Collective Genius: A book review by Bob Morris

Collective GeniusCollective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation
Linda Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove, and Kent Lineback
Harvard Business Review Press (2014)

Valuable perspectives on the role of the leader in creating and then sustaining a culture within which innovation thrives

As I began to read this book, I was again reminded of one of Tom Davenport’s recent books, Judgment Calls, during which he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.”

Davenport and Manville could well have had the collaborative innovation in mind, a process on which Linda Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove, and Kent Lineback focus in their book, Collective Genius. They share in it valuable lessons learned from teams who exemplify “the art and practice of innovation” in a diverse range of organizations that include the Acumen Fund, eBay, Google, HCL Technologies, IBM, Pfizer, Pentagram, Pixar Animation Studios, and Volkswagen. They explain

o What genius looks like
o Why it needs leadership
o The kind of leadership it requires
o How leaders create the willingness and the ability to innovate
o The power and perils of “creative abrasion”
o How to create and then sustain a culture (“ecosystem”) within which innovation thrives

As they explain, every person in a leader’s group, “whether it’s a small team or a large corporation, contains a slice of genius.” The leader’s task is to “create a place where all those slices can be elicited, combined, and converted into collective genius.” The book’s primary objective, therefore, “is to provide insights, guidance, and real-life examples” that will help leaders do that. It is important to keep in mind, also, that all organizations — whatever their size and nature may be — need effective leadership at all levels and in all areas. That is to say, collective genius is the result of collaboration, discovery-driven learning, and an integrative thought process by which decisions are made.

Roger Martin speaks to this last point, in The Opposable Mind, when observing that those involved in that process have “the predisposition and the capacity to hold two [or more] diametrically opposed ideas” in mind and then “without panicking or simply settling for one alternative or the other,” are able to “produce a synthesis that is superior to either opposing idea.”

These are among the dozens of business subjects and issues of special interest and value to me, also listed to indicate the scope of Hill, Brandeau, Truelove, and Lineback’s coverage.

o How Pixar Innovates (Pages 11-16)
o The Paradoxes of Collaboration (27-31)
o The Paradoxes of Discovery-Driven Learning (31-37)
o A New Leader for HCL: Vineet Nayar (46-49)
Note: I urge you to check out his book, Employees First, Customers Second: Turning Conventional Management Upside Down.
o Lessons from a Different Kind of Leader (64-67)
o A Foundation to Build On (78-87)
o Community Drives Willingness (91-93)
o The Importance of Shared Values (102-108)
o How People Think (112-115)
o Creative Abrasion (138-145)
o The Leader’s Role in Creative Agility (162-167)
o The Leader’s Role in Creative Resolution (184-189)
o The Wildfire Initiative (211)
o The Right Stuff, and, But Leaders Are More Made Than Born (226-246)

I am deeply grateful to Linda Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove, and Kent Lineback for the wealth of information, insights, and counsel that they and others contributed in this book. In fact, more than a dozen innovation leaders were in fact active collaborators in – almost co-authors of — the provision of “collective genius” found in the nine chapters and Epilogue. Moreover, these primary sources represent the teams they led at their respective organizations. To everyone involved, I now offer a heartfelt Bravo!

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