Creativity and the Role of the Leader

Creativity and the Role of the Leader
Teresa M. Amabile and Mukti Khaire
Harvard Business Review, October 2008

Let’s talk about creativity.  In today’s innovation-driven economy, understanding how to generate great ideas has become an urgent managerial priority.

To connect theory and practice, Harvard Business School professors Teresa M. Amabile and Mukti Khaire convened a two-day colloquium of leading creativity scholars and executives from companies such as design consultancy IDEO, technology innovator E Ink, Internet giant Google, and pharmaceutical leader Novartis.

In “Creativity and the Role of the Leader,” in the October 2008 Harvard Business Review, the authors reveal the ideas, insights, and tactics that executives can use to increase innovation.

The first priority of leadership is to engage people to do creative work.  That engagement starts when the leader recasts the role of employees.  Rather than simply executing top-down strategy, employees must contribute imagination.

As Intuit co-founder Scott Cook put it, “Traditional management prioritizes projects and assigns them to people.  But increasingly, managers are not the source of the idea.”

Cook told the story of an eye-opening analysis of innovations at Google:  Its founders tracked the progress of ideas and discovered a higher success rate for those that had been executed in the ranks without support from above than for the ideas that had executive backing.

As leaders look beyond the top ranks for creative direction, they must combat what Diego Rodriguez, a partner at IDEO, calls the “lone inventor myth.”  Though past breakthroughs sometimes have come from a single genius, the reality today is that most innovations draw on many contributions.

As Rodriguez said, “Consider the examples of InnoCentive, of Mozilla, of Wikipedia.  All are contexts that bring in lots of contributors.  People don’t do what they do because someone told them to do it. Contributing to an interdependent network is its own reward.”

Robert Sutton, a professor at Stanford University’s School of Engineering, noted that most companies have hierarchical structures, and differences in status among people impede the exchange of ideas.

How can firms remedy that?  Sutton urged leaders to define “superstars” in their organizations as those who help others succeed.  He recalled seeing powerful people hold forth in meetings even though others in the room had much better ideas for solving problems.  It should be management’s mission, he sugg...