Interviews Talks To Charles Leadbeater

We chat with Charles Leadbeater, one of the world’s top management thinkers, about his views on innovation and collaboration in business.


Innovation has become vital for every kind of company in every sector, and the fundamental route of innovation, is collaboration to bring different ideas together.

Secondly, companies are now much more used to working in networks. Relations with companies outside your own companies become more important. So companies are being driven both by the need to innovate, and the need to adopt new forms.

I think real collaboration is difficult: it takes attention to culture; values; forms of organization; ways of leadership; that you can’t just buy off the shelf. And you can’t manage it in the way that you manage production or quality or operations. You need to manage it more like a community.

Forms of collaboration differ in different places. In Asia, what I’m used to seeing, for instance in Japan, are forms of collaboration around quality and production, and a level of shop-floor collaboration around quality that is very uncommon still in a lot of industrial companies in Europe and the US. What you see in the most creative bits of the American economy- in Silicon Valley- is collaboration through innovation, radical innovation.

So innovative cultures, I think, are a mixture of being quite permissive, but also very driven, and very focused on getting results. You can’t lead innovation and you can’t manage innovation in the way that you manage quality; you can’t plan it in the way that you plan production; you cannot instruct people to have new ideas. All you can do is create the environment in which those ideas will emerge from people. And if you over-manage it, you’ll kill it.

I think what stands in the way of collaboration is not the desire necessarily to be a winner, but the desire to be the most important person. What stands in the way is often ego, and hierarchy. You have to challenge the status quo, you have to have people who are prepared to speak out and be different. And if corporate cultures don’t encourage or allow that, they won’t get innovation. You might get improvement, but you won’t get real radical innovation- because real radical innovation comes from challenge and difference. So you have to take that risk, that you’re asking people to go into the unknown, and believe in the possibility of something that doesn’t yet exist.

There is a great opportunity, in education in general, I think, for people to create new ways of learning with collaboration as its crucial component. Too much of what we teach is about putting information and knowledge in the heads of individuals, too little is about collaboration. So often what you don’t get from academia are big ideas that cross disciplines, when actually, all the big ideas are going to come from people crossing disciplines.

This new world favours people who will see that they will create more value the more connected they are to other people, and the more they help other people create value the more value will come back to them- that’s this world. It’s a world in which the value you create can’t just be about what you do, it has to be about what you do and how you help other people create value.

I don’t think in future there’s going to be pure stand-alone strategies other than in a few fields where you can control resources; in most fields, it’s going to be about bringing together partnerships, collaborations, alliances, platforms, to create value, and so the future will belong to those people who create shared value, to create their own value.

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