Hidden Genius

In last week’s blog the rise of HUMBITION we looked at the third dimension of leadership that exists between humility and hubris. Today we are going to delve into how a leader with humbition can illicit the best performance from her team. Or more specifically the hidden genius that lies within organisations – “the more I know, the more I know there is to know.”This is not, it should be said, some starry-eyed paean to the wisdom of crowds or the brilliance of brainstorming. Indeed as Keith Sawyer demonstrates in his seminal book ‘Group Genius’, the process of brainstorming, at least has been practiced since it’s the creation in the 1950’s by the original ‘Mad Men’, advertising icon Alex Osborn, the ‘O’ in the Madison Avenue firm BBDO. “Brainstorming is the most popular creativity technique of all time,”Sawyer argues. “There’s just one problem: It doesn’t work as advertised…Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.”In fact, Sawyer warns, “In many organisations, the group ends up being dumber than the individual members.”

So what does it take to unlock the quiet genius of colleagues, the collective genius of customers, and the hidden genius of potential collaborators of all sorts? The answer is certainly not less leadership. Nor is it more of the same leadership, but with less ego and a little smarter approach to brainstorming. What it takes is an entirely new leadership mind-set – a clear-eyed recognition that in a high-pressure, fast changing world, where the only way to outperform the competition is to outthink the competition, the most successful leaders are the ones who make it their business to get the best ideas from the most people, whatever their background, job title, or position in the hierarchy.

That’s why, in the spirit of humbition, IBM has launched all sorts of initiatives to shake up its culture, challenge its legacy of top-down control, and surface insights from engineers and executives all over the world – including its Innovation Jams, a remarkable experiment to rethink how IBMers think. Talk about group genius: with Innovation Jams, tens of thousands of employees answer questions, share ideas, and influence the company’s point of view on new markets, promising technologies, and emerging problems. 

10 years ago, in what has become a much-heralded case study among academic experts on innovation and collaboration, the company posted detailed information on key technologies that ad been developed in its labs, and invited rank and file participants to suggest ways to turn these technologies into real businesses. Much of the impetus for the initial Innovation Jam came directly from CEO Samuel J Palmisano, who has built on the legacy of his predecessor, turnaround guru Lou Gerstner, in changing the game at IBM. As the story goes, during his annual review of the cutting-edge work being done by the company’s research division. Palmisano was struck by the enormous potential impact of so many of the technologies in IBM’s labs. But he was worried about how he and a small group of senior executives could work through the enormous challenges of figuring out which technologies to commercialise when. 

Palmisano’s answer was to make it possible for 150,000 participants in 104 countries to spend seventy-two hours debating which were the most promising technologies and what were the most effective ways to bring them to market. After that first round of grassroots interaction, a team of fifty executives spent a week making sense of the conversation, looking for trends, and identifying thirty-one “big ideas’ that stood out from among the cacophony. Participants around the world then got another seventy-two hours to refine and develop those ideas. Ultimately, IBM wound up investing a total of $100 million in the ten most compelling ideas.

In fact, the process worked so well that IBM turned the Jam itself into a business – selling its expertise in virtual collaboration to other big companies eager to discover what their people already knew. What did CEO Sam Palmisano and the senior leadership get right? “First, (they) had enabled people with big ideas to articulate them to a wider audience, including skeptics, to hear other’s complementary ideas and to win funding,”the Sloan Management Review analysis concluded. “Second, and probably more important, it had allowed people whose ideas weren’t quite so big, and who hadn’t been able to find the place for their ideas within IBM to present them in ways that senior people could understand.”

The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra certainly knows plenty about the power of group genius, in a field where the supremely powerful lone genius (in the persona of the big-name conductor) remains the archetype. But its evolution is an eye-opening reminder that while freedom is a bigger game than power, the process of unleashing group genius requires an even more rigorous set of ideas about how leadership actually works, and a more intense commitment to working in concert, than the old, familiar (and largely ineffective) command-and-control model. James Traub in his New Yorker essay about the group and its influence. “Freedom is inefficient. Orpheus routinely spends thirty hours preparing for a two-hour concert – three times as much as a typical orchestra. And yet it’s precisely this pain-staking process of arriving, almost unconsciously, at a shared vision that accounts for Orpheus’s distinctive sound…It is as if the process that Orpheus uses to achieve a common sense of purpose reproduces itself in the harmony of the music.”

In other words, just because Orpheus plays without a conductor doesn’t mean it lacks leaders. Quite the opposite. Because orchestra members have played together regularly over the years, they know one another’s special strengths and weaknesses extremely well and they are not reticent about using that knowledge in an open, matter-of-fact way. That’s the promise for organisations that are smart enough to ask less of their senior leaders. They manage to unleash more from rank-and-file contributors whose talents, passions, and ideas provide a kind of group genius that not even the most brilliant individual could provide on his or her own. Although the orchestra has no leader on the podium, it has more leadership than do orchestras known for their famous conductors.

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