Innovation calls for many cooks in the kitchen

Read time 2min 50sec
Linda Hill
Linda Hill

Practically every country has a saying about ‘too many cooks in the kitchen’, meaning that too many opinions never lead to good decisions.

But Harvard Business Professor Linda Hill disagrees, saying the secret ingredient is to get them all cooking together.

Hill has spent 15 years studying what exceptional leaders do and how that connects to innovation. She and her team have analysed companies around the world, including in South Africa, and noticed differences in the way they operate that can be attributed to the culture of the country as well as to their own leadership style. But mainly their research found similarities in how they created an ecosystem where innovation could thrive.

Hill was a guest speaker at the IFS World Conference in Boston this week, where the software vendor IFS was highlighting how its own innovations are helping it to compete in a space dominated by far larger ERP vendors.

Hill told the audience that the organisations that innovated most successfully were those where every employee understood that they had a role to play in delighting the customers. The staff were encouraged to be value creators and game changers, and to look for ways to close any performance gaps or opportunity gaps before another business took that opportunity away from them.

“If you want to innovate, you have to unleash people’s passion and talent. Those are the resources you need to harness.”

A boss had to create an environment where people had the ability to be creative together. “Leading change is about setting the direction, communicating the direction and getting people to follow you into the future. But leading innovation isn’t about that. It’s about creating an environment so people have the capability to co-create the future with you,” Hill said.

If you want to innovate, you have to unleash people’s passion and talent.

During her career she had interacted with Nelson Mandela, who told her that one of his most important rules was to always make sure that the voice of the minority was heard, she added.

Decision-making often involved a compromise, or having one side dominate. An innovative organisation could be more patient, as long as someone had clear accountability for the decision at the end. That required a community spirit where everyone knew what the purpose was, and what problem or opportunity they were trying to address.

However, big breakthrough innovations usually demanded persistence and were emotionally taxing, so people had to volunteer to innovate, rather than be told to do it, Hill recommended.

Over the years, she has worked with many companies including Pixar, whose animation teams consist of dozens of innovative people all working together. Often companies innovated most successfully by having three or four teams working on the same problem simultaneously. That saved time if something failed, because other teams were already tackling the same task, and they might succeed.

“My advice to a leader who wants innovation is to have too many cooks in the kitchen and get them cooking together,” Hill concluded.

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