An Invitation for Innovation: Why Creativity Is Found, Not Forced

In this podcast episode, Linda Hill shares how innovative teams communicate and collaborate their way to breakthrough.

May 09, 2024

So you want to lead your team toward innovation. Does that require you to know where you’re going? Not according to Linda Hill.

Hill is a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School whose research focuses on leadership and how organizations achieve innovation. When it comes to generating breakthrough ideas, Hill says it’s less about a creative vision and more about stepping into the unknown. “Innovation [is] not about an individual coming up with a new idea,” she says. “Instead, innovation is the result of the collaboration of people with diverse expertise and diverse perspectives coming together, being able to collaborate, being able to experiment together and learn.”

In this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, Hill and host Matt Abrahams discuss how leaders can foster cultures and environments where innovation thrives — where teams use communication and collaboration to “co-create the future together.”

Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.

Full Transcript

Note: Transcripts are generated by machine and lightly edited by humans. They may contain errors.

Matt Abrahams: Innovation requires effective communication, collaboration, and conflict.

I’m Matt Abrahams, and I teach strategic communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart, the podcast.

Today, I’m excited to speak with Linda Hill. Linda is a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. Her research focuses on leadership development, building agile, innovative organizations and implementing global strategies. Linda is also the author of three important and popular books, Becoming a Manager, Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation and Being the Boss and The 3 Imperatives of Becoming a Great Leader.

Linda, thanks for being here and thanks to our friends at HBR for allowing us to record in their studio.

Linda Hill: It’s a real pleasure to be with you.

Matt Abrahams: Excellent. I look forward to our conversation. Up for getting started?

Linda Hill: Yes, I am.

Matt Abrahams: All right. I find your research really interesting and important. One outcome of your work is your distinction between leading for innovation and leading for change. Can you help us understand the difference between the two?

Linda Hill: Yes, I’d be glad to. So I am a protégé of John Cotter and Warren Bennis. And they taught us that leadership was about dealing with change or coping with change. So leadership was about, if you will, coming up with a vision, communicating that vision, and inspiring people to want to fulfill that vision.

I always thought that was leadership. I went out and talked to people who were exceptional leaders of innovation, individuals who had built teams, organizations, or even ecosystems that were able to routinely innovate. And when I asked them, what do they do? What is leadership about? A few of them said to me, well, you know what? I don’t even read leadership books because they immediately say you’re supposed to have a vision.

But you know what? When you’re trying to do breakthrough innovation, you have no vision. You don’t know the answer. The only reason I took this job is I have no vision. Now that is actually not completely accurate because everyone that I’ve studied, who’s really good at this, was a visionary. But they also understood that innovation was not about an individual coming up with an idea or a new idea. Instead, innovation is the result normally of the collaboration of people with diverse expertise and diverse perspectives coming together, being able to collaborate, being able to experiment together and learn as quickly as they can to come up with a solution to some problem or some opportunity.

So it turns out that leading innovation, as one of them put it, is the following. It is not about saying to people, I have a vision, follow me to the future. Instead, it’s about saying, let me create an environment in which a group of us will be willing and able to co-create that future together.

Matt Abrahams: I find this really, really fascinating. Can you explain for us some of the components that go into that culture of innovation or that environment that allows for that innovation to happen? And what role does communication play in that?

Linda Hill: Communication plays a very important role. It turns out, that if in fact you want to build a group that can co create the future together, what you need to think about is what does innovation really require? First, it requires that we can collaborate, and we can collaborate even though we’re different.

Second, it requires that we actually know how to experiment and learn together. We can iterate and go through that whole process where there are going to be, in fact, missteps and mistakes, failures, in fact. And third, it requires that we actually can utilize all of our talents and passions, the whole groups. And the final thing is that, it turns out, that innovation can be fun and exhilarating, but mostly it’s emotionally and intellectually very challenging. So that’s reality of what innovation is about.

So if you want a group to be able to innovate time and again, what you need to be able to do is first make sure they’re willing. How you make sure they’re willing is really about your culture. Unless I feel a part of a community and we have some sense of shared purpose, then I don’t really want to take the risks associated and do that hard work, that intellectual, emotionally hard work with you to try to come up with something new.

So the first thing about the culture is there is this sense of shared purpose, there is a why. If you don’t have that purpose, then I don’t have a sense of belonging to a community I care about. Now, also what we need to do is we need to have in our community a set of shared values that are consistent with our collaborating, experimenting, and learning together, and taking care of each other because it is such hard work.

So there are a set of values that we see in most of these organizations. And finally, related to those values are rules of engagement, how we’re supposed to be together. Now, often these are implicit, but what we see in these organizations is that the leaders make them more explicit. So that we, in fact, need to communicate in various ways that this is what really matters to us, this is what we value, and this is how we behave.

And in terms of behavior, there are two, two sort of areas of concern. One is how we’re going to interact together. We’re going to have mutual trust, mutual respect, mutual influence, all easy words to say, very difficult to live. The other set of rules of engagement are really about how we’re going to think together because innovation is really a kind of problem solving.

And so the rules about how we’re going to think together are, you know what, you need to tell people what your evidence is. Your evidence can be your gut, but admit it. Just say, it’s my gut. Now, with AI, with data, whatever it is, say these are the data. Well, okay, you can tell me this is what I believe and this is why, and you have to provide the evidence, that’s the rule.

And the second piece is that I can still question you. So you may say to me, everybody can question anybody. You may say, this is what I believe and it’s because of all my experience. And I can say to you, hmm, is your experience relevant to what we’re doing right now, even if I’m a junior person? And then the last rule of engagement about how we’re supposed to think together really is that we’re supposed to think holistically.

So you can say, you know what, I get it, I agree. But I don’t think my part of the organization can do it. And if we think about what the whole enterprise or what all of us have to contribute for this to happen. Can we spend a little bit more time thinking about a solution that actually might allow my function or my geography to participate in the way you’d like?

Matt Abrahams: So clearly communication plays a really important role in establishing a culture and environment where innovation can thrive. We have to be focused on shared purpose, shared values, and thank you for articulating the rules of engagement. I’m curious if you can give us a little more detail about shared values.

Linda Hill: So shared values, there are four shared values and obviously each organization has its own culture, but we did see these values in all of them. The first is bold ambition. These are organizations where people aren’t thinking about just what they should be doing but what they could be doing and that bold ambition is what makes it worthwhile for us to even bother to innovate if it’s not a big enough idea.

And so this is a place where communication really matters because if you want people to take on bold ambitions. You need to frame it in a way that is inspiring, that actually captures their attention. The second value is collaboration. The third is learning. And the fourth is responsibility. That is, people feel responsible to deliver and do their part to contribute to whatever that shared purpose is.

Matt Abrahams: Those values certainly can drive innovation and I think just drive a healthy organization in general. I’m curious to talk about purpose, can you help me understand the difference between vision and purpose? Because I can see some people using those words almost synonymously.

Linda Hill: So vision is about where we’re going and purpose is about why we’re going there. And as it turns out. This issue of why we’re going there is what really creates that sense of community. And I think why I heard from many people who are really good at innovation is they don’t have the vision. Well, they don’t have the answer, but they do know what the question is and why it’s an important question.

So purpose can also be about who we serve. So I’ve been doing a lot of work on digital transformation, and it turns out that in terms of communication, and the reason why you often want to put in digital tools is so that you can be more agile and you can innovate for your customer. Well, it turns out that if you want people again to really take up and adopt and use data, use digital tools, I find that unless you start with purpose, the why, and you can tell a story, a narrative that is a customer centric narrative about why we should be doing this and why this is going to help the customer, people aren’t willing to adopt those tools, that technology, because it’s really hard to do it for many people. It’s not easy to learn how to do things very differently unless they get the why. And they buy into that, then they’re not going to want to do what you want them to do. Because again, going back to innovation, you cannot tell someone to innovate. You can only invite them. So communication becomes very important because it’s an invitation. It’s not about, you know, you can’t say, I’m the boss. You will innovate. That is useless. You can only invite them. This is why the willing is an important piece of the puzzle. So how do we write invitations or send invitations to people? We think about that a lot when we’re doing a party or whatever we’re going to do. So when you’re trying to invite someone to do something that’s really going to be very hard, you have to understand why.

And the only way you’re going to get what you need out of them is if they share with them what we refer to as their slice of genius. Everybody has a slice of genius. Everyone has talents. Everyone has passions. And what you’re trying to do in your communication is help tap into what their talents and passions are, connect them to some collective good, and help them understand the connection between the two.

So purpose, the why, is where the alignment comes. It’s not about where we’re going, because we don’t know where we’re going. So how you help people understand that and tell a story where they see, yeah, I care about that and I see why you need me to give my all, my slice of genius to help do this collective thing we want to do, since the book is called Collective Genius. The concept of Slice of Genius came from the work I did at Pixar. And they talk about everybody having a slice of genius, and when we were thinking about what should we call our book, we felt that Collective Genius was the only thing we could do.

Matt Abrahams: I love that storytelling is a critical component in innovation and declaring purpose. And purpose is really about the why and the sense of urgency. And we talk often on this podcast about knowing your audience when you communicate, when you tell stories. And I love your language around slice of genius. What that really is to my mind, to my ear is that you’re looking to understand the value that people bring, the unique value. And that’s really understanding who you’re speaking to. So innovation boils down to, in many ways, the ability to align and motivate people behind the why. And storytelling helps you do that.

Linda Hill: Yes, indeed, you’re right. And I would say that there are capabilities that need to be in place once you have inspired people, the willing part of it. But you also have to help them be able.

Matt Abrahams: Since we’re sitting in HBR’s studio, I wanted to highlight an article that you wrote. And in it, you talk about the importance of collaboration, but you also talk about the importance of conflict. And I’d love for you to talk about the value of conflict in these processes, because I think so many people listening, and myself included are conflict averse, we feel conflict is bad and I think you have a very different perspective on it that I’d love for you to share.

Linda Hill: This idea of innovation being the result of a collaboration is not the result of my work. There’s a whole history of that. What we did in our work is look at the connection between leadership and innovation because as it turns out, most people who study innovation are either economists or macro sociologists so they don’t really care as much about what the individual leader needs to do and this is how we discovered we needed to talk a lot more about conflict. And what we saw in our work when we looked at organizations that were very innovative is, yeah, we know we need to collaborate, as I told you, but what’s the real test of collaboration? And that is whether or not you can take advantage of all the diversity of thought you need to get that innovative solution.

So when you have diversity of thought, by definition, you have the potential for conflict. So if you cannot deal with conflict, then you’re either going to compromise, a lowest common denominator, or you’re going to let one group dominate. So the capabilities really are about how we actually use our diversity of thought in a constructive way and come up with innovative solutions.

So the first one is creative abrasion. If you want to have an innovative solution, you as a leader actually want to amplify the differences that are happening, not minimize them. And once they’re amplified, if people are talented and passionate, guess what? There’s going to be a little bit of tussle. And if you are not comfortable as a leader allowing for that tussle, then you’re not going to get the full advantage of that diversity of thought, you’re going to cut somebody off.

The second one is about creative agility and that is, can we experiment and learn together because you cannot really plan your way to an innovation, you have to act your way to an innovation. So I’m not surprised. Agile methodologies, lean start-up, design thinking, all of that stuff, that is really about how you experiment and learn as efficiently as you can.

The last capability, which goes to why communication becomes very important too, is creative resolution. And that is about how we make a decision. So we have our tussle and we have our conflict, we might start experimenting and all along the way we have to make various decisions, do we go this way or that way.

And that’s what creative resolution is about. What you see in organizations that are very innovative is that people do not compromise, do not go along to get along. They also don’t let one group dominate. They don’t let the bosses dominate and they don’t let the experts dominate. And the experts are a real challenge when you’re trying to do something new.

And the final thing is, instead they have a more patient and inclusive way of allowing the voices to be heard. And that means working through things. So we all need to be communicating as effectively as we can.

Matt Abrahams: So much in what you just said, the value of conflict is that it provides a diversity of opinions and it allows for more creative solutions and innovation to arise. But you have to set up an infrastructure, a way of being that allows for that to happen. And we have to be very clear on making sure that everybody can contribute to that conversation, be it collaborative and, or conflictual. And we have to be very clear on who makes those decisions. I want to move to something that personally is fascinating and something we visited a lot on this podcast.

You talk about six dilemmas for innovative change. One of them has to do with a tension that we’ve often talked about, which is the struggle between structure and improvisation. Can you elaborate on this dialectic and how it helps in innovation?

Linda Hill: So there are these six dilemmas, or paradoxes, that must be managed as you’re trying to innovate. And whether or not your team develops those capabilities relates to your capacity as a leader to deal with those six dilemmas. One of them is in fact, improvisation and structure. So it turns out that the six are laid out in a way that when you’re behaving on one side, you’re actually unleashing people’s slices of genius, you’re amplifying. When you’re playing on the other side, you’re harnessing or leveraging them for the collective good. So on the one side for unleashing, which is very consistent with the kinds of conditions that my colleague Amy Edmondson says you need for psychological safety, is you’re going to have to improvise.

If you want that individual to be able to do his best work, or her best work, you may have to do things a little differently and create the circumstances that fit them and the way they do their best work. It may be different for them than me. On the other hand, when you’re trying to leverage and get to the collective good, you got to put some structures in place.

So you do want to have structures in place. You want to have the least amount of structure you need, but structures that help us either collaborate, experiment, or learn. And if the structures aren’t helping us with those three things, then that sort of bureaucracy has a purpose. But if it’s not about that, then we don’t need it. So hierarchy does matter. It is helpful for us to know what the hierarchy is and what the roles are because it just lets us be more agile, to be quick. I don’t have to ask you every time, what’s your job, et cetera. So the structures that you put in place are in support of our being able to collaborate, experiment, learn together, make decisions in the creative resolution kind of way.

Matt Abrahams: You’re echoing a conversation we’ve had often about the value of structure. Having a minimal structure enables the creativity. If you don’t have the structure, the hierarchy in place, you could have anarchy and you could have confusion. So structure enables, supports, and allows people to be creative and innovative.

And we’ve talked about it often in spontaneous communication moments when I have to answer a question, give feedback. And what you’re sharing is this works at a collective level, and that’s really important. Before we end, I’d like to ask you three questions. One I create just for you and the other two are similar to everyone I interview. Are you up for that?

Linda Hill: Oh dear, yes.

Matt Abrahams: You are incredibly collaborative as a researcher and as an author. What practices do you put in place to foster that collaborative work you do with others? How do you enable it?

Linda Hill: First, I make sure there is diversity of thought. And the last two books that I have written, I’m working on one right now, I always have an author who, at least when they’ve been she’s, she starts with me, she’s under the age of twenty-five. And I like strong willed people. I always pick people who have a point of view. And who I find are pretty talented, but they’re younger than me. That they’re old souls, it turns out all of them, I think. But fundamentally they will take me on. I pick people that I really am going to learn from and I enjoy, and are outspoken.

Matt Abrahams: I like that you think about the quality of the communication you have. And I really like that you seek out different opinions. Question number two, who’s a communicator that you admire and why?

Linda Hill: One I have on my mind just at the moment is Vineet Nayar. I don’t know that you would know his name or not. He was the CEO of HCL Technologies. And HCL Technologies was the company that started the computer business in India, but it lost its way. He’s an unbelievable communicator. He wrote a book called Employees First, Customers Second. The reason why he’s such a good communicator is his language is so visual and so colorful. It’s about communicating in simple but vibrant ways. And I highly recommend you look up Employees First, Customer Second, or anything that Vineet has written or said.

Matt Abrahams: So what I’m hearing that makes him such a powerful communicator is that he’s able to paint a picture with the words. Final question, what are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?

Linda Hill: The first, I would say is there’s something about it that is provocative, that gets your attention. It really raises a question and you’re really eager to hear how that question is going to be answered. I think the other thing is that you do in fact know your audience. You’re empathic enough to know this is the way I need to come at this with this particular group of people, because this is the kind of thing they care about.

So I think you do take the time to know your audience. I think the other thing about communication, when you’re communicating, you are trying to engage someone’s head and someone’s heart. And to the extent that you can think about both when you’re communicating with them, the communication is going to be more powerful.

And I think we all meet people that can do the head piece of it very well, and we’re impressed and we get it, but then afterwards we don’t remember much of it. And then we meet people who do the heart and sometimes you think about a little bit more was, what was the there there, but you kind of remember it more. And so when you can get that combination of both, I think that’s when the communication has been quite powerful, which is why storytelling is important.

Matt Abrahams: Creating curiosity by being provocative, really knowing your audience and being able to balance and give importance to the heart and the feeling, not just the information. Absolutely key ingredients to a successful communication recipe.

Linda, thank you so much. Your insight and input into innovation, into how we can build cultures and support that innovation are really, really helpful. And your insights into what makes for good stories and good facilitation and managing conflict very, very useful for all of us. I appreciate your time. Thank you for joining us.

Linda Hill: Well, thank you. Really a pleasure.

Matt Abrahams: You’ve been listening to Think Fast, Talk Smart, a production of Stanford Graduate School of Business. Our show is produced by Ryan Campos, Jenny Luna, and me, Matt Abrahams. With help from Podium Podcast Co. Our music is by Floyd Wonder. Please find us on YouTube and wherever you get your podcasts. Be sure to subscribe and rate us. Also follow us on LinkedIn and Instagram and check out for deep dive videos, English language learning content, and our newsletter.

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