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Book Review: Collective Genius
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Book Review: Collective Genius by Linda Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove, and Kent Linebeck

Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation

Written by: Linda Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove, and Kent Linebeck. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2014. 294 + xi pages. US$30.00 (hardcover).
Reviewed by: Joshua Cohen

Collective Genius

Is your organization both willing and able to innovate? If not, or if you’re still getting there, “Collective Genius” will help catalyze your efforts. From the start, “Collective Genius” warns us that the ability to innovate quickly and effectively, again and again, is perhaps the only enduring competitive advantage.

Linda Hill, with co-authors Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove and Kent Lineback, research a diverse sampling of innovative companies (including Pixar Animation Studios, Volkswagen, eBay, Google and more) and make clear observations about their findings. Because the research explores diverse industries and product categories, the resulting observations may apply universally.

“Collective Genius” recalibrates expectations we have for leaders of innovative organizations. Leaders do not need to be visionaries, but they must foster an ecosystem in which visions are born and executed upon. If your goal is innovation, then your role must be to create a social system in which people can innovate by: collaborating, learning through trial and error, and making integrated decisions. Innovation must, therefore, be made part of an organization’s DNA.

How can leaders build organizations capable of consistent innovation? They can start by creating collaborative organizations, because innovations most often arise from the interplay of ideas that occur during the interactions of people with diverse expertise, experience or points of view. They can also foster discovery-driven learning, as innovation is a problem–solving process of trial and error. And they can support and encourage integrative decision-making by combining competing options to create something new.

If an organization is willing to innovate, but not able to,— or vice versa — potentials cannot be realized. To create organizations willing to innovate, leaders of innovation form communities whose members are bound by common purpose, shared values and mutual rules of engagement. They must create a place where people are willing to do the hard work of innovation despite its inherent paradoxes and stresses. Gleaned from the case studies presented in “Collective Genius,” such willingness is borne from motivation, incentives, encouragement, risk-embracing attitudes and desire. In innovative organizations, there must be tolerance for some risk — otherwise, why should anyone bother to take the risk of pursuing an innovative solution? There needs to be boundary conditions, like guard rails, so that failure isn’t catastrophic.

To create organizations able to innovate, leaders of innovation foster collaboration, discovery–driven learning and integrative decision making. The authors promote three organizational capabilities essential to innovative problem-solving: creative abrasion, creative agility and creative resolution. Any group that wishes to innovate must be able to collaborate, experiment and integrate possible solutions. Such ability requires resources, skill and a flexible framework or process toward success. Improvisation often trumps rigidity.

While the authors acknowledge that they have not “cracked the code” for leading innovation, they draw insights and actionable lessons from the experiences of accomplished leaders.

From my vantage as an intellectual property counsel, I have seen the fruits of innovation in disparate industries, countries and forms. Some companies are poised to produce design, technology and service innovations, while others innovate despite themselves (if at all). The willing and able framework in “Collective Genius” for innovation leadership can help emerging organizations fill their innovation pipelines, while helping established organizations to innovate consistently, again and again.

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