THE BLOG
07/14/2010 12:23 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Myth of the Individual: What Successful Technologists Really Do

This week, Fortune published a list of the 50 smartest people in high-tech. This list encompasses amazing people with amazing accomplishments, and I am glad to see this kind of recognition for some of the greatest technologists around. The list rightfully acknowledges not only the usual suspects of entrepreneurs and executives, but also scientists and academics.

The focus on individual accomplishments, however, doesn't do justice to what technologists have to be the best at in order to be successful: creating innovation cultures wherein the brain power of a multitude of smart people can be brought to bear and channeled for success. As high as their IQs may be, none of the smartest people accomplished the listed successes alone. They did so by being good at creating environments where others could contribute, or they were fortunate enough to be a part of such an environment at the onset. As a VC once told me, it's easy to find smart people with great ideas- it's much harder to find people who can create high performing teams - rally others around a problem, inspire them to come up with the best solutions, and get them to work together to make it happen.

Creating environments where innovation can thrive means:

1. Being open to new ideas - no matter where they come from. It's amazing how difficult this can be. In order to innovate, you need to listen to all sides of an issue. But the more power you have, the more difficult it is to hear those ideas. Stanford University Professor Deborah Gruenfeld documented how those in positions of power fail to take other people's vantage point into consideration - this leads to the ultimate innovation killer: failing to hear different ideas, potentially missing out on the contribution that would have created a breakthrough. As human beings, we are all too good at dismissing the ideas of those who aren't like us - whether they are from a different culture, didn't go to the "right" college, or don't have the "right" title. The higher up you are, the more likely you are to act like a jerk and dismiss other people's opinions. Successful innovators go against this tendency and hear the contributions of those who are not like them, whether they are entry level technologists, those in non-technical roles or those customers whose ideas could make the difference between a market blockbuster and a flop. That new intern in marketing may bring a new perspective, as could the employee that is tasked with emptying your recycling. You may even find the best ideas outside of your company's walls, as demonstrated by the open innovation paradigm.

2. Making collaboration matter. "Collaboration" is a common catchphrase in high-tech. But while all workplaces boast that they value collaboration, many overwhelmingly reward credit-hoarding over real collaboration. In our Anita Borg Institute research, we documented a disconnect between the stated values of collaboration of many high-tech companies and the existing culture -- that is, companies "said" they valued collaboration (and most had the word in their core values) but did performance evaluations by ranking employees on a curve, essentially pitting people against one another. Collaboration is harder to recognize than individual contribution, because credit is less obvious in successful collaboration. Common problems with performance evaluation systems and how they kill innovation are discussed by Jeff Pfeffer in this article .

3. Embracing failure and risk-taking. An innovation culture is one where failing is OK -- more than that, it's encouraged. The current focus on quarterly results and constant pressure to increase short-term shareholder value makes it more difficult for individuals and companies to truly embrace failure. Many organizations experience a disconnect between talk and action here as well -- they say risk-taking is valued, but those who are associated with a failure get the axe when the economy gets tough. This, in turn, teaches smart people to avoid taking risks and avoid being associated with any mistakes, encouraging a "CYA" culture that is a killer for innovation.

4. Humility. Even while we boost the egos of the smartest people in technology by putting them on lists, we should recognize that leading innovation is buoyed by a good dose of humility. Humility is important because it leads us to avoid the "Not Invented Here" syndrome. NIH is fueled by arrogance ("this idea doesn't come from me and my peeps, therefore it couldn't possibly be worthwhile"), or insecurity ("this idea comes from somebody who isn't me, hence it doesn't advance me and should be dismissed") -- two innovation killers. Without humility, you go back to acting like a jerk and ignoring other people's ideas, missing out on innovation opportunities.

5. An allergy to the status quo. Most individuals, regardless of how smart they are, don't like change. Yet, successful technology leaders are able to anticipate where the market is going, identify new trends before they happen (by exhibiting the above behaviors) and change the direction of their research project or company products accordingly. In Winning through Innovation, scholars Tushman, Anderson and O'Reilly discuss how successful leaders embrace change and bring about organizational change even in the face of success. I don't think there can be a tougher sell than convincing others to forge a new direction even when the current way of doing things is profitable.

6. Developing others. Smart innovators know that it's not all about them -- it's about enabling others to contribute. I don't think this is taken seriously enough in most organizations, even in academia where a big point of the mission is to develop the next generation. You can't get the best ideas if you don't develop people, give them opportunities, and provide them with opportunities to make their best possible contribution to the innovation process.

Readers will disagree on whether those on the Fortune list all represent the above attributes, but those with staying power are good not just at being brilliant, but at creating environments where others' brilliance can come through.