Six Hacks to Unlock Innovative Thinking


In her speech and conversation with Christine Miles, Liz Wiseman says in times of uncertainty, the type of leaders needed are those who not only have answers but can also draw on the intelligence of the whole team.

The leadership that is needed today is a recognition that we are fundamentally leading in the dark right now. Today, leaders cannot assure you that they know what lies ahead. The reality is most leaders are leading people to a place of uncertainty. They instead assure us that we need to leave where we are today and journey to a place of unknown, but a place where we need to be. This requires an entirely different kind of leadership. Leading in times of uncertainty is difficult because firstly, it is something that makes one feel uncomfortable and we do not want to leave the status quo and secondly, we also don’t do our best thinking when we are scared.

Leaders need to lead in a way that can instill the confidence that people need, to be at their best and to do their best thinking but also challenges people to be able to leave current ideas, answers and solutions and go into a place of unknown. How do you balance what is known and what is not known? For starters, the best leaders do not just tell people what to do. They use the intelligence and capability of their teams. 

Some smart leaders shut down the intelligence and capability of others. They are diminishers, in that they themselves are smart people but when they bring down the intelligence of other people around them, people hold back their ideas, and the team is never at their best. There is overall more uncertainty than clarity. The other type of leaders are multiplier leaders, who also are smart and capable leaders but the people around them are also capable people. They can get the ideas flowing, so that the ideas bubble up from the group and not trickle down from the leader. Overall, they leave a very different impact on the people around them. In times of uncertainty, the type of leaders needed is the latter, who not only have answers but can also draw on the intelligence of the whole team.

In times of uncertainty, the type of leaders needed are those who not only have answers but can also draw on the intelligence of the whole team.

Most leaders cannot see around corners as we are all humans, and they need the intelligence of their team. In my research across a large sample size, it was found that diminisher leaders on average get 48% of the intelligence of the people on their team. What the multiplier leaders do differently than their diminisher counterparts is that they see the genius in others, they create a safe environment, they don’t tell people what to do but ask good questions, they don’t make the vital decisions but involve their team in debate, and lastly, rather than doing it themselves, they give ownership. In essence, multiplier leaders do two things- they create an environment of safety for people to think, take risks, and disagree with the boss and secondly, they create an environment of stretch where people are challenged, where there is a recognition that the current answers are not enough.

Three shifts to create safety around you so that the team can move into the dark and find new answers

  1. Instead of trying to look confident, simply admit what you don’t know. Industries are changing very fast so it is very likely that you may not know everything. Instead of pretending to know and have answers, the best executives admit that they don’t know. A practical tip that can come in handy for leaders is to make a list of things that they don’t know. We are actually at our best when we don’t know, when we are new, naïve, and/or tackling problems for the first time. In our research, we found that people were most satisfied at work when they felt the most challenged. So, perhaps the most courageous thing that leaders can do is admit what they don’t know, but then take people into this place of unknown and remind them that we tend to be at our most innovative, at our best, and at our happiest when we are solving problems we don’t yet have answers to.
  2. In times of uncertainty, the responsibility falls back to the leader as people assume that leaders want to take the helm, but maybe a courageous act of leadership right now is to just simply remind people that they are in charge, to give someone 51% of the vote.
  3. Instead of just encouraging people to innovate, give people the room to make mistakes, separate the parts of the operation where it is okay to fail, where we can take risks, where we can experiment seeking innovation and make mistakes and recover.

Three shifts to create stretch, to make people leave the comfort of status quo thinking and come up with new ideas

  1. Instead of giving answers, leaders should ask better questions. For instance, ask a set of questions that help people focus on what is known and what is in their control, and then operate from there.
  2. Instead of asking people to start rethinking, go back to the core of thinking, and audit the assumptions. Leaders can also get their team together and make a list of things everyone assumes to be true and put each of the assumptions on trial asking for evidence to either confirm or refute an assumption. Next, they can cross off the assumptions that no longer seem to be at play and let the team rethink the assumptions that then allow them to rethink the ideas on which the business or operations are based.
  3. Instead of giving people goals, offer them a puzzle. People tend to do their best thinking not only when they are being asked a question but also when they are given a puzzle that is hard and has to be put together.

Instead of giving answers, leaders should ask better questions.

Christine Miles in Conversation with Liz Wiseman

Christine Miles: It’s one thing if you are in the role of the leadership but if you are the one being led, how do you change or manage the diminisher that you are working for? 

Liz Wiseman: It is really difficult to change a person from a diminisher to a multiplier unless that person happens to be yourself. The only person that we get to change the way they lead is ourselves. But there are a lot of different things we can do to help somebody else see, or they might not be able to see, and there are a lot of things that we can do to deal better with diminishers. Everything we do to deal with diminishers ends up exacerbating the diminishing dynamic. The only strategy that works for dealing with diminishers is to be a multiplier to that diminishing boss, akin to what Martin Luther King said, that you cannot drive out darkness with darkness, only light can do that. 

Miles: How do you encourage a coaching culture in your company? 

Wiseman: A coaching culture is a culture of honesty and radical candour, but it is also a culture of asking questions, and probably the things that leaders can do to encourage that is to be a question-asker, not a question-answerer themselves. They should take the role of asking the questions that share the burden of thinking with the team, that helps focus the energy and intelligence. Asking questions from a place of curiosity rather than a place of teaching is a way that you can do that. The most powerful thing multiplier leaders do is talking about their own mistakes so that people know that the leader has made mistakes, grave mistakes that they then recovered from. 

Miles: This is such an uncertain time and we don’t know where we are headed, so how do leaders find the right questions to ask?

Wiseman: If we don’t have answers, I think it’s important that we admit that we don’t know, but if we don’t know the questions that we should be asking, it’s important to admit that as well. Maybe the most powerful things that leaders can do is pull their team together, and ask them what are the questions that should be asked right now, like, “What are the questions that the team has to find answers to?” In some ways, the leader is the least likely to know because they probably feel the most pressure than anyone on the team to have answers, and when we put that kind of pressure on ourselves, sometimes we just freeze up. Leaders should therefore pull a group of people together and ask them what are the questions they should be finding answers to right now, and then together find the answers.

Miles: How do you ensure as a leader that you are having that multiplier effect in this virtual, disconnected environment? 

Wiseman: With remote teams, and in times of uncertainty and crisis, we need to flip our understanding of the meeting. In a physical environment, we get a chance to find out how people are doing in the hallway; the hallway and the watercooler are where we catch up and check-in, and when we go into a conference room, into a meeting, we are productive and get work done. One of the fundamental shifts we can make right now is to realize that we need to flip those, that we get work done right now to a great extent on our own and working remotely, and when we gather together, and when we have a set of tiles of the 10 people of our team up in front of us on the screen, this is not our prime productivity. This is where we need to check-in, this is where we need to be human. This is now the hallway. One of the things that I have done with my team is to slow down the push for productivity and start meetings with “How are you?”. There are times when we have used 90% of our team time remotely just asking each other how are they doing, and 10% of that is productive time. We do have scheduled follow-up calls, but what used to happen in the hallways needs to happen right now when we are together online.

Miles: That’s a real pivot you are describing, in terms of, when we are meeting together is not when we are doing the majority of the work. It is when we’re making sure we are connecting, if I get you.

Wiseman: Yes. We need to check-in before we dive in and that we have to remember right now that leaders need to let people know we are humans first and employees second. The other day, I saw something on social media that said, “pay attention to how leaders treat their employees right now,” and I think now is a time when we need to err on the side of humanity and understand that things we are asking people to do, things that we are asked to do are hard. It’s time to make sure that our humanity comes out, so just even flipping the concept of our meeting right now, check-in with people before you dive into the work would help.

Miles: What do you think the opportunity here is that we can learn from to make something better as a result of this crisis? 

Wiseman: A lot of people are realising that this is one of those events that will forever change us, and it’s going to challenge what we can do remotely versus what we need to do in a room together. The lack of boundary between home and work right now reminds us that we are whole people, and we come to work not just with our minds and our professional skills, but that we bring our whole selves into the work. This is an opportunity for people to live in a more integrated and whole way because I believe trying to divide our professional selves from our personal selves is a false dichotomy or false separation. That is one of the opportunities that we have right now.

Miles: Any closing thoughts that you have?

Wiseman: There is incredible power in not knowing. We tend to think knowledge and information is power, but I’ve learned that there is a lot more power in not knowing. When we don’t have answers, it forces us to ask questions and be curious, and when our assumptions get challenged or unseated, it’s where we do our best learning. We are at our most innovative and our fastest when we are in this rookie mode; when we are new and naïve and when we are learning is when we do our best work, and it’s also when we experience the greatest sense of satisfaction. There is a power in that not knowing, but there is also a power that comes when a leader doesn’t know, meaning when a leader cannot draw on his or her pat answers. When you don’t know the answers, when you do not even know the questions, it is an invitation for you to play a different role, to be not just the genius for the team but the genius-maker. We are seeing now that the one at the top of the intelligence hierarchy isn’t the genius but a person who can corral the genius of others. No one person has an answer to the pandemic we are dealing with, but the best leaders right now are harnessing intelligence across countries, industries, and specialties. That is the kind of leader we need, and it comes from not knowing but being willing to ask.

Miles: So, that not knowing is sparking a different level of curiosity to bring out the answers together rather than from one person or one point of view?

Wiseman: Because when you don’t know, you need to ask, and when you don’t know, you need each other. It allows you to build a very powerful team around you, and it allows you to get not just a fraction of the intelligence of your team, but all of it, and stretch it and grow it as you challenge assumptions and find new answers. It’s a kind of team or environment that people want to work in. I think when leaders help people move into this place of uncertainty, they start to build the confidence that they can deal with this.

Miles: As you have been talking, the chats are coming through that it is extremely helpful. People have shared how they have quit from a diminisher to a multiplier. Liz, you were fantastic. I can’t thank you enough for sharing your insights.

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