UPDATED 19:29 EDT / JUNE 22 2018


How Apple, Pixar and Polaroid fueled the collective genius of innovation

When Steve Jobs decided to visit Polaroid Corp. co-founder Edwin Land many years ago, the Apple Inc. co-founder probably didn’t realize he was writing a new chapter in corporate innovation. Yet, the lessons Jobs took away from that meeting with the inventor of instant photography, involving leadership, creativity and company culture, have reverberated throughout the technology landscape ever since.

Land was a perfectionist when it came to product design and scoffed at the notion of market research. He believed that significant inventions should be startling and unexpected, rolled out in a live onstage demonstration, usually before Polaroid’s board of directors in the 1960s. And he was forced out of the company he created at one point during his illustrious career. Sound familiar?

When Linda Hill (pictured), Wallace Brett Donham professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, set out to publish a book on leadership and innovation, she found herself returning to Jobs, Land and a company called Pixar, which Jobs co-founded after departing from Apple in 1985. Her book, “Collective Genius,” used a number of case studies to document the value of creative thinking and leadership approaches in fostering innovation.

“Pixar was a touchstone for that work,” Hill said. “They believe that everybody has a slice of genius, everybody has a contribution to make.”

Hill spoke with Dave Vellante (@dvellante) and Stu Miniman (@stu), co-hosts of theCUBE, SiliconANGLE Media’s mobile livestreaming studio, during the LiveWorx 18 event in Boston, Massachusetts. They discussed key factors that make innovators successful, the importance of collaborative environments, how corporate boards can be barriers to innovation, diversity in Silicon Valley, and the growing influence of Millennials in the enterprise workplace. (* Disclosure below.)

This week theCUBE features Linda Hill as its Guest of the Week.

Leading innovation and change

The work of Hill and her colleagues in studying leadership though “Collective Genius” found that successful innovators relied on careful management of tension and conflict among teams. Creative abrasion, agility and resolution were found to be key elements for the hard work innovation requires.

“Leading innovation is actually different from leading change,” Hill explained. “Leading change is about coming up with a vision and inspiring people to want to fulfill that. Leading innovation … is more about creating a space in which people will be willing and able to do the kind of collaborative work required for innovation to happen.”

On occasion, understanding the dynamics of how to create a collaborative and creative environment requires an actual seat in the room. The Harvard professor went to her dean several years ago and said it was important for her work to join an organization’s board of directors.

The result was a trustee position with the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California. The school’s graduates include concept illustrators for the “Star Wars” film series and product designers for the Apple monitor, Oakley sunglasses, and the Kikkoman soy sauce dispenser.

“My work is on leadership, globalization and innovation,” Hill said. “I remember learning that you can’t teach anyone how to lead. You actually have to help people learn how to lead themselves.”

Boards can hinder progress

Serving as an ArtCenter trustee has given Hill a better perspective on the role of boards in governance and the impact they can play in supporting innovation. Last year, a study authored by Hill and several of her colleagues was published in the “Harvard Business Review” and documented the shortcomings of boards in fostering innovation.

The study found that many boards were viewed as inhibitors, failing to help management make the right decisions by defining innovation as simply a technology fix. This is the kind of corporate culture that cries out for change.

“They have such a narrow definition of it,” Hill said. “Digital transformation often requires cultural transformation.”

That cultural change requires the kind of vision, echoed by Jobs and Land, that builds a marketplace of ideas through debate and discourse. Polaroid’s inventor would famously hire students from arts and humanities colleges for his lab, and they would challenge many of the scientists who were wedded to their engineering models.

“Leaders need to learn how to amplify difference, whereas many leaders learn how to minimize it,” Hill said. “I find that many organizations aren’t doing what they need to do because the leader is uncomfortable.”

Focus on workforce diversity

Pressure to create a more diverse workforce can make some leaders uncomfortable as well. Diversity has been an ongoing topic of discussion inside the Silicon Valley community, as a steady drumbeat of studies and reports show that technology firms are struggling to create a diverse workplace culture.

One report, published by the National Urban League in May, found that fewer than 3 percent of tech workers among the industry’s largest technology companies identified as black. “If you build the kind of environments we’re talking about, they tend to be more inclusive in diversity of thought, not demographic diversity,” Hill said. “Silicon Valley is not a place of demographic diversity.”

One emerging trend that could change that picture is the growing influence of Millennials in the corporate culture. A recent Deloitte study predicted that millennials, currently between 22 and 37 years old, will account for 75 percent of the workforce within seven years.

Millennials are more values-oriented, wanting to take pride in the organizations they work for. They also value transparency and inclusion. “The good news is that … millennials won’t tolerate some of the environments in the same way,” Hill said. “That requires businesses and leaders to behave differently.”

During the writing of “Collective Genius,” Hill had an opportunity to focus on the leadership of Vineet Nayar, former CEO of HCL Technologies Inc., which is based in India. Nayar challenged a number of perceptions surrounding Indian companies, such as an image that the country’s firms produced low-cost products without innovation.

HCL’s leader pulled the company out of a five-year slump by empowering his employees and dramatically changing the culture to increase transparency. “You can’t plan your way to innovation,” Hill said. “You have to act your way.”

Somewhere, Steve Jobs and Edwin Land are smiling.

Here’s the complete video interview from the LiveWorx 18 event. (* Disclosure: TheCUBE is a paid media partner for the LiveWorx event. Neither PTC Inc., the event sponsor, nor other sponsors have editorial control over content on theCUBE or SiliconANGLE.)

Photo: SiliconANGLE

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