There is nothing more powerful in business than a truly original idea — a distinctive point of view that redefines an industry, a breakthrough design that transforms a product category. In an era of hyper-competition and non-stop innovation, the one sustainable form of market leadership is thought leadership — generating better ideas and making smarter adjustments than the competition.
So where do great ideas come from? The traditional answer is the stuff of entrepreneurial folklore, the creation myth of the creative process. Big ideas come from big thinkers: the eccentric genius, the inspired founder, the visionary CEO. Business history is filled with tales of breakthroughs fueled by unique imagination and individual determination. In this old model of innovation, the leader did the thinking, rank-and-file employees did the executing. If you were in charge, you were the “smartest person in the room.”
But what happens when rivals become so numerous, when markets become so unpredictable, when technologies move so quickly, that no individual leader, no matter how inspired, can possibly think of everything? Then it becomes necessary to invent a new model of innovation. Today, one of the defining responsibilities of leadership is to attract the best ideas from the most people—to master a world in which “nobody is as smart as everybody.”
This is, I believe, the most important leadership mind-flip in business today. According to Tim O’Reilly, founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, the computer-book publisher, and an evangelist for open-source innovation, creativity is no longer about which companies have the most visionary executives, but who has the most compelling “architecture of participation.” That is, which companies make it easy, interesting and rewarding for a wide range of contributors to offer ideas, solve problems and improve products? Ultimately, he argues, the companies that are most likely to dominate their business are the ones most adept at harnessing the collective intelligence of everyone with whom they do business.
Leaders who embrace this new mindset ask different questions of themselves than other leaders. Questions such as: Can I exude personal strength, even charisma, along with intellectual humility? Am I the kind of person with whom other smart people want to work and contribute ideas? Can I conduct myself as openly and transparently as the participants in my project?
Find the right answers to those questions, and you’re likely find yourself at the center of exciting innovations — many of them from contributors whom you’ve never met.
William C. Taylor co-founded Fast Company. His book Mavericks at Work: Why the Most Original Minds in Business Win, written with Polly LaBarre, was published October 2.