The Key to Innovation in Big Companies: Work Together

By Shlomo Maital

Collective Leadership

        Generally I write blogs about books or articles that I’ve read.  This time, I want to write about a book I intend to read soon, based on excerpts and interviews from Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge magazine.  The book is:

        Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation, (Harvard Business School Press)   was written by Prof. Linda Hill, the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration, with Greg Brandeau, former CTO of The Walt Disney Studios and current COO/president of Media Maker; Emily Truelove, a PhD candidate at MIT’s Sloan School of Management; and Kent Lineback, Hill’s cowriter on her earlier book Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Good Leader.

    Here is the main point:   “….. innovation is a “team sport,” not the act of a sole inventor. “Truly innovative groups are consistently able to elicit and then combine members’ separate slices of genius into a single work of collective genius,” the authors write.  Or, as Hill puts it, “Conventional leadership won’t get you to innovation.”  The authors identified organizations with reputations for being highly innovative, then found 16 leaders within those organizations and studied how they worked.    …. the authors include narratives of executives within India-based IT company HCL Technologies, the German division of online auctioneer eBay, and the marketing division of automaker Volkswagen in Europe.”  

     Here is the ‘boldest’ example of innovative leadership and teamwork, according to Hill.  It comes from India.

    “Of the 16 leaders studied, Hill says Delhi-based HCL, under former CEO Vineer Nayar, might be the boldest. Nayar, who pulled the company out of a five-year slump, challenged the common belief that Indian companies provide low-cost products and services but don’t innovate. “That (assumption) made him crazy,” Hill says. “He said ‘We can and will compete that way.’ ”   Nayar focused on changing the organization from within, starting by empowering employees. In 2005, he told a team of 30-something young employees called the “Young Sparks” to develop the brand and a plan to change how employees experienced HCL. The group started with an icon, Thambi, which means “brother” in Tamil, symbolizing “the importance of the individual and the value of the collective” at HCL.   Nayar recast his role as leader. He pushed for more transparency, adding 360-degree reviews for all employees and 360-degree feedback of his own work—he promised to resign if his own review dropped to a certain level. He set up a portal that asked employees to solve “my problems” and reported getting incredible answers from workers.  From 2005 to 2013, when Nayar led HCL as president and then CEO, the company’s sales, market cap, and profits increased six fold, according to the book. Fortune magazine wrote that the HCL had “the world’s most modern management” and the company was named one of Businessweek’s most influential companies.  Nayar tells people, “I don’t know the answers,” which goes against the common belief in Indian business that the CEO should be a visionary. For Hill, Nayar shows the possibilities of what can be accomplished by an innovative leader who embraces a new style of leadership.”

    Big organizations ALL have trouble innovating.  Perhaps Linda Hill’s new book will help them figure out why and find a workable solution.