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How the Best Leaders Drive Innovation

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HANNAH BATES: Welcome to HBR on Leadership, case studies and conversations with the world’s top business and management experts, hand-selected to help you unlock the best in those around you. If you’re  , you’ll need some very specific leadership skills. Do you know what they are? Harvard Business School professor Linda Hill says that leaders who shepherd innovation can’t rely on formal authority. Instead, they need to understand how to get people to co-create with them.  Hill studies leadership and innovation, and she says leaders who are great at leading innovative projects understand how to keep their teams committed to a project for the long run. In this episode you’ll learn how to do that using the ABC’s of innovation leadership. That’s A for architect – which is knowing how to assemble the right team. B for bridger – connecting with outside talent and resources. And C for catalyst – getting things done. This episode originally aired as part of the HBR Quick Study video series in September 2022. Here it is.

LINDA A. HILL: We know that one of the key reasons why organizations aren’t able to innovate organizations aren’t as agile as they need to be is they don’t have the kind of leadership they need. If you came to the Harvard Business School 100 years ago, great leadership was really about setting direction and making sure that people went in that direction. How do you come up with strategy?

When I came almost 40 years ago, we moved a bit from strategy to, really, vision. So people like John Kotter and Warren Bennis helped us understand that people needed to have a bigger ambition than just the strategy. What’s the vision? Where are we going and why?

What I’ve come to see as I’ve begun to do research in the 2000s– yes, you still need to be a visionary. But guess what? Because innovation has become ever more important, that means, really, moving from vision to shaping culture and capabilities.

You have to move from focusing on, OK, what’s my vision and how do I communicate and get people to follow me to the future? Instead, leading innovation is about getting people to co-create that future with you. And co-creation requires a different kind of leadership.

If you want to lead an organization and build an organization that can innovate at scale with speed, really, leaders have three functions they have to fulfill. The ABCs of leadership– A, you must be an architect, B, you must be a bridger, and C, you must be a catalyst.

The first role is the role of architect– building the culture and capabilities necessary for a group of people to be able to collaborate, experiment, and learn. Innovative work is not about an individual having an aha moment. It’s really about a collaboration of individuals with diverse expertise, diverse points of view and experiences, who figure out, again, how to collaborate, how to experiment and learn together with some speed– what we call collective genius.

The idea here is that everyone in your organization has a slice of genius. Everyone has talents, everyone has passions. Your role as a leader is to unleash the diverse slices of genius in your organization and then leverage and harness them for the collective good. How do you get everyone in the organization to understand that they need to work on not just what they should be doing, but what they could be doing?

The second is B, or bridger. We have to go outside the organization to get access to talent and tools. You need to be able to bridge, because you do not have the talent and tools you need inside your organization to innovate at speed or at scale. Just don’t. Particularly now that digital is such a big piece of it, you are always, you and your organizations, are really embedded in a web of interdependencies.

And that means trying to innovate across boundaries. So we see many organizations building

out new units or asking leaders to lead units in which they really are serving as the bridge between the outside of the organization and the inside.

We’ve been studying leaders who run innovation labs, corporate accelerators– even organizations that were digital first are finding that they need to partner with other digital first companies to get access to the cloud, right? Because other organizations might be better at it than they are better at it, and they need to focus on other things that are their core capabilities.

And then the third is catalyst. And this is when you’re trying to accelerate co-creation throughout the entire ecosystem. And there can be a couple of reasons for why you want to do that. One may be that for you to do what you want to do inside your organization, you need other people, other organizations to be able to innovate, because they got to create something that you need to fulfill your purpose.

The other is, fundamentally, because you’re trying to just create more capability in the whole ecosystem. Because when you lift the whole, everyone gets lifted. It’s when your ambition is much, much greater than your organization and you’re maybe trying to change a country, or the prospects of a whole continent. So you have to get the whole ecosystem active and co-creating if you want to do that kind of thing.

An example would be if you want to be as secure yourself in your own internet service, then if you can help your clients be more secure, have more cybersecurity, that helps you as well. So that’s an instance of being a catalyst. But when you’re actually doing the act of working across, that is where you’re being a bridger. So these three roles are very interconnected.

We’ve been studying the leader who runs the trials for Pfizer. It turns out that Pfizer can only innovate and be as agile as it needs to be if, in fact, their vendors are agile and able to innovate. So we have leaders there who are working across with vendors and turning those vendors into partners, where, in fact, we have a real connection.

We do trust each other. We do know how to influence each other. We are willing to make mutual commitments. Because only when we have that deep connection are we willing to do the hard work together necessary to actually do something like run those trials in 266 days and make the impossible, possible.

Now, what you see– again, the catalyst role of that same leader– is working to put together consortia of people who are in the pharmaceutical industries to go back and think about, what are some new standards we want to set? And talk with regulators about now that we know what’s possible, will allow us to bring hope to patients even faster if we work across the industry to raise all of our capacity to do more innovative work. So what we see is organizations have to go outside to get what they need.

What they’re really all about is learning how to exercise influence when you don’t have formal authority. We’ve got to let go of formal authority as our source of influence and power. Instead, we’re using, if you will, being able to shape culture and capabilities, being able to forge connections between diverse parties, real connections where we actually have mutual trust, mutual influence, and mutual commitment.

Don’t rely so much on your formal authority as a way of influencing people. It’s not very useful, because with formal authority, if you’re using that as your source of power, maybe you can control people, but you’re not building their commitment. And you need commitment if you want to have people take the risks associated with trying to do something new and useful, particularly a breakthrough kind of innovation.

You don’t use formal authority as a way to get things done, because you cannot tell people to innovate. You can only invite them. It is a voluntary act.

HANNAH BATES: That was Harvard Business School professor Linda Hill on the HBR Quick Study video series. Hill is the author of the book Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation. We’ll be back next Wednesday with another hand-picked conversation about leadership from the Harvard Business Review. If you found this episode helpful, share it with your friends and colleagues, and follow our show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. While you’re there, be sure to leave us a review. We’re a production of the Harvard Business Review. If you want more podcasts, articles, case studies, books, and videos like this, find it all at HBR dot org. This episode was produced by Scott LaPierre, Anne Saini, and me, Hannah Bates. Ian Fox is our editor. Video by Dave DiIulio, and Elie Honein, Animation by Alex Belser. Music by Coma Media. Special thanks to Maureen Hoch, Adi Ignatius, Ramsey Khabbaz, Nicole Smith, Anne Bartholomew, and you – our listener. See you next week.

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