Linda Hill – Economist
I have a confession to make. I’m a business professor whose ambition has been to help people learn to lead. But recently, I’ve discovered that what many of us think of as great leadership does not work when it comes to leading innovation.
I’m an ethnographer. I use the methods of anthropology to understand the questions in which I’m interested. So along with three co-conspirators, I spent nearly a decade observing up close and personal exceptional leaders of innovation. We studied 16 men and women, located in seven countries across the globe, working in 12 different industries. In total, we spent hundreds of hours on the ground, on-site, watching these leaders in action. We ended up with pages and pages and pages of field notes that we analyzed and looked for patterns in what our leaders did. The bottom line? If we want to build organizations that can innovate time and again, we must unlearn our conventional notions of leadership.
Leading innovation is not about creating a vision, and inspiring others to execute it. But what do we mean by innovation? An innovation is anything that is both new and useful. It can be a product or service. It can be a process or a way of organizing. It can be incremental, or it can be breakthrough. We have a pretty inclusive definition.
How many of you recognize this man? Put your hands up. Keep your hands up, if you know who this is. How about these familiar faces? From your show of hands, it looks like many of you have seen a Pixar movie, but very few of you recognized Ed Catmull, the founder and CEO of Pixar — one of the companies I had the privilege of studying.
My first visit to Pixar was in 2005, when they were working on “Ratatouille,” that provocative movie about a rat becoming a master chef. Computer-generated movies are really mainstream today, but it took Ed and his colleagues nearly 20 years to create the first full-length C.G. movie. In the 20 years hence, they’ve produced 14 movies. I was recently at Pixar, and I’m here to tell you that number 15 is sure to be a winner.
When many of us think about innovation, though, we think about an Einstein having an ‘Aha!’ moment. But we all know that’s a myth. Innovation is not about solo genius, it’s about collective genius. Let’s think for a minute about what it takes to make a Pixar movie: No solo genius, no flash of inspiration produces one of those movies. On the contrary, it takes about 250 people four to five years, to make one of those movies.
To help us understand the process, an individual in the studio drew a version of this picture. He did so reluctantly, because it suggested that the process was a neat series of steps done by discrete groups. Even with all those arrows, he thought it failed to really tell you just how iterative, interrelated and, frankly, messy their process was.
Throughout the making of a movie at Pixar, the story evolves. So think about it. Some shots go through quickly. They don’t all go through in order. It depends on how vexing the challenges are that they come up with when they are working on a particular scene. So if you think about that scene in “Up” where the boy hands the piece of chocolate to the bird, that 10 seconds took one animator almost six months to perfect.
The other thing about a Pixar movie is that no part of the movie is considered finished until the entire movie wraps. Partway through one production, an animator drew a character with an arched eyebrow that suggested a mischievous side. When the director saw that drawing, he thought it was great. It was beautiful, but he said, “You’ve got to lose it; it doesn’t fit the character.” Two weeks later, the director came back and said, “Let’s put in those few seconds of film.” Because that animator was allowed to share what we referred to as his slice of genius, he was able to help that director reconceive the character in a subtle but important way that really improved the story.
What we know is, at the heart of innovation is a paradox. You have to unleash the talents and passions of many people and you have to harness them into a work that is actually useful. Innovation is a journey. It’s a type of collaborative problem solving, usually among people who have different expertise and different points of view.
Innovations rarely get created full-blown. As many of you know, they’re the result, usually, of trial and error. Lots of false starts, missteps and mistakes. Innovative work can be very exhilarating, but it also can be really downright scary. So when we look at why it is that Pixar is able to do what it does, we have to ask ourselves, what’s going on here?
For sure, history and certainly Hollywood, is full of star-studded teams that have failed. Most of those failures are attributed to too many stars or too many cooks, if you will, in the kitchen. So why is it that Pixar, with all of its cooks, is able to be so successful time and time again? When we studied an Islamic Bank in Dubai, or a luxury brand in Korea, or a social enterprise in Africa, we found that innovative organizations are communities that have three capabilities: creative abrasion, creative agility and creative resolution.
Creative abrasion is about being able to create a marketplace of ideas through debate and discourse. In innovative organizations, they amplify differences, they don’t minimize them. Creative abrasion is not about brainstorming, where people suspend their judgment. No, they know how to have very heated but constructive arguments to create a portfolio of alternatives.