Brené Brown: Hi, everyone, I’m Brené Brown and this is Dare to Lead. Ooh, we’ve got a good conversation, a meaty conversation for you today. I am talking to Dr. Linda Hill, she is a Harvard researcher, a professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School and the Chair of the Leadership Initiative. She is regarded as one of the top experts on leadership and innovation. Oh, man, I had no idea, like the skills to lead innovation are different than the skills to lead change. We’re going to get into it. It’s so good. She has a new leadership study on what it means to be a digitally mature company and God, did I learn so much. We’re just going to jump in and we’re going to talk about what leaders are wrestling with today, qualities of digitally mature organizations and what does it mean to use technology and why she says digital transformation is way more about people than it is about technology. I’m glad you’re here.
BB: Before we jump in, let me tell you a little bit about Linda. Dr. Hill is the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, and she chairs the Leadership Initiative. She is the co-author of Collective Genius, The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation, and co-founder of Paradox Strategies, and co-creator of the Innovation Quotient and re: Route. She was named by Thinkers50 as one of the top 10 management thinkers in the world in 2013 and 2021 and received the Thinkers50 Innovation Award in 2015. Her research focuses on leadership development, building agile, innovative organizations, and implementing global strategies. Again, she is the author of highly regarded books and articles on leadership. Collective Genius, I just… I started digging in. God, it’s so good.
BB: Hill’s TED Talk on how to manage for collective creativity is also just another, just amazing tool when you want to just dig into her work. Linda completed her postdoctoral research fellowship at the Harvard Business School and earned a Ph.D. in Behavioral Sciences at the University of Chicago. She has an M.A. in educational psychology from the University of Chicago and a B.A. in psychology from Bryn Mawr College. Let’s jump in.
BB: Okay, so I have to tell you that I’m so excited to talk to you for one reason that seems to cover so many things. I’ll just go for it and tell you what it is.
Linda Hill: Okay.
BB: You’re a behavioral scientist who studies digital transformation.
LH: Yes, I do. That is true.
BB: Whoa. Okay. Let me tell you how I just kind of fell in love with your work.
BB: It’s so good. We get called in to do Dare to Lead work, which is basically courage building work, very kind of skillsets around vulnerability, emotional awareness, trust building, and it did not strike me until I found your work that in probably upwards of 80% of the cases when we’re asked to come in by a leadership team in a company, they are in the midst of digital transformation.
BB: And so people always say, “Well, why are you bringing in someone who studies vulnerability and trust and emotions, why aren’t you bringing in technology people and coders and…” You know? Tell me what you think.
LH: So, if I could back up a bit, what I really study is leadership, globalization, and innovation.
LH: And although there’s been a great deal of work on leadership and a great deal of work on innovation, there hasn’t been as much work looking at the connection between the two. For about 20 years now, it’s hard for me to believe, I have been looking at that connection, and I’m an ethnographer, so consequently, I look at the phenomena that I’m interested in as they occur. So, I do longitudinal studies of leaders who are trying to build organizations that can innovate time and again. About seven years ago, I began to think that I better take seriously digital assets and how they’re used in helping organizations be able to routinely innovate. So, I began to do a number of longitudinal studies of leaders who are leading digital transformations. And when I began to look at them and what they were struggling with and what was going on there, I found that what they were telling me is, you know what, it’s not so much about the technology, it’s about building the culture and capabilities necessary to help people be willing and able to actually use the technology.
LH: And therefore, it turns out that my work on innovation and how you build a culture of innovation and the capabilities necessary for innovation are very aligned with what you need to do when you’re trying to do a digital transformation. So in fact, we went back and did a series of roundtables around the world, surveys, etcetera, and we tried to get leaders who were going through digital transformation to talk with us about, what do you need to know about digital? And they kept saying, “Yeah, yeah, you have to have some digital literacy, but that is such a small part of the challenge.” So for instance, if you want to build a culture in which people will actually use data to make decisions, you have to deal with the fact that data, like all information, is about power, there are power dynamics. And when you tell someone, your decision is supposed to be data driven, you’re fundamentally kind of insulting them to say your expertise, your experience, no, we want to use the data.
LH: So it turns out that when I began to do this work to understand how do you innovate and what your leaders need to do, well, one thing is they need to figure out how to do digital transformation or bring in the digital assets they need to get whatever they’re trying to get done done, they wanted to talk about culture and capabilities, which is what I’ve been studying actually for longer than 20 years, but I’ve really focused on that. And it surprised me, frankly, when I went to look at what does it take to build an innovation that can innovate time and again, I was surprised to see that there wasn’t much work on what a leader needs to do, mostly because you’re an academic too. We know the academy is very siloed.
LH: So, most of the people who study innovation are sociologists and economists and don’t necessarily write about what an individual needs to do and so that’s why we haven’t seen that work. And similarly with the digital, what happened is the dean at the time came to me because I chair the leadership initiative at Harvard Business School, and my responsibility is to periodically figure out, are we actually teaching people, or I should say helping people learn what they need to learn, because you don’t teach people how to lead. And for sure, what we found was, you know what? We thought we were helping them learn how to lead innovation, but we weren’t, because leading innovation is actually different from leading change. So, I must say it shocked me that I had to go back to him and say, you know, now that I’m looking at the connection between the two, even though we have all these people who study innovation and all these people who study leadership, there are not so many people that look at the connection. And needless to say, digital transformation is a big piece of what needs to happen if an organization is going to be able to innovate.
BB: I am nerding out at the hardest level, like I am just so into this. Okay, let me ask you a couple of things before we get started. I want to dive into this trilogy of articles that you have that are so fascinating. The first thing I have is a bias question. The story I make up is that the fact that you are a qualitative ethnographer allowed you to capture something that a lot of people have missed. True or not true?
BB: God, yeah, it just… It’s like the words jump off the page and grab you by the throat when you’re reading, because they’re so resonate and they’re not reductive, they’re full-bodied, emotion-filled struggles that people are having.
LH: Well, I’m glad. Well, you’re making me feel wonderful because that’s what I really wanted to capture, because that’s what we’re hearing. I mean, the wonderful thing for me is because I’m a behavioral scientist, what that actually means is for a very brief period of time at the University of Chicago, the Social Science division decided to create this degree that was quite a multi-disciplinary and I had to take 30 courses in whatever I wanted to take. It’s a lot of courses, but it was wonderful, because I’m a very curious person. And from that then you needed to figure out what exams you wanted to take. So I was interested in organizational theory and I must confess to you, when I became a professor of organizational behavior at Harvard Business School, I had never heard of organizational behavior, because I just use the basic disciplines to help me understand whatever it is and then you know, you go do your research, you collect the data and you steal from different theories and different disciplines to figure out, what do I need to know to understand what I’m actually seeing and hearing?
LH: So, I think because of that kind of training and also being an ethnographer, I tend to describe what I see and try to put some kind of framing around it so that other people can learn from it, but I don’t like to reduce things too much. And actually, I do eventually want to reduce it to the essence that you need to sort of pay attention to, but I always like to present whatever I’m doing research on in context because the context matters so much.
BB: Well, this grounded theory researcher sees your ethnography and really appreciates it.
LH: You’re making me feel good today. Thank you.
BB: Yeah, no, I love it. Okay, I want to start with this question, you just caught me with this, what is the difference, the primary differences between leading change and leading innovation?
LH: There’s so much to be said here. So let me make sure that I tell you, I do my work in collaboration. I always have a young person on my team, someone who starts out with me when he or she is in their early 20s and they become full authors with me, co-authors with me, and I always have an executive, because I want to make sure what I’m doing makes sense to an executive, that it really sort of goes between theory and practice. So, when I’m describing what I’m going to say, it’s something that we have found together and I have a team of people I’ve worked with over the 20 years, some for the whole 20 years, and others for pieces of it, so I want to be clear not to take credit for other people’s work. But what I would say we see, when you look at leading innovation and what’s different about it is the following. Long story short, I by accident, if you will, met the man who… His title was sort of chief technology officer of Pixar, this happened in 1999 or so. And we began to talk about what I was trying to study.
LH: And the book that I wrote about that is called Collective Genius and I had already written out some things because I’d done some pilot work to figure out how I was really going to do this research, and I described to him that I was trying to work on this idea of collective genius. And he said to me, “If you really want to see that, you know I work at Pixar, would you like to come over to Pixar and see how we think about things?” And am I nuts, I said, “Of course, I’d like to go over to Pixar.” So, I went to Pixar and what I saw and when I talked to people, I thought, okay, they’re not talking about what they do from a leadership point of view the way that my two mentors talk about leadership. I am blessed that my two mentors, one of them, I have many, I’ve been lucky. John Kotter and Warren Bennis always taught us about the distinction between leadership and management. So management was about dealing with complexity, leadership was about dealing with change, change when you’re trying to lead change you have a vision, you communicate that vision, and you try to inspire people to want to follow you, if you will, to the future.
LH: It turns out when I was describing that to people at Pixar and other places that I began to study, they said, “Well, you know, Linda, when you are trying to do breakthrough innovation, you actually have no vision. You don’t know the answer. You can’t communicate it to anybody, and you can’t inspire to go there because you don’t actually know.” What you do have is a purpose and a purpose is different than a vision. A purpose is sort of why we’re going and what we’re trying to do together, it’s not where we’re going. So, you’ve got to be clear about your purpose and who you’re trying to serve or the problem you’re trying to solve and that’s very different from having a vision. [chuckle] And many of them said, one of the leaders who is a fabulous one said to me, “You know, I stopped reading leadership books because on page two it said I was supposed to have a vision and the only reason I come to work every day is because I have no vision.” And he’s an unbelievable innovator.
LH: So, this frightened to me at first when I went back to the Dean and said, “Uh-oh, I’m a little concerned now, because the model I kind of had was the one that came from leading change.” And the other thing about when you look at leading innovation, it’s really about the fact that it’s not about individuals having aha moments, it’s about collaborations amongst people who have very different perspectives and you know how to do discovery-driven learning, so really what innovation or leading innovation is about is how do you get people to co-create the future with you, not follow you to the future. So that is a very different process. And in fact, I’m teaching right now, I’m teaching in one of our executive programs and to help them think about, what’s co-creation about, what is the mindset, what are the behaviors you need to have for that as opposed to vision and followership?
LH: And so it turns out that the last piece of this, I’ll just describe right now. So, I hope the book would be out right now that I’ve been writing, the working title is Scaling Genius, but I decided I needed to go back and collect data during COVID, because COVID was happening, and one needed to observe that. Now, I had to do that all virtually, not usually on the ground as I usually am, but I’d already collected a lot of data in these organizations and so I just wanted to see how they evolved. And what’s been really interesting to me is that one of the leaders I studied, he was the CEO of Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi at the time, he said, “Linda, I feel like I’m leading through a fog.” And what does it mean to lead when you have no vision when you can’t see?
LH: So, it’s interesting that when you think about the kinds of dilemmas that people are facing right now, they kind of look more like innovation. When you think about leading, when there’s a lot of ambiguity, a lot of conflicting… It’s about purpose and I’m not surprised that so many people are writing about purpose, more than it is about vision, but once you get the vision, then tell people. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do that, both are important, but many people don’t feel like they have the vision right at the moment. And so how do you operate then? Well, it’s more co-creation.
BB: Wow. That is… It’s just so powerful and it’s actually so where we are just as an organization, very clear on purpose, very purpose-driven, and in the midst of huge changes and no vision, just a clear purpose and a great team with high levels of trust and commitment, but no vision.
LH: Yeah, and it’ll become clear to you, but you’ll have to be agile in moves, you’ll think you’re going the right way. So, what really we need to build in our organizations right now is the capacity to collaborate, which is really about dealing with diversity and difference. The other piece is, can we really experiment, and can we learn together and then of course, can we adapt and pivot if we need to. So, the one piece of the puzzle here is, how do you build an organization that can do that? The focus really needs to be more on the culture and the capabilities, the muscles you’re trying to build on your team or in your organization, not so much on the where we’re headed kind of thing. But for sure, John Kotter and Warren Bennis, right, if you know and you’re leading the change and you know where you’re headed, then that’s what you do. They’re right about that process.
BB: It’s so interesting, because when you describe what people are doing and what people are experiencing, I hear a ton of uncertainty, a ton of vulnerability and new ways of showing up with each other. Is that true?
LH: Yes, and that’s exactly true. So, one of the things, I don’t think our work is that different in some ways, because what I’m also hearing from leaders, and you saw it somewhat in the digital work but there’s other, just the general work on innovation, but what people are saying to me or what leaders are saying to me is obviously… And I’m studying people that are very capable, I just… They really are quite good at what they do, and these are new times and they’re trying to adjust to what does the organization need from me now. So, this week, I’ve had a number of leaders to come to speak to my class, one was the leader of the team that’s running the trials at Pfizer for the vaccine and the antivirals and everything else, right? He runs the global supply chain. And I had already been studying him for four years before COVID happened, so I already had data and then just have continued to study them.
LH: And what he talked with the people about is what it’s like to be leading right now and ways in which he changed the way he leads, or lead, to make the room for what they need to do now. So, one part of it is, there’s a different way that we began to think about leadership, and this is in the Being the Boss book, and I must confess, I was most unsettled to discover that leading change and leading innovation weren’t quite the same, because at that point I was sharing our required leadership course, I was thinking, “Uh-oh.” So the Dean was saying, “Well, Linda, are you teaching them?” I’m saying, “Of course we are” and then I thought, “Well, maybe not.” So, we ended up moving to a different framing of leadership that allows you to think about both, and it’s really about three imperatives, and I’m going to answer your question. The first imperative is managing yourself. Leadership is always about using yourself as an instrument to get something done. And what we want people to understand is there’s an emotional component to leadership.
LH: So, you always have to ask, how are people experiencing you and how are people experiencing themselves when they’re with you? So, you’re thinking about the experience you’re building with people. The second imperative is managing your network, managing all those relationships with individuals and groups over whom you have no formal authority but you’re deeply dependent on to get your job done. Now, some of those people are inside the organization and some of those people are outside, and when we began to look at innovation, what we began to see is that horizontal relationship you have with these various parties makes a huge difference in whether you can innovate. And then the final one is managing your team, that is dealing with the people over whom you do have formal authority. And we made that one last, because in fact, everybody, when if I asked you “What is leadership?” you all look down, you all think about the people who report to you, but you won’t necessarily think about that network as being about leadership. And I think, thanks to EQ or emotional intelligence or work like you do, people do think more about the self.
LH: So, the emotion of the self, how you are you, everything about you, you need to think about how to use to create this experience people need to have to be willing to take the risks, work hard in times of uncertainty. So, leaders have been talking a lot to me about the emotional side of things, how they really… You have to show that you care. They do care, but how do you show that over a camera? This is really horrible, and they know that… But for sure, that whole piece, they feel very vulnerable. One of the leaders, actually the leader in Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, he is a world-class pioneer heart surgeon, robotic heart surgeon. He said to his organization, to the whole hospital in Abu Dhabi, “I’m scared but I trust you. We’re going to be fine.” You don’t hear that usually, particularly from a surgeon.
LH: So, that’s where he started. Going back to Michael at Pfizer, similar thing, he said, “Look, we have lots to do and we’ve got to bring hope to the world, so we have to maintain our hope.” And he thinks all the time about how people are feeling and believe me, they must be experiencing burnout, because this has been a marathon and there’s more work to be done. But he talks a lot about… He asks people, he starts all meetings with, “How are you feeling? What’s going on with your family?” Before they “get down to work.” Because we’ve been made very aware of how all of us are frankly scared or anxious or whatever term you want to use. So, I see many leaders who have never done this before all around the world, because my work is global. In contexts where you’re not used to it, you don’t really get that close to people, everyone’s having to think about it because we all know, as one leader told me in Asia, he lost a third of his factory. People died or had family members… And he had to deal with that, and he wasn’t prepared to deal with that.
BB: I was quoting a kinship study, I was talking to Scott Sonenshein, who’s a professor at Rice and we were talking about kind of the re-gathering and I said, “In the companies that I’m in right now, if I had to distill it to one word, I would say grief and the second word I would say is anxiety.” And in this kinship study that I just read, they said that for every one death, there are nine people intimately affected and they’re looking at grandparents, parents, spouses, and children. And so I thought, “God, globally that’s six million people. That’s 54 million people intimately affected by grief.” We gathered for the first time this week, I have to tell you, Linda, it was like… There were no words. But we were back together for the first time in two years, all 30 of us, and I think I opened with, “We’re not okay and that’s okay here. We’ll be connected and not okay together, but I want to acknowledge that, there are people that we don’t know that were hired during the pandemic, but we’re all new because we’ve all been shaped by this.” The racial reckoning long overdue and ongoing, the pandemic, war and I just… People were in tears, the level of anxiety in the room. And it made me think of this, I want you to react to the sentence, “Self-awareness and emotional understanding on the part of a leader is a luxury not a mandate.”
LH: I think it’s a mandate not a luxury because you can’t be present for others unless you can be present for yourself. Not that I even know how to be present, we’re all struggling with it, but I think that this goes to this whole issue about what it means to be authentic. And I think, I can imagine, well I know because I’ve interviewed some people. When they first heard, or when the CEOs say, “I’m scared,” well, that makes you even more anxious initially, but then when he said, “But I trust you,” it’s like, “Okay, you’re right, we’re all going to need a… We’re going to get through this.” And for sure, I think it’s led leaders… And this also goes back to, I know we started by talking about digital transformation, people are scared, they think they’re going to lose their jobs. You’re going to automate or what is it, what if I don’t know how to do statistics, math, etcetera, I don’t have the skills. There’s a lot of anxiety out there in the world and mostly we act like it’s not happening. One of my colleagues, Joshua Margolis, studies necessary evils. When you have to do harm to do good, of course, what’s necessary, you can ask yourself. But he looks at that and what he finds is when you’re doing something like firing someone or laying off people or… And he also studies people who are doing evictions, etcetera.
LH: He finds that it all works better if you stay present with that individual who you’re doing harm with, and not this idea of being dispassionate and separate and distancing yourself. No, you’re in relationship with this person that “you’re doing harm to” to do good. And that is what he finds really helps for everybody, any measure you want to use. So, I think what’s been tricky is that leaders have found themselves, and of course, some of them have gotten COVID, which has been shocking, because we’re not used to losing our health, a lot of people. And I think that idea that the way I’m really going to help my people most is to be with them and be authentic, not to scare them, but to tell them a little bit more about how I’m feeling myself and how we’re going to get out of it, sharing more, being more transparent. I think they discover that that actually is a relief and it’s easier to do than acting. Now, maybe you could have acted when, I guess when the COVID first happened, the first couple of months, maybe you can pull it together and act, but we’re dragging along now, and that’s gone, that went a while ago, so they have to be themselves. And that is, for many leaders it might be new. And first off, they have never felt so anxious.
BB: Wow, that’s true.
LH: And I have had the absolute privilege of doing some work with the United Nations, and I was working with a group of people who really manage refugee camps. And they were saying that, they’re used to danger and all of this, except not at the same time as they’re worrying about whether their families are sick, or going to get sick. So, this is like a whole other level. Okay, I know and I’m… I can take care of myself, or not take care of myself, I’m a… What of my family? I’m separated from them. And you know what, I may not even be able to get back to them because of all these different rules. So that was a whole other burden, you know that leadership comes with its burdens, it comes with its privileges but also its… But it’s like, “Oh my goodness, while I’m here taking care of all these people here, the best I can do, and they’re taking care of themselves, I’m helping them take care of themselves because we… People do that. Back home, I have an 87-year-old father who’s living alone” and that’s what they wanted to talk to me about. So being able to manage all of that, I think it makes us all be reminded that we’re human and that we all have limits.
BB: Absolutely. One of the things I want to get back to is, during these round table discussions you had, 175 senior executives around the globe, a survey of more than 1,500 senior executives from over 90 countries, to help paint a picture, correct me if I’m wrong, but to paint a picture of what a mature, a digitally mature company looks like. Before we get into these findings, which I think are fascinating and really speak to so much of what I’m seeing everywhere, can you give us a quick primer on what is digital transformation, what does that mean and kind of what shifts it’s creating in the economy?
LH: Well, you know what, I’m going to do my best. Because one of the wonderful things about Working Knowledge, that particular publication, it’s work that’s in progress. So, I must confess, I’m still sort of dealing with this. So, for us, digital transformation, on the one hand, it’s about whether or not you’re trying to put in digital tools to serve any number of kind of goals and objectives that you might have but to help you to be more customer centric. Sometimes it’s about focusing on your operating model, sometimes it’s about collecting data that really will help you serve the customer better, sometimes… It’s the whole thing, it can be AI, it can be… It’s whatever. So, it’s any kind of use, for us, of a digital tool to help you get something done at work that will be useful to the organization. And as you can see, we see there’s all kinds of different tools you can use. I have to tell you that I’m a little bit confused right now, because for the first time we’re going to deliver a course next week that is on digital transformation.
LH: And what I will say is, right before you teach something, and I’m all pulling it together, so therefore forgive me for not being more precise. But anything that has to do with using digital tools and data, we call… That is digital technology. Now, the transformation is when you go to implement it. So the reason why we have this new course is because there are lots of courses on digital strategy or helping you understand what AI is or what the possibilities are, what you can use, IOT, whatever it might be, to improve your business, to create value in your business. But we’re looking at how do you actually implement it and get people to use it. And it’s where we started, what people told me was, “We have invested in all of this, but people don’t necessarily use it.” So we have one piece that’s about, how do you actually get people to use data? I’m jumping around here a little bit, but it turns out that people, just because you give them data, does not mean at all that they will use that data to help them make a decision, not at all. They have their experience, they are their expertise, they might be suspicious of the data, maybe they actually should be suspicious of the data, who knows? That’s a whole other thing.
LH: They may have questions about whether this is an ethical use, so just because we can do it, should we do it? There are all kinds of questions that need to be answered before people are going to use those data in the way that the leader thought they would. So, what they told us about was, “You’ve got to step back and think, what are the mindsets and the behaviors that people need to have to know how to work with data, for instance, to make decisions.” I’m going to stay on that piece of the puzzle better. So, one thing that we see is if you don’t have any organization already, a norm, what we call a rule of engagement, that you have to provide evidence for your point of view, don’t be surprised they don’t use data. So, it turns out in many organizations, you don’t really have to have evidence of any kind, you just need to be the boss, or you just need to be the one that’s called the digital expert. And nobody asks for evidence, you just say, “This is what you should do.” I’m being extreme here.
LH: So, until you actually have a norm that no matter who you are, you should provide evidence, you shouldn’t be surprised that people aren’t talking about data. So that evidence-based approach is the first piece of the puzzle. We need evidence, a mindset that says… And we need to understand that the evidence is limited, what evidence do we have, is it complete, is it ambiguous? So, what we see in organizations that are actually… So, the transformation piece in my mind is, “Okay, now you’ve given them the data, maybe you set up your data lake, maybe it’s a really good data you’ve thought through a whole lot” but now… And they do trust it, but they still need to have to get into the habit of thinking, “I’m supposed to provide evidence for my point of view besides my expertise or my past experience.”
LH: And until they do that, data is not going to… They’re just going to say, they’re going to declare what they think is the right answer to do. And if you don’t have an organization that knows how to do what we refer to as creative abrasion, and others have referred to that that way too, that is to know how to deal with diversity of thought and deal with conflict, what you see is, “We’ve never been able to really embrace and deal with differences, and we’ve never really had to provide evidence, particularly if you were the boss or the expert. So why am I going to use data now?” So, there’s a whole sort of foundation that needs to be in place because people are going to use the data. I’m sticking with this piece of it.
BB: I love it.
LH: And all of us would say, to have a mature, a digitally mature company, one thing, one quality is they do use data appropriately to make decisions. That is really hard. We’ve collected, in another survey of companies where we have this sort of in-depth look at decision making, that in many organizations, because the fundamentals of decision-making are kind of broken, don’t be so surprised that we’re not using data to help us make those decisions. So, once you do have that foundation in place, the other thing you need to do is you need to make sure, there might need to be some up-skilling, that people understand how to use data. So, I have found that the normal curve, or you and I both probably took statistics in graduate school, but we know what a normal curve is and what that means. It turns out that frankly, I run into MBAs and executives who don’t know what a normal curve means or what it is, which is a basic…
BB: Are you talking about the normal distribution of a bell curve?
LH: Yes. I’m sorry, normal distribution of a bell curve.
BB: Yeah, okay got it. Yeah, yeah, okay.
LH: So therefore, when you’re trying to interpret data and you don’t actually know some of those basics, then that becomes difficult. And going back to the global supply chain, if someone in packaging and manufacturing, they haven’t taken statistics before, how do you actually help them understand when a difference really matters or how to do… How to think about whether this is really substantive, this particular change. Now, in some organizations I mentioned, I’m going to go back to Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, they have nurses who create their own dashboards, because they have very good visualization tools. That makes it simple so I can see it. So, I love to read and like the written word, but a lot of people like visuals and obviously visuals… So, those visuals, once you give people those visual tools, they start moving the data around. They said, “Oh, I see now. So, if I do this, then this goes up this way… ” So, it turns out that first off you have to have the right tools, you to have a foundation where we’re supposed to provide evidence for our point of view. The other part of it you need to have is people need to be able to ask questions. In many organizations, we’re not really allowed to ask questions.
BB: Be curious.
LH: And be curious. So, you want me to use the data to figure out some stuff, but if you’ve never really allowed me to ask questions, then should you be surprised that I don’t know how to sort of experiment or use the data to think about different ways I might be able to do this? So, it turns out that the real transformation in my mind would be when people have these mindsets, these behaviors and skills to actually work with the data, that is what you see with the digitally mature company, not the one that necessarily has all the shiny objects of all the technology, etcetera, but you see people in fact using it.
LH: So, in one of the organizations we’re dealing with where they have helped people already develop… You’re allowed to ask the boss, “Okay… ” Or the digital expert. The digital expert tells you X, Y, Z and you’re on the front-line worker, you can say back, “I don’t think that… This doesn’t capture what I think I need to know.” You can actually say that to the digital expert. Now the digital expert can say, “Maybe you just don’t know how to read it. This is the collaboration across levels and across functions” or they… You can say, “Well, I don’t know, I think that this means this and that means that. Well, if you would only turn it around this way, now that I can visualize it, I think I would understand it better.”
LH: Now, in this company, what’s very funny is the digital people, the experts were saying, “Well, who are… What am I supposed to be explaining to manufacture and floor people? How this all works?” And the answer is yes. So, now they’re actually asking… They’re going to the digital people, you’ve got to get it, that’s a very expensive resource and saying, “Can you help me understand how I can do this kind of analysis on my own?” They don’t call it analysis, they’ll say, “I want to know this, because I think that if I could answer this, then I could be more effective.” But when you see that begin to happen, when people begin to ask questions and push back on the experts, that’s when you know you really made the transformation, because they’ll start telling you, whatever it is. And one other leader, if I can just one last piece of it, this thing about working hypothesis. So, one leader who said, “Gee, everything we do must be considered a working hypothesis,” this was during COVID, because we just don’t know: it’s new. Everything’s a working hypothesis, well, that makes people nervous in some ways. But he purposely used the word hypothesis, just to be clear, because he wanted to help them think this way.
LH: So he said, “So, what’s going to have to happen is we’re going to have to make decisions based on incomplete information or ambiguous information. We want to collect as much data and information as we possibly can, we want to validate it because we don’t want to be operating on rumor. But we’re going to have to make a decision and then we’re going to have to act, and we’re only going to know if we were right once we see the impact of the decision.” So, the real key is, how fast can we learn what that impact is?
LH: And then feed it back to come up with maybe another hypothesis, and if we’re going in the right direction, we continue, but if we miss out on something, we’re going to have to adjust. And he said, “You know what, I will take the blame in each and every instance,” because he’s trying to help people take some risks, but that’s where we’re… We’re not going to know until we see the impact. So, how do we learn quickly? And people then said, “How do we learn quickly?” And he’d say, “Well, what would we need to know to understand the impact?” So, they’re beginning to work together in a co-creational way to say, “What are the appropriate ways to assess our impact?” And then people will come back and say, “It didn’t quite work, we didn’t have that impact we wanted.”
LH: And he’s a very senior person talking to people across the organization to figure this out. And so, I think that kind of way of working to understand that everybody has some expertise from their particular perspective, how do we collaborate to solve the problem and how do we use data to do that, that practicing in those cycles, that’s a very different way of thinking about doing work. So, what you’re seeing in those articles is we’re seeing in these organizations where that’s begun to happen, and that’s when you really begin to see organizations being able to innovate, be agile, meet the needs of customers as the customer changes, and until you kind of get to that place… Really there may be pockets that can do that, but once you see the whole organization beginning to think that way, that is a game changer. But I think there’s so many pieces to this puzzle. So, what you see in that article is, in part what we know it takes to build an agile organization, and if you have all these data and you can’t use them to be agile, then shame on you. But it’s actually very difficult to get that to happen.
BB: The one thing I love that you wrote that I just… This has been so my experience, I’ve never seen it articulated so succinctly and powerfully, is, “Digital transformation is more about people than technology.” That is so true. And in this article, this first one, you talk about the qualities of a digitally mature organization, and you just hit on them beautifully in your story telling as only an ethnographer would. A challenger mindset and willingness to disrupt, distributed decision-making and co-creation, continuous experimentation, and learning, that’s the leader who’s using this hypothesis model, we prove or disprove it, we learn, we embed the learning, we try something new. Tell me about this. I’m so curious about this, “A culture that’s data informed, not data driven.”
LH: So, this is what actually I was sort of referring to earlier. First off, we all know that data can always have its limits.
BB: Oh, for sure.
LH: There’s nothing magical about data.
LH: Nothing magical. So, you always need to know, how were the data collected and do we feel good about it? Should we trust it, etcetera. So, the whole idea about being data-informed versus data-driven is, I go into so many companies and they talk about, “We do the data-driven decision-making.” Okay, fine. The data will tell us what to do. Well, the data will never tell you what to do, because it’s really your judgment, you’re putting the data into the equation. It’s judgment.
BB: It’s your interpretation and judgement.
LH: It’s your interpretation of the data. So there’s nothing… What does data-driven mean really? And I can’t tell you how often the one thing… I remember when I was on the board of a public company and we got this big presentation about why certain rules have been put in place, compliance rules, etcetera. And I was listening to the presentation, and finally, I thought like, “Who decided that these are the risks that should be included in the equation to figure out whether or not the bank is complying or not?” So, I said to the consultant who was presenting this to us, so I said that, “During lunch, can you just show me your equations? I would just like to know what you put into the equations.” And he’s like, “Well, why would you want to know that?” I said, “Because that is a judgment call you made about what to put into those equations that are now playing out which algorithm, and I just want to understand what you thought mattered.”
LH: And he would not tell me what they put into the equation.
LH: He just wouldn’t. And I have to say…
BB: Were you flagged?
LH: I think some of my colleagues were looking at me and thinking, “Oh no, you don’t want to have an academic in the room.” Right? But that’s the point. What did you put in the equation? I might not agree with what you put into the equation, in which case, I shouldn’t trust the data. But data-driven versus data-informed is, you can always ask questions. So, what you see in these organizations, you’re allowed to question the data or the person who is presenting the data to you. But the other piece really goes back to what I said, because information is about power and people… We all know that in a lot of organizations power is hoarded, which is why we don’t have transparency.
LH: I think he didn’t want to tell me what was in those equations because I may or may not agree with them and he didn’t really want to deal with that.
LH: But the fact of the matter is, is when you say data-driven, you’re basically saying to me, “You don’t need to think a whole lot, just look at what the data are telling you.” Well, the data aren’t tell me anything. I’m actually going to add my experience and my expertise to it, but the reason why you want to have the data is because you do want to, over time, move from hindsight to foresight. The problem with our expertise and our experience is it actually limits us as well. So, the fact of the matter is, the data makes me ask or say, “Oh, there’s a disconnect here and I have got to really explore that disconnect” because understanding that disconnect is where the judgement comes in, which is why we move to data informed. So, I need to ask for something called, and maybe you’ve studied this or read about it, contextual intelligence.
LH: So, we all know about emotional intelligence but there’s also contextual intelligence. So does my experience, does my expertise, it may have worked in this situation, but is it really relevant here? Now the data may tell me, “You know what? Maybe not so relevant” or “Maybe only part of it is relevant, because this is a very different circumstance.” So, you really want expertise, you want your experience and the data to inform your decision making and then you want people over time to learn how to weight those things. So, I think that that’s why we moved to data informed. And really one of the people who really helped me understand this is one of the executives we’re working with on this digital piece, and actually the two executives, we had two executives working with us on this, and one of them, she used to work at Disney Animation, and she was saying how they went through the transformation from analog to digital, which was really a very big… That goes into people’s professional identities as well. But she said, “I finally realized that, well, I don’t know if it took her that long to realize it, is that, this is about power dynamics. It’s about who really knows. So, if I’m the expert or I’m even the boss, but now I have this young thing who knows about digital, who’s coming and telling me, he or she knows better, or they know better than I do? Excuse me? Let that all go by just saying informed. Don’t say driven.
BB: That’s right.
LH: It’s a collaboration. It’s a collaboration. So driven, understandably, should get people’s backs up a bit.
BB: It is. And I think… There’s two things, Linda, that I thought about when I read that in your article. The first, to be honest with you, and this may or may not resonate, was I sat on a call on the graduate… I’ve never taught undergrads; I’ve always taught in a master’s social work program and a PhD program. And I was on the admissions for both programs for many years, and I remember these kind of, as academic fights can go, this thing about, “Well, we need to be data driven.” And I kept saying, I don’t know that I want to be driven by data. These are data points that we need to take seriously and into consideration, but they are data points. And this whole thing where you just said it, that were people believe that there is no susceptibility for human error or subjectivity or bias because data are present, is one of the most profoundly dangerous things I see in companies. Like where people say, “There is no structural racism or sexism or bias in our application process or this because everything is on an algorithm.” Who built the algorithm?
BB: Eight white guys. It’s like, do you see the reach that people make about what data can do and how they strip it of human touch and how that can be dangerous? Is that something that has come up for y’all?
LH: Oh, it comes up tremendously. One of the ways it comes up, as I said, when I was trying to get this individual to show me, and I’m on the board of directors of a Fortune 100 company, and I can’t get them to show me what the algorithm is or what the equation is. So, I think that… Yes, for sure. I believe that we do need to have as much data as we can and we do want to think, “I’m going to be a little careful.” We’re not careful. You know, there is a reason why there is a logic that we all learn when we learn science and all of that and the interesting thing about it is you want to use those tools. And to some extent, what really shocks me is how much people think that if someone puts up a number, that number is true as opposed to a word, right?
LH: There’s a bias in the US anyway, I would say. You can put a number or you could put a word and the number somehow feels more real to people.
LH: Yeah, smarter, whatever it is.
BB: Yeah. Beyond question.
LH: Yeah. And so, we have a bias for that, I think, in our world and to some extent, there’s something good about that because we do want to think about, let’s be logical about it. But what we both know is that you can write algorithms that could tell you any kind of thing, frankly, depending on what you might want to be doing with it and you can do it accidentally. So actually, in the course that we’re going to be doing next week, we’re going to be doing a simulation where in fact, people have no intention, they’re not trying to be biased or whatever, but just because you enter and you create the equation in a certain way, it turns out you’re going to discover that you have set up a situation where your business is now discriminating against women.
LH: You haven’t collected any data about women or anything, but it shows up that when you look at the impact of it, women are really at a disadvantage in dealing with your company. So, we’re going to demonstrate this through the simulation, it’s just a simulation about figuring out how you’re going to deal with certain customer data, etcetera. And it doesn’t always happen, because it depends on what the executives actually put into these equations but for 90% of them, it ends up that they have now discriminated against women in their business because of the choices they’ve made of what to look at in that algorithm. So, one thing we want to show them, it’s not about whether you are well-intentioned or not well-intentioned, it’s just that you need to understand how things are related to each other. So, I do think that that’s something that I think you do want to learn as an executive or anybody who’s doing digital, is that.
LH: But I think the other thing is, because there is so much respect on the one hand, particularly in business, for numbers and things that look like they’ve been done in a very scientific way, I think what happens also is people who come at it from another way, have a different learning model or a way of seeing the world or more circular as opposed to linear in their thinking, they actually can feel like they feel kind of stupid and are a little bit afraid to ask questions. So, one of the things… And I want to add another piece to this. So, one of the things we talk about is that when you look at organizations that are able to do digital transformation and use the data in the way we’re talking about it or you use the tools, not just data, what you see is, in those organizations, people actually understand that they also can be innovators. So, the reason why, going back to this whole idea of collective genius, it turns out in one of the companies we were studying, the leader kept saying, “We all need to be innovators” or whatever it might be, but people associated innovation with technology. So, every time they heard the word innovation, particularly in the U.S., it meant technology, like Silicon Valley.
LH: Well, I’m not comfortable with technology, I’m not a technologist so you’re not really talking to me. So finally, one of the things that I was… That he would have done this on his own, finally, he invited me to come say something to the group because I had been collecting data on them and I defined an innovation is anything that is new and useful to the company. Anything. That’s what I see in companies that are able to innovate, do more breakthrough innovation. It doesn’t matter if it’s incremental breakthrough, product, service, experience, a way of cutting costs, whatever, once you actually open that definition and people think, “Oh, I’m allowed to do this,” so then when they are working with these tools… Because one of the other things that was happening is that even though they had all these digital tools and everything, they didn’t think they were supposed to be trying to do any innovation or problem-solving with it, because the digital people do and I’m not one of those people. And then when they heard, “Oh, all of us can be this or can be… ” So, if I decide to make a decision that if we actually do this this way that can be an innovation, oh wow! I’m happy about this.
LH: This was a scientific company. And what ended up happening is, you know in a lot of science companies they have posters. So they have these events where they celebrate innovation and you can… All of the scientists or technologists were putting up posters about things they had done. But the people who worked in other jobs that were in science or technology never had posters, but once they heard about new and useful, they’ve started saying, “Does that mean we can bring posters to that event at the end of the year?” And they began to bring posters about ways in which they had figured out taking out, “the white space” to reduce the amount of time it took to get a medicine to a patient, or whatever it might be. It was process, etcetera and so it just opened up this whole world. And then they wanted to use the data, this is… They wanted to be informed by data.
LH: So, I think, again, it goes back to the mindset you give people when they’re looking at digital stuff. If you say digital, I’m not the digital one, then they already feel left out, as opposed to saying, these are tools to help you do your job better on behalf of our purpose and who we think we serve, and you tell me what tools you need, here are some, well, how can we improve them? That collaborative approach, when you see a maturing company in terms of the digital, they move to that, as opposed to having this group over here that does all the digital stuff and then passes it all on to everybody else and you all have to do it the way we’re telling you to do it.
BB: Would you say that part of digital maturity is integration?
LH: Yes, it’s integrated so that the technology… I just was teaching earlier today, as one person put it, technology, people, and process. And so, one of the choices you have, and there’s so much we could talk about, but one of the things that we look at is there are six dilemmas or paradoxes that must be managed when you’re trying to innovate and use these digital tools to do that. One of them is just how much you’re going to allow for improvisation and how much you’re going to have structure and centralize, have things be standardized. So that organization we were looking at today that is using digital is this unbelievable organization, Sampark in India that actually is looking at how to improve primary education in the villages. And the person who is leading this is the CEO of a tech company, he just stepped down a little while ago to start Sampark, but they took $100 Million of their wealth and they are working with the governments in these certain villages for five years to try to improve education and the technology they need to use, their digital technology, these are villages where there’s no electricity. So fortunately, there are cell phones, a lot of people have mobile phones, so a lot of the innovation is happening on WhatsApp.
LH: Everything is very, very beautifully designed. So again, one of the things that we were talking about in class is, here you have these teachers. If someone asks them, “How do you get these teachers in these villages where there’s no electricity, etcetera, to even use technology or think about it?” Not only are they now using it, there’s a whole process by which they are introduced it and help the teachers understand that they could be loved by their students, if they use their phones with these simple tools to come up with ways, both to monitor how well the students were doing… And at first, when they were using it to monitor, the teachers got worried that it would suggest they weren’t being so effective.
BB: Yeah. Right.
LH: But then they began to say no, it’s a tool for helping kids learn, and there was a whole process that they used to get them to think that way. Now, the teachers are coming up with their own innovations, creating these communities on WhatsApp, it got them through COVID. What are we supposed to do now? And they actually say they now feel like they know how to use technology to do their jobs, right? They’ve touched the lives of millions of children, they have improved…
LH: And it’s by letting these teachers who don’t know and are very uncomfortable with technology, but they actually turned it into… They gamified it, they actually used Bollywood, they created different images of music and dance, etcetera, to introduce them and make them comfortable with it. But what I love is some of the teachers are now coming up with innovations that they’re actually using, they’re selling to others because they’ve come up with something that you can use in your classroom for this little bit amount of money, I will provide it to you. So they’re going into business. But the teachers also, talking about technology, I guess it doesn’t feel digital, what they actually ended up doing during COVID is, the main thing they were worried about is that the children would not be seen as students anymore, they’d be seen as workers, right?
BB: Yeah, and that’s a risk and… Yeah.
LH: It’s a risk because once you start getting them to come to school and the parents to support this, etcetera, so the teachers then came up with the idea of, this is technology, they went to whatever the religious organizations were in their villages, there’s lots of them we know, sometimes it’s Hindu, whatever it is, and they said, “Let’s just use the loud speakers to do our teaching.” A technology. These are just tools, that’s what they were taught about technology. Well, one of the tools we have in the villages, we have loudspeakers that are connected to our chapels or our temples or whatever it might be, right? Our mosques. So, they had the children get dressed up in their clothes like they’re going to school, because they want to keep them, they want everyone to think of them as students. Right?
BB: Structure. Yeah.
LH: And they would sit outside, and they did it over the… And the teachers figured out, let’s just do it over the loudspeaker and we will have the outside classroom. So, when you help people understand that these are all tools, and there is digital behind, back in the central headquarters, there are servers and things that are helping get things to them on WhatsApp or wherever it might be, but people are so innovative when you give them these tools. So, they’re invaluable. So, I would say that Sampark, and I hope people who hear this will go and look it up, they actually are a digitally mature company or organization. They have figured out how to get people to be comfortable with these tools, to ask for different tools when they don’t have one, they need or to create their own tools that fit their circumstance, because they have the contextual intelligence about what to do in their village.
BB: What a beautiful and powerful example of how digital maturity is about the relationship between tools and people in the service of purpose, not about the shiniest biggest… I love ending on this. I think I could talk to you for like 20 hours.
BB: Will you do another podcast with us, maybe in the fall?
LH: I’m glad to, and I will have even more, sort of thought this out. Because once I teach something and when a team of us is teaching something, I have a much clearer sense of how to actually communicate. So thank you, I hope I haven’t rambled.
BB: I’m scared you might pierce the podcast technology if you’re any clearer, you were so crystal clear, but I cannot let you escape without the rapid-fire questions.
BB: Are you ready?
LH: I might be.
BB: Okay. Fill in the blank for me, vulnerability is?
LH: Admitting to yourself how you’re actually feeling.
BB: Beautiful. A piece of leadership advice that you’ve been given that’s so excellent, you need to share it with us or so shitty, you need to warn us.
LH: So excellent. Everybody has a slice of genius. Everybody. Everybody has talent, everybody has passions, make sure you unleash them.
BB: What is the one lesson for you personally that the universe just keeps putting in front of you and you have to keep re-learning, unlearning, and re-learning?
LH: You are not done yet, you are only… You are not done yet. You are half-baked. Right? There’s so much more to be done to get where you need to get and to do your part in the world. I’m half-baked.
BB: God, I love that. Tell us one thing you are really excited about right now.
LH: I’ll tell you one thing I’m really excited about right now. What I’m really excited about right now is, I have a research associate, a young woman, Emily, and she just decided to… She’s going to do her Ph.D. at Harvard. She had many choices, and they were all excellent and I didn’t know that she would choose my… And I am really excited about it because we are writing a book together, we are going to be together, and what really excites me is young people and figuring out how they are going to move forward. So that is what I am really excited about right now. She just told me for sure yesterday that she is actually going to stay.
BB: Oh, I love it. Congratulations…
LH: Yep, so I am very excited. I am a professor, so that’s what I love.
BB: Yeah. Congratulations to you and to Emily.
LH: Well, congratulations to her and congratulations to Harvard for having her come and be with us.
BB: I love it. Tell me one thing that you’re deeply grateful for right now.
LH: Oh, there’s so much. I’m going to actually say my husband but there’s so much… I’m just choosing between my husband and my son. When you dedicate a book, you always have to figure out who you are going to dedicate…
BB: Oh yeah.
LH: I’m deeply… My husband has been marvelous and my husband is… ah, there’s so much I’m grateful for. We’ve actually been married for 41 years, which is hard for me to believe.
LH: And when you asked about my favorite songs, one of them, the Dvořák song, he was a classical music person, I wasn’t at all, but that’s… We kind of fell in love to that music. So, he has been marvelous. He is a pediatric cardiologist, and he has been working so, so very hard with, and his colleagues during all of this, and he still has… He has been such a good father and a good husband, so I am feeling quite blessed about that.
BB: Beautiful. Okay, speaking of your mini mixtape. You gave us these five songs, are you ready?
LH: I know. Very hard.
BB: “Mercy Mercy Me,” by Marvin Gaye.
BB: “For Good,” from Wicked.
BB: “I Want to Dance with Somebody,” Whitney Houston. “Symphony No.9,” from “The New World.” Is that Dvořák? Is that how you say that?
LH: Dvořák. Yep. Mm-hmm.
BB: And then “All the Single Ladies,” “All the Single Ladies,” “All the Single Ladies.” Then Beyoncé.
LH: Yes. Sasha Fierce, yeah.
BB: In one sentence, that I have to always warn academics, no compound sentences, run on sentences, or paragraph-long sentences. In one concise sentence, what does this mini mixtape say about you, Dr. Linda Hill?
LH: I am complex individual with so many sides that must be fed.
BB: Boom! Crushed it! You crushed it!
LH: But that may have been compound, I don’t know. And you are asking another ethnographer to do it.
BB: Yeah, but it’s so good.
LH: It was a tough question to… Five songs I couldn’t live with was very difficult.
BB: They’re great. I mean, “Mercy Mercy Me,” by Marvin Gaye, come on.
LH: And I love “Mercy Mercy Me.” You know? I keep hearing that song. I think that goes to how I’m dealing with anxiety.
LH: That whole album, if you had asked me albums that would have been slightly easier for me, but I have to say, if I close my eyes and hear his voice, it just takes me to the time and then it’s also sad because obviously what happened to him.
LH: But I don’t know, that song actually calms me. I don’t know, it’s so very powerful and his voice and everything about it, it is kind of… What would be the word for it? Maybe you can come up with it. There is mercy. Mercy. We all need mercy. I think that’s what I think the message of it and the way… I mean, his voice is just so, it is such a beautiful voice.
BB: It’s a balm.
BB: It’s like a healing balm, that song, for some reason.
BB: Well, Dr. Linda Hill, you are doing incredible work. We cannot wait to talk to you again.
LH: Oh, thank you. My pleasure.
BB: I’m so grateful for the time that you have spent with us today and we can’t wait to have you back on Dare to Lead.
LH: Oh, I appreciate it and it’s really a privilege, so I’m honored to be with you and I’m grateful to have all of these kind words.
BB: Oh, I learned a lot. What a good conversation. You know what I love the most? Because this is where I am with my organization right now, I have got no vision. I have got a purpose, but I am going to do some really serious thinking, and I am going to co-create a new vision with my team. And being in the question and not having the answer has never felt more powerful because I am clear about purpose. So, I just really… I love this conversation. If you go to brenébrown.com and go to the episode page, you will find links to Linda’s books, her TED Talk, how to find her work, everything you will need will be right there. We are so glad you’re here. Stay awkward, brave, and kind.
BB: The Dare to Lead podcast is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown, produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, and Tristan McNeil, and by Weird Lucy Productions. Sound designed by Tristan McNeil and Andy Waits, and the music is by The Surfers.
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