Sometimes the answer is as simple as reflecting on what kind of inspiration we’re experiencing.  In its 2012 CEO survey, IBM looked closely at what constituted inspirational leadership and revealed five major characteristics: creating a compelling vision, driving stretch goals, hewing to shared principles, exercising enthusiasm, and guiding with expertise.  By asking that additional question – how specifically are we being inspired? – we increase the likelihood of taking away practical knowledge of how to sustain the inspiration of the moment and use it to lead others.

·      Idea Events
Part of the attraction, even magic, of Cannes Lions is that it happens only once a year.  Thousands gather from around the world and produce a singular, energetic mass of industry voices, experience and successful work.  The festival consequently becomes what anthropologists call a “tournament of values,” a site where the priorities of a community, here of global creative communication professionals, determines its leading values, standards and priorities.  Tracking closely which values – or ideas, debates, challenges, and kinds of work – are highlighted and celebrated helps further our understanding of the shape and future of the industry.  Viewed this way as a hothouse of industry ideas, however, Cannes Lions also becomes a model for us as individual leaders to stimulate thinking and engage diverse ideas more consistently.  Put in more practical terms, how do we as creative leaders construct similar opportunities for our teams or businesses to learn from and be inspired by multiple voices and engage in industry-defining debates and conversations?  Many organizations, large and small, from BBDO’s Digital Lab to Pixar University, have institutionalized such continuing engagement with diverse and innovative ideas.  The question remains for us, how are we doing so in ours?

·      Creativity Voyeurism
Common to testing relevance, sustaining inspiration, and continuing engagement with diverse ideas is the challenge of actively taking home the experiences and insights of Cannes and making them a part of our own creative leadership practice.  Again, not all lessons or experiences of Cannes Lions or other events can or should be immediately applicable (some of what happens in Cannes should indeed stay in Cannes…).  But too often, the big names, the trend-setting work, and the fresh ideas – and a kind of romance with creativity they often come to represent – can turn us into passive viewers and admirers.  As an educator of professionals and executives, this tendency casts light on a special imperative for me in any setting in which I work: what will you do with what you’ve learned?  For creatives, the added burden of what I call “creativity voyeurism” can dull our capacity to embrace and transfer the rich diversity of ideas we experience.  Put simply, often the greatest challenge of participating in Cannes Lions or any idea festival is to act concretely and locally after the event is over. 

·      Making the Story Your Own
We have the good fortune to be living in (and hopefully contributing to) a golden age of creativity and innovation in business.  From reading Fast Company, Inc. and Entrepreneur to following our favorite TED-talks and video blogs to attending Cannes Lions and SXSW, we are awash in tales of creative leadership, bleeding-edge practices, and innovative possibility.  Yet the voyeurism I’ve mentioned, while allowing us to be cocktail-party conversant in what our creative heroes are doing, can easily leave us doing little if any comparable work ourselves.  One of the exercises we do in CCLP is to respond to sessions, speakers or experiences at Cannes Lions by creating our own individual stories about them.  They may be stories we would tell our bosses, our clients, our friends or loved ones and they may speak to the opportunity, awe or even irrelevance of the ideas or experiences.  But what’s crucial is that the stories of creativity become ours.  In the crucible of storymaking, we at least begin to transfer the creative leadership, learning and experience of others to ourselves.  In that way, we take a critical step toward making real for us the extraordinary ideas, insights, excitement, and possibilities of Cannes.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

'The Soft Edge: Where Great Companies Find Lasting Success,' by Rich Karlgaard (Wiley)

For Rich Karlgaard, publisher of Forbes and writer of its “Innovation Rules” column, businesses able to create and sustain success do so by balancing attention and development of a strategic base, a hard edge and a soft edge.  Each of those edges is constituted, in turn, by five elements.  Historically, managers have tended to focus on the hard edge as the basis of business success, favoring its more clearly concrete and measurable focus on speed, cost, supply chain, logistics, and capital efficiency in decision-making and the fight for organizational resources.  The soft edge, by contrast, has until recently been viewed, as secondary, fuzzy and, yes, soft, values that are nice to have but not at the core of lasting success.  Karlgaard’s new book, The Soft Edge, seeks to re-set those priorities. 

Most of the book is taken up exploring the five deep values of the soft edge.  Trust between leaders and their teams, and colleagues more generally, is needed to create grit, the ability to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals (as advanced by Angela Duckworth).  Smarts takes the idea of grit and contends that it helps to accelerate and sustain learning, both learning new things and solving novel problems and applying the outcomes of learning.  Teams, marked by chemistry, passion and grit, are where the hard work of combining and building on different perspectives and shared values take place.  Taste is the discernment that guides the design process, a broader sensibility that deploys teamwork to generate abiding experiences for customers.  Story is the source of persuasion in the market but also of purpose and motivation for teams and organizations, even when those stories are increasingly told better by outsiders, like customers, and data.

Of the five values, taste is perhaps the book’s most distinctive contribution for leaders seeking to build brands, organizations, and lasting success.  Karlgaard breaks out that sensibility into function, form and finally meaning, indicating how all three must combine to create “an emotional engagement” or demonstrate “the significance and associations customers experience with a product” or service.  The resulting complex and well-integrated experience flies in the face of classical business ideas like building economies of scale, as he acknowledges, shifting focus from pursuing cost advantage over competition to delivering more substantially to customers.  Summing up this priority, Margit Wennmachers of Andreesen Horowitz is quoted to say, “taste is a matter of really understanding your customer on a very, very fundamental level.”

Using the example of Specialized Bicycle’s data analysis of wind resistance in designing high-performance bicycles, Karlgaard argues how leaders should seek to combine design, creativity and data for memorable experiences today.  One of the commendable features of The Soft Edge is its consistent attention to how the tools of the digital age and the knowledge production and management that makes those tools all the more important have altered the business landscape.  In fact, the book closes with a sustained discussion across the five values of how important is the collaboration of CMOs and CIOs for businesses to be successful amidst the increasing complexity of messaging and marketing platforms shaped by sensors, computers, and analytics.

Specifically how and when to apply the values of the soft edge, particularly in coordination with  each other and the elements of the other edges, is mostly not discussed here.  Nor is there an elaboration of the potentially distinct approaches to developing soft edge values and, again, their balance, with other core elements of lasting value, in different kinds of businesses, particularly creative ones.  Even at its most evocative, as in the closing call for leaders to operate in the “elusive sweet spot between data truth and human truth,” the book also leaves largely open the matter of how to work in that zone effectively.  More than once while reading, I hoped that a Soft Edge “Workbook” might soon appear to help leaders and others to take and implement the wealth of practically helpful thinking here.  (Several related tools, including a free self-assessment of individual leadership needs and opportunities related to the values of the soft edge, are available online at

Yet even without additional guidance for implementation, the model of organizational success in The Soft Edge provides many useful spurs to those striving to improve their businesses.  Producing and sustaining high performance depends of striking the right balance of hard and soft skills in given settings and situations.  Karlgaard’s useful insights and varied business examples offer a valuable resource for leaders committed to thinking deeply about and engaging in their own organizations the too-often-neglected values of the soft edge.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Saying 'Innovation' or 'Creativity' Is Not Enough

“What’s the opposite of innovation?,” the joke begins.  A tart punchline quickly follows: “Innovation consultants.”   

Since I teach, coach and sometimes consult on innovation and creative leadership, that cynical joke gives me pause.  Consultants of all kinds are easy marks, of course, whether they are from well-known global firms or one-person shops.  But it is innovation, as an idea and, increasingly, the basis of a cottage industry for consulting, advising, coaching and even counseling, that is the real target here.

Isn’t innovation good, though?, we ask.  Doesn’t thinking, designing, building and leading for innovation enable firms of all kinds to create and capture value?  Doesn’t imaginative collaboration, teaming, and organizing lead to breakthroughs that can transform businesses, industries and even markets?  Doesn’t innovation ultimately benefit individuals by encouraging and nurturing self-awareness, empathy, courage, and growth – human values that help contribute to personal fulfillment?

All true.  Yet that very sweep and sprawl of meanings is part of the problem.  Innovation is everywhere, from social and political agendas and corporate mission and vision statements to strategic positioning and brand marketing priorities to team charters and individual performance goals.  Likewise, creativity, often in adjectival form, has become a necessary qualifier for nearly all aspects of management and operations: leadership, strategy, talent management, organizational design, customer or client relationships, collaboration, and teamwork.  Even creative accounting has become a worthy aspiration (just not “too” creative…).

The expanded usage, to be sure, reflects some far-reaching and very real economic and historical shifts that have recently foregrounded aspects of creativity and innovation for individuals, firms and larger economies.  I myself often assert that “creativity is the new normal” to underscore the unprecedented opportunities, even necessities, facing businesses in a world where technology is transforming old and new industries alike.  My question here is whether the words themselves, asked to say so much in their varied and continual usage, increasingly end up saying little or nothing at all. 

There is no shortage of models, frameworks and typologies attempting to break out and define more precise and different meanings.  Classic distinctions of “innovation,” many well-drawn by some of our most astute observers and analysts of business and management, tend to delve deeply into specific areas.  We might think here of Clayton Christensen on disruptive innovation, Gary Hamel on management innovation, and Vijay Govindarajan on reverse innovation.  And so many other qualifiers of the word have become commonplace: incremental, radical, architectural, modular, technological, knowledge, product, process and so on.  Much more typically, though, both “innovation” and “creativity” are used generically by firms themselves, consultancies, the popular and business press, the blogosphere, and even some academic research to burnish a diverse but finally vague range of insights, tools and management practices.

Having an excess of overlapping and alternative tools and models is fine, of course, for leaders on the ground who use them to gain greater insights about, or to address directly, specific situations.  That assumes, however, a thorough familiarity with these different innovative approaches and how (or, more fundamentally, if) to apply them usefully to those specific situations.  Here we might return to the question of innovation consultants.  What is the precise form of expertise they offer?  Launching start-ups based on original ideas, developing new products or services for established firms, redesigning work processes, nurturing creative people or cultures, re-drawing business models?  Maybe all of those.  Or maybe none.  The challenge is finding the right fit of specific capabilities and experience from the growing constellation of offerings made using the same terms.

How did our usage of “innovation” and “creativity” spiral out of control?  From recent history, we might start looking in the 1980s-1990s.  The redefinition of creative work, industries and economies, began then in the UK and was furthered elsewhere by analysts like Richard Florida, who repositioned creativity as a driving force in the (re-)development of cities, societies and economies.  More generally at the same time, though hearkening back to the early 20th century writings of Joseph Schumpeter, a doctrine of “innovation economics” emerged in the work of a diverse group of theorists and analysts to argue that knowledge, innovation and entrepreneurship are not outliers but essential to economic growth and productivity. 

Yet probably nothing has had as great an impact as the profound developments that have occurred in Silicon Valley (and the larger technology economy to which it has been central).  Combining a mythology of individual ingenuity, a culture of business entrepreneurship, and a demonstrated potential for world-changing invention, Silicon Valley has become a vital source for popular and corporate imaginings of creativity and innovation.  Even as the technologies produced there have transformed lives, societies and economies around the world, the thinking and language of openness, risk-taking, start-ups, and innovation has spread as far.

Amidst the concern that tech firms are in the midst of another financial bubble, with unjustifiably high market valuations potentially ready to burst, I see another Silicon Valley bubble in play.  It involves the inflation of certain ways of thinking and talking about innovation that originated in and around tech firms.  This language bubble, or what we might otherwise see as an internally-referencing echo chamber, grows through a continuing series of blogposts, websites, magazine articles, and books that largely re-package the same practices, policies and behaviors as being conducive to innovation and creativity.

What would Google do?, we ask.  A loose grouping of ideas and beliefs and leading practices have come increasingly to represent current thinking about how all organizations, regardless of industry or market, can best cultivate innovative and creative work.  Much of this is enormously positive, both fulfilling for people and productive for organizations.  In the process, the larger popular and practical discourse around Silicon Valley-style innovation has grown and grown.  One consequence is what Bill O’Connor, of Autodesk, calls “innovation pornography,” in which too many people become voyeurs, rapturously watching others innovate without doing so themselves.  Another is the myth that creativity and original thinking can solve any problem or develop an idea the world will eventually embrace. 

While I do believe fully in that problem-solving and even society-transforming potential, my point is that the generic superpower of creativity or innovation will not be the force to do so.  Rather, it is by understanding how creativity and innovation, even with all their inherent messiness, disorder, and indirectness, need specific situations and contexts in order to flourish and effect meaningful change.  Innovation and creativity, writ large and generic, are not strategic silver bullets.

A challenge I regularly pose to executives is to ask themselves “the follow-up question” about key words they use to characterize themselves or their firms.  So once they’ve identified their core values, for example, they need to probe more deeply what those values mean to them and the situations in which they’re working.  Trust, growth, inspiration, and purpose are all admirable values.  Yet they can mean very different things to different people and in different leadership situations.  What do those words mean to you, I ask, and why are they so important?  Innovation and creativity, I contend, warrant the same depth of reflection and elaboration.

To begin, you might ask yourself such questions as:
·      What are your benchmarks or examples when you speak of innovation? How relevant are they to your existing situation – and your people, culture, industry, market(s), and customers?  Even the most inspiring general cases of innovation – think of Edison’s light bulb, the Manhattan Project, or the pirates at Apple who developed the Macintosh – may have no relevance to the innovation that’s right for you, now.  Choose your examples, the stars that guide you, wisely and appropriately.

·      Going further, which examples of successful innovation and creative work outside of Silicon Valley (especially the usual suspects like Apple, Google, and Facebook) do you reference and seek to emulate?  While there’s much to admire, learn and adopt from the tech firms that have over the last two decades been so successful, their policies and practices may not be directly helpful to firms of various sizes across industries and at different stages of growth.  Instructive examples are everywhere.  To wit, I recently worked with the leader of a tech start-up whose breakthrough thinking emerged, counter-intuitively, from the practices of a century-old manufacturing firm.

·      And if you’re in an established firm, how many of your benchmarks come from start-ups?  Yes, you can and should likewise learn and draw from the approaches and actions of entrepreneurial start-ups, and elements of models like Eric Ries’ Lean Start-Up, but only if they’re applicable to and align with your own specific goals.

·      Is your entire organization, from people and performance metrics to strategic goals and resource allocation, guided by the same fuller understanding of innovation – that is, what you’re pursuing together, how, and why?  Managing the language of innovation requires both thoughtful consideration and development across organizations and ongoing effective communication.  The only leadership work harder than creating a collective vision for organizational innovation is sustaining the shared understanding and motivation that will enable its successful execution. 

·      Once you’ve developed your own fuller understanding of what you mean when you say innovation, ask if this is the innovation you and your team unit or firm really need.  All leaders need to forge the future and all organizations need to change.  The question is how best to do so.  Aligning specific kinds of innovation with individual organizational needs, capabilities and situations requires careful effort but is crucial.

This isn’t just an academic exercise.  Thoughtful leaders have long recognized the value of auditing their current innovation or creativity activities, needs and capabilities.  As time has passed and both words have been used more and more, it also seems increasingly useful to conduct an innovation and creativity language audit.  What do you mean when you say that innovation is a core value or a strategic priority?  What does specifying creative talent development mean for the shape and orientation of a HR processes or organizational learning?  More generally, how does innovation or creativity practically differentiate decisions, behaviors and results?

More than five decades ago, Theodore Levitt wrote “Creativity Is Not Enough,” one of the most famous articles in the history of marketing management.  Today, the words of his title arguably resonate in distinct ways.  The ubiquity of “innovation” and “creativity” in the language of business and management is threatening to empty them of meaning.  Increasingly, neither is sufficient to convey the vision, inspiration, newness, value, and strategy that drive a given leader, unit or firm.  

How do we change that?  One use at a time.  By doing the hard work of understanding and clarifying the newness, utility, value and change that we really envision and seek in specific situations.  Each of us needs to help take back the power of the words.  Next time you say or write “innovation” or “creativity,” pause.  How would you qualify those key words?  Or how else, beyond using placeholders, would you make your point?   Most simply, what do you really mean when you say and act on “innovation” or creativity” – and are you making that important meaning clear to others?