Effective leadership in innovative organisations – some insights

By Elisabeth Goodman, 24th January 2019

Illustration from Harvard Business Review, Jan-Feb 2019

Harvard Business Review has come up with another insightful article on what makes for effective leadership.

This time, Gary P. Pisano shines a light on what leaders can do to channel potentially chaotic creative talent into cost-effective and productive behaviours and outcomes. (The Hard Truth about Innovative Cultures, HBR Jan-Feb 2019, pp. 62-71.)

Creative individuals come with some ‘allowable weaknesses’

We know that creativity and innovation are the life-blood of many organisations, and that is certainly the case with the many Life Science organisations that RiverRhee works with.

We also know that some individuals excel in creativity and that this strength can come as a package with some ‘allowable weaknesses’ – as recognised for example for the “Plants”, “Specialists” and “Resource Investigators” described in Belbin Team Roles.  These allowable weaknesses can include such things as losing touch with reality or with the bigger picture, or not following-up adequately with others on things that have been discussed.

Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones book ‘Clever. Leading your smartest, most creative people’ also has some great insights on the challenges that leaders might experience with their staff.  They cite such things as having a low threshold for anything that might appear bureaucratic, and a desire to continue to pursue ideas beyond what is economically practical. (See previous blog: Why conventional knowledge management, process improvement and project management won’t work with ‘clever’ teams.  Or will they?).

Five tips for effective leadership of your most creative people

So here are Pisano’s top five tips:

1. Tolerate failure (of course), but expect learning as a result. With innovation comes experimentation and failure – it is one of our greatest sources of learning.  Leaders should clearly articulate this expectation of competence: zero tolerance for wasting time or money on activities that could have been avoided by applying learning from previous experience.

Pisano adds some interesting qualifiers to balance against this: tolerance for people making mistakes vs. permissiveness; and demanding high performance standards in a way that demonstrates respect for employees’ dignity.

2. Expect a highly disciplined approach to experimentation. A highly disciplined approach includes a clear definition of what a project will be assessing and how, agreed go / no go decision criteria and consistent follow-through based on the results.

Pisano cites a Cambridge Massachusetts company, Flagship Pioneering, that achieves this by designing experiments to expose the flaws in their ideas, rather than to validate the ideas.  Their experiments are designed within limited budgets and timescales so that they can fail fast and cheaply.  Negative results are celebrated as an opportunity to kill a project or reformulate it.  There is no financial incentive for prolonging an unsuccessful project.

3. Cultivate a culture of candid debate and constructive criticism. Pisaro suggests there might be some cultural diversity in people’s level of comfort with giving and receiving constructive criticism on ideas; that mis-guided concepts of ‘niceness’ or ‘politeness’ might get in the way of candid debate.

However, it is actually more respectful of an individual to expect them to defend their ideas and proposals and to engage in an open dialogue with them.  We owe this level of two-way communication to each other, and in order to be effective and efficient in our work.

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4.  Expect individuals to take ownership in their areas of expertise.  A principle we teach on RiverRhee’s management courses is that teams are  more likely to achieve high performance where the individuals within them exercise leadership in their areas of expertise. This leadership not only involves coming up with ideas but also, as Pisano suggests, taking accountability for decisions that rely on an individual’s knowledge and expertise.

Pisano suggests that teams and organisations will collaborate more effectively if each person contributes input and ideas and takes accountability in this way.

5. Communicate a compelling vision and stay close to the action.  Pisano suggests that flatter organisations, combined with strong and visible leadership will make for a more rapid flow of information and faster and smarter decisions.  (Goffee and Jones have also suggested that a clear articulation of goals will help ‘clever’ people stay focused.)

Pisano advocates flatter organisations but has reservations about simply creating smaller units as a way to magically achieve effective innovative organisations. (See previous blog on how to maintain engagement in larger organisations from another HBR article suggesting this approach.)

Role-modelling of these behaviours by senior leadership is essential

In conclusion, leaders need to role-model all of the above behaviours in order to get the most effective outcomes from the creative talent in their organisations.  They should:

  • Demonstrate and reward learning from experience
  • Have well-defined decision making processes, with follow-through
  • Invite questions and respond positively to constructive feedback on their ideas
  • Keep articulating visions and goals, be visible and demonstrate awareness of what is happening throughout the organisation


About the author. Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting., a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, with a focus on the Life Sciences. (We support our clients through courses, workshops and personal one-to-one coaching.)  Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis.  RiverRhee is a member-to-member training provider for One Nucleus and a CPD provider for CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals). 

Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner. She is a member of CILIP and of APM (Association for Project Management) in which she was a founding member of the Enabling Change SIG.

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