Innovation Leaders as White Blood Cells

by Yoram Solomon

Innovation Leaders as White Blood Cells

One of the most important roles of the leader of a creative team is to keep the team separated from the rest of the organization. Just like your immune system separates you from disease.

What is the most important trait of the creative team leader? In my research of why people are more creative in startup companies than in mature companies, I found that the team leader played a very important role, but not for the obvious reasons. It wasn’t really his (or her) leadership skills. It wasn’t how he (or she) inspired the team. It was something else, and in 2010 I got to experience it first-hand.

I worked as a Vice President and a General Manager of a very innovative product line in a public technology company. I had just finished my PhD dissertation, and knew that for a team to be creative, it needed less bureaucracy and processes, and more autonomy.

Just then, the company decided to adopt a time-keeping software called CrossPoint. It was going to let the company track how employees (specifically engineers) spent their time. It would give us statistics on their effectiveness on different tasks, and allow “charging” their time to different projects, although all this meant was moving money from one pocket to the other and nothing more.

Needless to say, knowing that this is one more thing to reduce employee creativity, I objected. Vehemently, I might add. But it was futile. Doesn’t matter what argument I brought up–there was a counter argument. Finally, the CEO got tired of arguing with me, and decided that we will implement CrossPoint and that’s it!

I lost the war, but I thought I could still win one last battle, so I argued to exempt the employees on my team from that tool. “They only work on one project, so why does it matter that we track their time?” I asked. It didn’t help either. My team was forced to use CrossPoint as well. I lost that one last battle too.

Once a month thereafter, the company’s budget manager would come to our executive staff meetings and report on CrossPoint time allocation of all employees, by groups. Often he would complain that some of the employees didn’t enter their time to the system in one group or another. As if they had nothing else (or better) to do…

One time, right after his report and complaints, he turned to me and said: “I don’t get it. You were the one person who fought fearlessly against using CrossPoint. I would have expected that your team would be the worst in entering their time into the system. Yet, your team is the best in entering their time. How come? Did you change your mind about CrossPoint? How are you forcing your employees to do it on time?”

“Well,” I said, “if you check carefully, you will notice that not only my employees enter their time promptly, but the entire team enters their time within the same 30 minutes…” He confirmed, but seemed even more confused than before. “Let me save you the time,” I added, “If  you asked them how come they all entered their time into CrossPoint within the same half hour, I bet their answer will be: ‘what’s CrossPoint?'”

He then got it. My team never entered their time into the system. I did. I knew exactly what they all worked on, so I spent 30 minutes every week to enter their time, not bothering them with this extra step of process and bureaucracy.

And hence the role of a creative leader of a creative team: you have to operate like an immune system. You have to stop anything that can hurt employee creativity from entering the internal organs (your team). Stop time sheets and expense reports. Don’t ask for weekly reports. If you don’t know what your team is working on, then you are not really part of the team. If you are a true leader–you know exactly what everyone is working on without getting reports. Fill every bureaucratic form for them. Don’t let them waste their time with the purchasing and procurement process. If they need something, and it is within the budget–you get it for them. If it’s outside the budget–get the budget and then get it for them. If they have IT problems–you fill the IT ticket for them. As a leader, you only let three things into the team: funding, resources, and praise. Block everything else. Like a good immune system would.

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Dr. Yoram Solomon is an inventor, creativity researcher, coach, consultant, and trainer to large companies and employees. His Ph.D. examines why people are more creative in startup companies than in mature ones. Yoram was a professor of Technology and Industry Forecasting at the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, UT Dallas School of Management; is active in regional innovation and tech transfer; and is a speaker and author on predicting technology future and identifying opportunities for market disruption. Follow @yoram

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