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  • 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?

  • (Laughter)

  • 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 gotta 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.

  • Individuals in innovative organizations

  • learn how to inquire, they learn how to actively listen, but guess what?

  • They also learn how to advocate for their point of view.

  • They understand that innovation rarely happens

  • unless you have both diversity and conflict.

  • Creative agility is about being able to test and refine that portfolio of ideas

  • through quick pursuit, reflection and adjustment.

  • It's about discovery-driven learning

  • where you act, as opposed to plan, your way to the future.

  • It's about design thinking where you have that interesting combination

  • of the scientific method and the artistic process.

  • It's about running a series of experiments, and not a series of pilots.

  • Experiments are usually about learning.

  • When you get a negative outcome,

  • you're still really learning something that you need to know.

  • Pilots are often about being right.

  • When they don't work, someone or something is to blame.

  • The final capability is creative resolution.

  • This is about doing decision making

  • in a way that you can actually combine even opposing ideas

  • to reconfigure them in new combinations

  • to produce a solution that is new and useful.

  • When you look at innovative organizations, they never go along to get along.

  • They don't compromise.

  • They don't let one group or one individual dominate,

  • even if it's the boss, even if it's the expert.

  • Instead, they have developed

  • a rather patient and more inclusive decision making process

  • that allows for both/and solutions to arise

  • and not simply either/or solutions.

  • These three capabilities are why we see

  • that Pixar is able to actually do what it does.

  • Let me give you another example,

  • and that example is the infrastructure group of Google.

  • The infrastructure group of Google is the group

  • that has to keep the website up and running 24/7.

  • So when Google was about to introduce Gmail and YouTube,

  • they knew that their data storage system wasn't adequate.

  • The head of the engineering group and the infrastructure group at that time

  • was a man named Bill Coughran.

  • Bill and his leadership team, who he referred to as his brain trust,

  • had to figure out what to do about this situation.

  • They thought about it for a while.

  • Instead of creating a group to tackle this task,

  • they decided to allow groups to emerge spontaneously

  • around different alternatives.

  • Two groups coalesced.

  • One became known as Big Table,

  • the other became known as Build It From Scratch.

  • Big Table proposed that they build on the current system.

  • Build It From Scratch proposed that it was time for a whole new system.

  • Separately, these two teams were allowed to work full-time

  • on their particular approach.

  • In engineering reviews, Bill described his role as,

  • "Injecting honesty into the process by driving debate."

  • Early on, the teams were encouraged to build prototypes so that they could

  • "bump them up against reality and discover for themselves

  • the strengths and weaknesses of their particular approach."

  • When Build It From Scratch shared their prototype with the group

  • whose beepers would have to go off in the middle of the night

  • if something went wrong with the website,

  • they heard loud and clear about the limitations of their particular design.

  • As the need for a solution became more urgent

  • and as the data, or the evidence, began to come in,

  • it became pretty clear that the Big Table solution

  • was the right one for the moment.

  • So they selected that one.

  • But to make sure that they did not lose the learning

  • of the Build it From Scratch team,

  • Bill asked two members of that team to join a new team that was emerging

  • to work on the next-generation system.

  • This whole process took nearly two years,

  • but I was told that they were all working at breakneck speed.

  • Early in that process, one of the engineers had gone to Bill and said,

  • "We're all too busy for this inefficient system

  • of running parallel experiments."

  • But as the process unfolded, he began to understand

  • the wisdom of allowing talented people to play out their passions.

  • He admitted, "If you had forced us to all be on one team,

  • we might have focused on proving who was right, and winning,

  • and not on learning and discovering what was the best answer for Google."

  • Why is it that Pixar and Google are able to innovate time and again?

  • It's because they've mastered the capabilities required for that.

  • They know how to do collaborative problem solving,

  • they know how to do discovery-driven learning

  • and they know how to do integrated decision making.

  • Some of you may be sitting there and saying to yourselves right now,

  • "We don't know how to do those things in my organization.

  • So why do they know how to do those things at Pixar,

  • and why do they know how to do those things at Google?"

  • When many of the people that worked for Bill told us,

  • in their opinion, that Bill was one of the finest leaders in Silicon Valley,

  • we completely agreed; the man is a genius.

  • Leadership is the secret sauce.

  • But it's a different kind of leadership,

  • not the kind many of us think about when we think about great leadership.

  • One of the leaders I met with early on said to me,

  • "Linda, I don't read books on leadership.

  • All they do is make me feel bad." (Laughter)

  • "In the first chapter they say I'm supposed to create a vision.

  • But if I'm trying to do something that's truly new, I have no answers.

  • I don't know what direction we're going in

  • and I'm not even sure I know how to figure out how to get there."

  • For sure, there are times when visionary leadership

  • is exactly what is needed.

  • But if we want to build organizations that can innovate time and again,

  • we must recast our understanding of what leadership is about.

  • Leading innovation is about creating the space

  • where people are willing and able to do the hard work

  • of innovative problem solving.

  • So, at this point, some of you may be wondering,

  • "What does that leadership really look like?"

  • At Pixar, they understand that innovation takes a village.

  • The leaders focus on building a sense of community

  • and building those three capabilities.

  • How do they define leadership?

  • They say leadership is about creating a world

  • to which people want to belong.

  • What kind of world do people want to belong in at Pixar?

  • A world where you're living at the frontier.

  • What do they focus their time on?

  • Not on creating a vision.

  • Instead they spend their time thinking about,

  • "How do we design a studio that has the sensibility of a public square

  • so that people will interact?"

  • Let's put in a policy that anyone, no matter what their level or role,

  • is allowed to give notes to the director

  • about how they feel about a particular film.