Learning to Lead Collective Creativity, Part II: Leading So That No One Is Following

Posted February 11, 2021 in Business Technology & Digital Transformation Strategies
Leading So That No One Is Following

In our previous Advisor (“Learning to Lead Collective Creativity from Miles Davis”), we considered jazz legend Miles Davis’s minimalist management style as an example of leading collective creativity through the focused energy of presence. By guiding attention to the intensity of the work, he made space for musicians to alternately take the lead and to develop their responsiveness to one another and the unfolding event of music. We suggested his leadership style enabled the musicians to achieve “ensemble,” a particularly immediate and interdependent form of collaboration, which enables a group to act as one coherent responsive entity that is greater than the sum of its parts.

When “ensemble” happens in the creative groups we’ve studied — such as musical and theater ensembles, software developers, and design and product development teams — we’ve noticed other unusual demonstrations of “leadership.” Often, groups assert a “leaderless” approach, in which leadership isn’t an assigned role or position, but a series of actions or behaviors that enables collective creativity and can be enacted by every member of the team. Indeed, in some groups, it’s imperative that every member participates in leadership actions and is prepared to take the lead at any moment.

Let's take a look at another musical ensemble for some brief examples: the Guarneri String Quartet. This “leaderless” group of four is known for its ability to pass leadership deftly and flexibly from person to person, through a more or less “invisible” process of communication. The group is also one of America’s most honored and enduring string quartets, with more than 40 years tenure and a string of award-winning recordings. Here are some ways they enact leadership:

  • Lead-then-follow reflex: To create the conditions for effective ensemble, first violinist Arnold Steinhardt gives a strong lead to his colleagues and then instantly shifts his role to “follower,” listening to ensure that the others are with him. “After I give the lead in the Finale of Mozart’s K. 589, I’ll watch the motion of [second violinist John Dalley’s] bow and, if necessary, slightly alter my own motion so that we’re perfectly together." In this case, ensemble is achieved on a technical level through synchronicity, as well as in the sense of being fully present with and attuned to one another in the moment.

  • Leading “as if”: Sometimes the score requires a musician to give the lead to his or her colleagues while simultaneously engaging in a highly technically demanding task. In those instances, another member often “subs in” as leader. Rather than take over aesthetic control, the substitute enacts leadership “as if” that person were the originally intended leader: knowing the colleague well, the sub makes choices to lead as the colleague would in that moment, in an effort to support the colleague in the achievement of a complex task. Additionally, acting “as if” their teammate, members of the ensemble learn to know one another better and better by engaging their imagination to play from another’s perspective.

  • Least busy person leads: In many cases, the decision of who leads in a moment comes down to who has enough time or capacity at a given moment to lead. When exceptionally skilled teams such as the Guarneri Quartet or highly innovative development teams work, they are often working at the edge of their abilities, doing tasks that are highly complex, attention-consuming, and that have never been tried before. The best thing leadership can provide at this moment is to free up as much of the team members’ capacity as possible for that task. In these situations, the person who at the moment faces the least demands has attention to spend on leadership tasks and can create the space for his or her colleagues to do their finest. Sometimes the sub gets called in within the space of a breath, with only an inhale’s preparation.

  • No one follows: No matter who takes the lead at any given moment, the musicians agree that no one is ever expected to, or should, follow. Rather, all members are required to react, from their own perspective and in their own voice, to the leader’s action, making use of that action to form their own particular response. In a string quartet performance — as, we would like to suggest, in any effective creation of a new product or service — the form asks for harmony, not homogeny. The outcome benefits by emerging out of a dynamic creative dialogue between four strong voices, who each converses with what the others offer, contributes something new, and deepens their understanding of the whole. Just as we often understand better what we say in conversation once we hear the other person’s response, creative workers better understand their own choices and actions by hearing what their colleagues do next with their ideas. When this is the case, every member remains in an active state of readiness, continually prepared to take the lead at any moment, and to take it in new directions. In this way, the team’s ideas grow like a story whose ending is suspensefully unpredictable, and whose meaning is always more than the sum of its words.

Teams of people capable of working as an ensemble have a lot to offer: they are extremely adept at responding to shifting contexts — such things as new information, new resource constraints or commercial opportunities, customer feedback, even shifting team membership — and incorporating these factors into their work; turning constraints into sources of ideas and inspiration. Because the work of an ensemble is highly interdependent and their actions emerge from the collective context, the outcomes they produce have a high degree of coherence. This approach differs from achieving coherence because everyone agreed up front what the outcome should be. It allows for heterogeneous perspectives, creative conflicts, and the trial of many seemingly conflicting ideas to reach the best outcome — “best” because it is most suitable to the context.

Another benefit of ensemble is the group’s collective ability to adapt rapidly to evolving contexts. Individual leaders have a more limited capacity than their collective. When a team full of people is empowered and engaged in leadership activities, no one person invested in his or her own agenda as “leader” can slow the team down.

In our next Advisor, we will take a look at entrepreneurial leadership qualities that are a part of this way of working. 

About The Author
Daniel Hjorth
Professor Daniel Hjorth, a Senior Consultant with the Business Technology & Digital Transformation Strategies practice, is the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Management Professor at the Copenhagen Business School (CBS) Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy (MPP). Prior to this position he was Acting Professor at Växjö University (Sweden), a driving force of entrepreneurship research in Scandinavia. At CBS, Hjorth is the… Read More
Robert Austin
Robert D. Austin is a Fellow of Cutter's Business Technology & Digital Transformation Strategies and Data Analytics & Digital Technologies practices and a member of Arthur D. Little's AMP open consulting network. He is a former editor of Cutter Benchmark Review and a regular speaker at the annual Cutter Summit. Dr. Austin served as a professor on the faculty at Harvard Business School for more than a decade, and then as Professor of… Read More
Shannon Hessel
Shannon (O’Donnell) Hessel is a Senior Consultant with Cutter's Business Technology & Digital Transformation Strategies practice and a member of Arthur D. Little’s AMP open consulting network. She is an External Lecturer (formerly Associate Professor) at Copenhagen Business School, PhD, and entrepreneur. Her research focuses on collaborative creativity, innovation management, and the role of aesthetics and arts-based practices in processes… Read More