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The Power of Collective Genius

There are so many things of great value to an organization...a compelling mission, great leadership, dedicated staff, powerful board members, endowment sufficient to provide a sustainable advantage, and the list goes on. Another very important consideration, particularly within the environment in which we are living, is collective genius.

Collective Genius in a Company or Non-Profit: In the Harvard Business Review article, "Collective Genius," Linda A. Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove and Kent Lineback argue that the role of a leader of innovation is not to set a vision and motivate others to follow it, but to create a community that is willing and able to generate new ideas. They cite Google as an outstanding example of ferocious growth and groundbreaking innovation. Bill Coughran, SVP of Engineering, early in Google's development, saw his challenge as a leader of innovation to create a community that would do just that--generate new ideas. As opposed to merely setting a vision and motivating others to follow it. Only then could an organization be ready to innovate with the growth anticipated.

Hill and her colleagues set out to study exceptional leaders of innovation and found them across the globe in a variety of different businesses. They noted that many of these leaders had the same thoughts as Coughran's. Leaders can draw out the slices of genius in each individual and assemble them into innovations that represent collective genius. They noted that the question was not "How do I make innovation happen?" but, "How do I set the stage for it to happen?"

They note that innovation emerges when diverse people collaborate to generate a wide-ranging portfolio of ideas, then refine those ideas and evolve those into new ideas through give-and-take and heated debates. It generally includes passionate disagreement. Leaders need to manage these disagreements by creating an environment supportive enough that people are willing to share their genius, but confrontational enough to improve ideas and spark new thinking.

Innovation requires trial and error...groups often act their way forward rather than planning their way forward, and many solutions emerge that are different than anything anyone anticipated. The fact that innovative leaders strike a balance between the need for improvisation and the realities of performance make this all the more interesting.

The Hill group noted that innovative leaders need to strike a balance to ensure a sense of urgency yet be patient enough to let great ideas from people throughout the organization develop.

In the end, to form a community that moves forward with collective genius, members have to agree on what's important. They need to have some shared values. Hill, etc., found that truly innovative organizations all embrace bold ambition, responsibility to the community, collaboration and learning. And people who can lead in this way have to be identified and cultivated across time.

Collective Genius in the Family: Understanding the basics of these ideas can be helpful within your own family. This is the flavor of the book, How to Raise a Founder With Heart written by Jim Marggraff. Jim notes that a founder is anyone who sees a problem, recognizes his or her potential to do something about it, and takes the necessary steps to create a solution.

In his book, Marggraff notes that we all want the best for our children--we want to prepare them for success and help them realize their true potential. Raising your children with a founder's mindset will provide them with the tools to address an issue or follow a passion to make some part of the world a better place.

Jim is a serial entrepreneur who invented the LeapPad Learning System, the Livescribe Smartpen, and other innovative technologies. Marggraff is also a parent of entrepreneurs and a remarkable individual.

As Marggraff talks about the framework for how to raise his kids, you realize quickly that he has created a base for collective genius within his own family...and the family members are now doing the same now that they are older and developing and running their own in many ways, creating such an environment can be infectious.

Creative Genius in the Development Office: Since I have been consulting, it is very clear that some development departments and offices have found the secret to creative genius--and sadly, some have no idea what they are missing. Unfortunately the latter issue is generally why organizations reach out to consulting groups. I strongly feel that development officers can prepare themselves to thrive in the coveted environment of creative genius and can help to make that happen in their own organizations. I am watching this happen in front of my eyes with one of our clients.

Some time ago I developed a list of factors for how development officers can become stars...while this doesn't immediately indicate that you can be a leader of the type that generates collective genius, it surely is a start. It will help you set the stage for innovation. And if there are enough people working to become stars, this provides a great framework for following the advice that Linda Hill and her colleagues and Jim Marggraff found from innovative leaders.

1. Stay in Front of the Wave

Try to anticipate every issue that may erupt during your work—and try to anticipate a solution. Make lists, prioritize plans, embrace team discussions. In the first half of the year, try to come as close to meeting your goals as possible. You can use the rest of the year to finalize your work, to plan for the coming year, and to break the goals that you set for the past year. It surely reduces your work stress and it also allows you to have some discretionary time to respond to new opportunities that emerge.

2. Like Nike, Just Do it!

Your work is intensely personal. Assuming you are on track with your efforts, begin to go beyond your job description to take on other responsibilities that may be of interest to you and will help bring value to the organization. Maybe it’s a little risky—but just a little and what’s life without a risk here and there? Make sure the ideas are good ones and stick with them even if the waters get murky…you want to ensure they are successful.

3. Be Bullish on Energy: Harness the Power of a Network

Throughout the organization and the community there are people who you admire, there are people who you should get to know, there are people with whom you may work periodically and those with whom you may just come to know by living life. Eventually you call these people friends. These are people who you can help and eventually you may rely on them to be able to help you. These people are your personal team—give them as much credit as possible and be willing always to be there for them. Over time, they are your partners, your network.

4. “Know Thyself”

Socrates taught that the unexamined life is not worth living. We all have round and flat sides—know yourself and your strengths and weaknesses. Play to your strengths and hopefully you will have selected partners who can help round out the flat sides that you have. Leverage yourself and your talent for all that you do. Put your enthusiasm and your curiosity into your work.

5. Ellen Degeneres Says: Do What Scares You

Ellen means that if you begin to feel too comfortable, perhaps not stimulated enough, perhaps not fully utilized in your situation, try something new. Work with your department to craft a new position or expand the one you have. Move to a new situation that might test your mettle a little more intensely, build a larger team, expand your contacts…whatever it takes. We work all of our lives, work needs to be the best that it can be for us, for our families and our organization.

In Summary: With the combined effect of our current social-political-health situation, a whole new response is necessary daily to help restore our cities and states. If there was ever a time to call upon our fortitude and exercise the excellence within the development office, now is the time. I do not believe that people go into development by accident, even though one may think it and state it that way. There is an inherent need in some people to make a difference. They gravitate to development situations and, in another way, life pushes some people in this direction. We each have a purpose all our own. We can each practice leading with innovation in every way possible to maximize our own goals for ourselves and others. We can truly be constructively discontent on this once-in-a-lifetime journey, especially now.


For more information, read: "Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation" published in 2014 by Harvard Business Review Press, by Linda A. Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove, Kent Lineback.


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