Tag Archives: clever people

Effective leadership in innovative organisations – some insights

By Elisabeth Goodman, 24th January 2019

Illustration from Harvard Business Review, Jan-Feb 2019

Harvard Business Review has come up with another insightful article on what makes for effective leadership.

This time, Gary P. Pisano shines a light on what leaders can do to channel potentially chaotic creative talent into cost-effective and productive behaviours and outcomes. (The Hard Truth about Innovative Cultures, HBR Jan-Feb 2019, pp. 62-71.)

Creative individuals come with some ‘allowable weaknesses’

We know that creativity and innovation are the life-blood of many organisations, and that is certainly the case with the many Life Science organisations that RiverRhee works with.

We also know that some individuals excel in creativity and that this strength can come as a package with some ‘allowable weaknesses’ – as recognised for example for the “Plants”, “Specialists” and “Resource Investigators” described in Belbin Team Roles.  These allowable weaknesses can include such things as losing touch with reality or with the bigger picture, or not following-up adequately with others on things that have been discussed.

Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones book ‘Clever. Leading your smartest, most creative people’ also has some great insights on the challenges that leaders might experience with their staff.  They cite such things as having a low threshold for anything that might appear bureaucratic, and a desire to continue to pursue ideas beyond what is economically practical. (See previous blog: Why conventional knowledge management, process improvement and project management won’t work with ‘clever’ teams.  Or will they?).

Five tips for effective leadership of your most creative people

So here are Pisano’s top five tips:

1. Tolerate failure (of course), but expect learning as a result. With innovation comes experimentation and failure – it is one of our greatest sources of learning.  Leaders should clearly articulate this expectation of competence: zero tolerance for wasting time or money on activities that could have been avoided by applying learning from previous experience.

Pisano adds some interesting qualifiers to balance against this: tolerance for people making mistakes vs. permissiveness; and demanding high performance standards in a way that demonstrates respect for employees’ dignity.

2. Expect a highly disciplined approach to experimentation. A highly disciplined approach includes a clear definition of what a project will be assessing and how, agreed go / no go decision criteria and consistent follow-through based on the results.

Pisano cites a Cambridge Massachusetts company, Flagship Pioneering, that achieves this by designing experiments to expose the flaws in their ideas, rather than to validate the ideas.  Their experiments are designed within limited budgets and timescales so that they can fail fast and cheaply.  Negative results are celebrated as an opportunity to kill a project or reformulate it.  There is no financial incentive for prolonging an unsuccessful project.

3. Cultivate a culture of candid debate and constructive criticism. Pisaro suggests there might be some cultural diversity in people’s level of comfort with giving and receiving constructive criticism on ideas; that mis-guided concepts of ‘niceness’ or ‘politeness’ might get in the way of candid debate.

However, it is actually more respectful of an individual to expect them to defend their ideas and proposals and to engage in an open dialogue with them.  We owe this level of two-way communication to each other, and in order to be effective and efficient in our work.

4.  Expect individuals to take ownership in their areas of expertise.  A principle we teach on RiverRhee’s management courses is that teams are  more likely to achieve high performance where the individuals within them exercise leadership in their areas of expertise. This leadership not only involves coming up with ideas but also, as Pisano suggests, taking accountability for decisions that rely on an individual’s knowledge and expertise.

Pisano suggests that teams and organisations will collaborate more effectively if each person contributes input and ideas and takes accountability in this way.

5. Communicate a compelling vision and stay close to the action.  Pisano suggests that flatter organisations, combined with strong and visible leadership will make for a more rapid flow of information and faster and smarter decisions.  (Goffee and Jones have also suggested that a clear articulation of goals will help ‘clever’ people stay focused.)

Pisano advocates flatter organisations but has reservations about simply creating smaller units as a way to magically achieve effective innovative organisations. (See previous blog on how to maintain engagement in larger organisations from another HBR article suggesting this approach.)

Role-modelling of these behaviours by senior leadership is essential

In conclusion, leaders need to role-model all of the above behaviours in order to get the most effective outcomes from the creative talent in their organisations.  They should:

  • Demonstrate and reward learning from experience
  • Have well-defined decision making processes, with follow-through
  • Invite questions and respond positively to constructive feedback on their ideas
  • Keep articulating visions and goals, be visible and demonstrate awareness of what is happening throughout the organisation


About the author. Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting., a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, with a focus on the Life Sciences. (We support our clients through courses, workshops and personal one-to-one coaching.)  Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis.  RiverRhee is a member-to-member training provider for One Nucleus and a CPD provider for CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals). 

Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner. She is a member of CILIP and of APM (Association for Project Management) in which she was a founding member of the Enabling Change SIG.

“Topgrading”: it’s possible to be talented AND be an effective team player

‘Topgrading’ by Bradford D Smart1, is a wonderful testament to the existence of talented individuals who can also ‘work smarter’, ‘deliver higher quality work’, ‘demonstrate greater team work’, and ‘find ways to get the job done in less time and with less cost’.  Smart argues that it’s the proportion of ‘A’ players in an organisation that will enable it to succeed over other organisations that are also focusing on customers, quality and process improvement.

In a sense, this book contradicts somewhat the conclusions drawn by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones in ‘Clever. Leading your smartest, most creative people.’2 which I’ve written about previously – see http://wp.me/pAUbH-1n.3 They would seem to suggest that talented people find it more difficult than others to be effective team players.  However, Smart’s approach seems to focus very much on managers, whereas Goffee and Jones’ could be said to be more about individuals within teams.

What is ‘Topgrading’ about?

‘Topgrading’ is about several things:

  • Attracting and retaining the most talented people / high performers / top 10% of those available for a position: the ‘A’ players
  • Aiming to fill the organisation with 90% (or better) A players
  • Improving existing resources by coaching people who are B/C players to become A players
  • Redeploying B/C players into internal positions where they might be a better fit to become A players, or if not, helping them to find positions where they can be A players outside the company.

We can / should take responsibility for ‘Topgrading’ ourselves

What is also interesting about Smart’s approach is the idea that we should, individually, take responsibility for finding those positions or roles where we can be A players, instead of being satisfied with playing a B/C role.  Indeed, in the right role, we can all be A players.  In this, he echoes people like Stephen Covey, in his ‘8th Habit’4 who stresses the importance of finding one’s personal voice, and others that I’ve quoted in another previous blog http://wp.me/pAUbH-1h 5– about taking control of one’s working life.

Smart’s quote from Peter Drucker: Managing in Times of Great Change, is very apposite: “The stepladder is gone, and there is not even an implied structure of an industry’s rope ladder.  It’s more like vines, and you bring your own machete.  You don’t know what you’ll be doing next or whether you’ll work in a private office, or one big ampitheater or out of your house.”

Smart has a wonderfully refreshing approach for the manager, VP or CEO who is aiming to be both successful and happy.  It’s not just about career success, but about addressing 7 other critical life dimensions: wellness, family (relationships), pleasure, spiritual grounding, financial independence, giving something back (to the community), being creative – and also being resourceful to achieve balance in all of these.

He suggests that people perform periodical personal career reviews of their competencies relative to the marketplace, and that we cultivate networks of knowledge people as well as reading widely and attending seminars and trade-shows to help us with this.

‘Topgrading’ is especially about the role of the recruiter, manager, HR

This book seems a ‘must read’ for anyone looking to improve the capability of their organisation.  It is filled with guidelines and templates for interviewing, coaching, retaining and generally ensuring that your organisation has the best talent it needs.  There are dramatic case studies of the impact of Topgrading on individual companies’ stock performance.  It describes 50 competencies (!) that any manager should aim to achieve, in the categories of intellectual, personal, interpersonal, management / leadership, motivational.

Smart also challenges the school of thought of only focusing on ones strengths: he argues that a fully competent manager should aim to address his/her weaknesses, rather than relying on others to compensate for them.


1. “Topgrading” by Bradford D Smart, Portfolio, 2005

2. “Clever. Leading your smartest, most creative people.” By Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, Harvard Business Press, 2009

3. Why conventional knowledge management, process improvement and project management won’t work with ‘clever’ teams.  Or will they? http://wp.me/pAUbH-1n

4. “The 8th Habit. From effectiveness to greatness”, by Stephen R. Covey. Simon & Schuster Sound Ideas,1980.

5. Taking control of your working life as an employee; a first 100 days approach? http://wp.me/pAUbH-1h

6. Elisabeth Goodman is Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting, using process improvement, knowledge and change management to enhance team effectiveness.

Follow the links to find out more about RiverRhee Consulting, and about Elisabeth Goodman.

Achieving more value with less

As Stephen R. Covey, Bob Whitman and Breck England point out, in their one-hundred-and-ten page “Predictable results in unpredictable times”1: “in bad times, the distractions are more severe than ever… As people get laid off, the survivors have more to do.  The distractions pile up to the sky as the economy grows rougher…”

In our increasingly lean organisations, we all need to achieve ‘more with less’.  But rather than indiscriminately piling on more work with the stress and burn-out that this will entail, we need to find ways to ‘work smarter not harder’.  We can do so by focusing on what our customers value, and examining how we and our teams can deliver that value more effectively.

Covey et al’s book is a very readable synopsis of modern day thinking on how to tie a strong focus on strategy, keeping score and customer value with process improvement, engagement and empowerment of the people in our teams.  This blog picks out and discusses some of the book’s main points.

Build customer loyalty vs. customer satisfaction

We all know the importance of understanding what would satisfy our customers, but the concept of ‘customer loyalty’ takes this further.  What would it take for our customers to be emotionally connected to us, so that they would miss us if we were gone?  How far do we understand what we would need to do to achieve either customer satisfaction, or customer loyalty?

Covey et al quote a Bain survey of senior executives in 362 companies where:

  • 96% said their companies were customer focused
  • 80% believed their companies delivered a ‘superior customer experience’
  • Only 8% of their customers agreed

From my conversations with people in various organisations, there are many opportunities for companies to gain a much better understanding of what constitutes value for their customers.

Covey et al suggest that companies should look for opportunities to reduce the complexity and diversity of what they offer to their customers, and so do less than their competitors, but do it better.

Develop employee engagement, empowerment and loyalty

It’s a sad paradox that in difficult times, many of the people that get laid off are those who have the knowledge that could help the organisation out of recession.

Covey et al make a number of references to how Anne Mulcahy, CEO of Xerox in 2001, managed to turn the organisation around.  One of the key ways she did this was by making fewer people redundant than others might have done, and by appealing directly to people throughout the organisation for ideas.  It may seem obvious but, as the authors point out, “only knowledgeable people can create the solutions you need to succeed in a crisis.”

These 2 other extracts from the book are also I think particularly pertinent:

“Even in tough times (perhaps especially in tough times) people want to contribute, they want to help, they want to make a difference.”


“When a company aligns the customer experience with the employee experience, they create employees who are passionate about what the company stands for.”

These thoughts remind me of the points Stephen R Covey makes here and in his book “The 8th Habit”2, which I’ve written about elsewhere3 about how much more effective we can be in our work if we find our ‘voice’, and also in my commentary4 on Goffee and Jones’ book “Clever”5 about the need to clearly and regularly communicate the organisation’s vision and goals to your  ‘knowledge workers’.

Push the ‘reset’ button to align around goals and continuously improve your work

Covey et al close the loop on ‘doing more with less’ by having organisations realign what they do around the priorities set by customer value and employees ideas to address them.

The priorities are in effect the organisation’s one, two or three ‘wildly important goals’.  Effective team leaders will ensure that everyone understands what they need to do in relation to these, and also that there are good measures in place to monitor performance against these measures.

Covey et al differentiate between ‘lag’ measures and ‘lead’ measures. Lag measures are typically the KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) or output measures that organisations use to demonstrate to what extent they have achieved their goals.

Lead measures are more effective indicators of anticipated performance because they are based on ‘in-process’ performance.  Teams should be able to regularly review how they are doing against these lead measures, and share knowledge and lessons learnt to continuously improve their performance and so achieve the final goals more effectively.

Closing thoughts

Large sections of Covey et al’s book are devoted to the importance of execution and trust.  To me these are enablers of the 3 main themes I’ve pulled out above.

Effective execution relies on focusing on a few key goals, making sure everyone knows what they are, keeping score, and ensuring that the team reviews and improves performance.

Trust is the trust between leaders and their teams in ensuring that there is transparency around the goals and where the organisation is in relation to them, keeping commitments (on the leaders’ part), and extending trust to the team.

But trust is also about having trustworthy systems and processes such that, as for the Formula One pit crew: each knows their job: “Silently they do it, and they get out of the way.”  Great Ormond Street Hospital, London studied the Formula One team’s approach to improve the serious issues they were facing and, as a result of this, “introduced a system that defines carefully who does what, and in what order.  Every action is focused and productive; everyone has a contribution to make.”

In all of this thinking, there are strong analogies with Stephen Spear’s 4 main steps in “Chasing the Rabbit”6, which I also describe in one of my blogs7: design (or define customer value, processes and roles to achieve them), improve and share knowledge (involving everyone in these), build capabilities (through the interaction between leaders and their teams).

I’ll close with this quote in the book, which I particularly like:

“Focus on your customers and lead your people as though their lives depended on your success” Warren Buffett


1. “Predictable results in unpredictable times”, by Stephen R. Covey, Bob Whitman and Breck England. FranklinCovey Publishing, 2009.

2. “The 8th Habit. From effectiveness to greatness”, by Stephen R. Covey. Simon & Schuster Sound Ideas,1980.

3. Empowerment and self-employment; (A consultant’s) life is like a game of rummy; Aptitude, Attitude, Plenitude and Servitude.; Social networking tools, empowerment and knowledge management; Project leaders empower, project managers organise; Powerful quotes for strong performing teams… – see https://elisabethgoodman.wordpress.com”

4. Why conventional knowledge management, process improvement and project management won’t work with ‘clever’ teams.  Or will they? http://wp.me/pAUbH-1n

5. “Clever. Leading your smartest, most creative people.” By Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, Harvard Business Press, 2009

6. “Chasing the Rabbit. How market leaders outdistance the competition and how great companies can catch up and win”, by Steven Spear. McGraw Hill 2009.

7. High performing organisations – interweaving process improvement, knowledge management and change management http://wp.me/pAUbH-1V

8. Elisabeth Goodman is Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting, using process improvement, knowledge and change management to enhance team effectiveness.

Follow the links to find out more about RiverRhee Consulting, and about Elisabeth Goodman.

Why conventional knowledge management, process improvement and project management won’t work with ‘clever’ teams. Or will they?

‘Simply putting clever people together does not make a team’, and, ‘There are many examples of extremely bright and talented groups that signally underperform’.  So say Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones in ‘Clever. Leading your smartest, most creative people.’ (1) This book, which Elisabeth Goodman, principal consultant at RiverRhee Consulting, picked up as a result of attending a Cambridge Network business lecture delivered by Professor Gareth Jones, should definitely be read cover-to-cover by any leader wishing to fully understand the challenges and opportunities of working with their most talented people.

Although the focus of the book is on how to lead clever people, there are passing references to the implications for applying knowledge management, process improvement and project management to create effective teams. In this blog, Elisabeth Goodman discusses some potentially provocative statements, and expands further on her insights and reflections as to how these disciplines might apply to ‘clever’ teams.

Goffee and Jones define ‘clever’ in the English Oxford Dictionary context of being skilled or talented.  More fully, they define clever people as “highly talented individuals with the potential to create disproportionate amounts of value from the resources that the organization makes available to them”. Their book includes a wealth of examples and insights from a wide range of disciplines and organisations such as Pharmaceutical R&D, Banking, Consultants, Universities, IT / software, Formula One Racing and many more. A few of the examples are quoted here.

Knowledge Management:

Knowledge is power and not to be defined. Personal (or ‘tacit’) knowledge and how to apply it is the currency of clever people.  So, whereas sharing knowledge is at the heart of effective knowledge management, ‘clevers’ might have a sense that sharing their knowledge will devalue them. However ‘clevers’ do:

  • Recognize that in order to be successful, they need to work with others who will help them to translate their ideas into tangible deliverables.  There is therefore a recognized need to share knowledge within a team.
  • Build networks with others like them both within and outside their organisations, and so again there is an implicit sharing of knowledge within these communities.

Effective leaders recognize that risk taking and failure are pre-requisites for innovation by ‘clevers’.  These experiences provide ideal opportunities for learning by all members of the team or networks.

‘Clevers’ are resistant to anything that looks like bureaucracy or unnecessary distractions from their core interest of pursuing their ideas.  Effective leaders aim to minimise such distractions.  Knowledge management processes and systems that require ’clevers’ to spend time in meetings, or filling out information that detracts from their core work could be categorized as such.

The challenge, and opportunity for leaders and for those with a remit for knowledge management is to find ways to harness the conversations that take place in teams and in networks, the learnings from experiences, and the general ‘tacit’ knowledge of ‘clevers’ in as un-bureaucratic a way as possible. This could be an argument for ensuring that organisations continue to have individuals with a dedicated remit, and with the credentials, to facilitate and record conversations within teams, networks (or Communities of Interest / Practice), around learnings, and from interviews with ‘clevers’ on an ongoing basis.

Werner Bauer, chief technology officer of Nestlé, and one of the interviewees in the book, sees knowledge networks, and managing know-how through people (rather than systems), as a key element of his job.  It would be interesting to discover how this is handled at Nestlé.

Process improvement

Many will argue that the role of ‘clevers’ should focus on innovation, rather than processes, process improvement, or efficiency. Kaplan and Norton’s Balanced Score Card approach(2) clearly shows how there is scope for both perspectives in an organisation’s strategy.

  • Elisabeth Goodman’s experience of running Lean and Six Sigma workshops for research scientists in Pharmaceutical R&D reinforces the fact that effective teams have an iterative dynamic between the two.  They develop new models and assays, add them into their screens for new drug candidates, continuously review and improve these processes, and innovate some more.
  • Cisco, a highly innovative organisation, has replicable models, and believes this is the right thing to do because it helps to predict the future.  But at the same time, these too must continuously improve.
  • The McClaren team is obviously strongly focused on ‘process improvement’.  Goffee and Jones give a wonderful account of the recent Formula One World Championship, when Lewis Hamilton swept to victory assisted by the perfect timing of the team as to when to change the tires on a slippery circuit.

As management writers such as Steven Covey  and Peter Drucker point out, we should recognize that the nature of organisations has changed, and that the focus should not necessarily be on efficiency.  Organisations are becoming increasingly complex, and built on networks and know-how, rather than pure production or services centered within one organisation.  Examples of these ‘Clever Collectives’ include Google and Microsoft.  This is also increasingly the model being developed by Pharmaceutical organisations.

Project Management

There needs to be a disciplined rigour to ‘kill’ poor projects.  Something that may be hard to do where ‘clevers’ are keen to pursue a particular idea.  Again, this is something that Pharmaceutical R&D organisations strive to do through effective portfolio management.

Good management will involve transitioning projects from ‘clevers’ who may be more concerned with the ideas, to ‘implementers’ who may be more skilled in operational procedures.

A continuous focus on the vision, goals, and ongoing communication will be absolutely key to keep clever teams on track with what needs to be delivered. Goffee and Jones provide good illustrations of how Will Wright, the man behind SimCity and Spore at Electronic Arts, achieves just that with his team.

In conclusion, ‘Clever’ provides a rich source of information and insight for how to lead clever people and teams, not only from a general leadership perspective, but also for those looking to apply such disciplines as knowledge management, process improvement, and project management in today’s increasingly complex organisations.


(1) “Clever. Leading your smartest, most creative people.” By Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, Harvard Business Press (2009)

(2) “The Execution Premium” by Robert S Kaplan & David P Norton, Harvard Business Press (2008)

(3) This article focuses on three of RiverRhee Consulting’s 4 main areas of expertise for enhancing team effectiveness for improved productivity and team morale:

  1. Focusing on your customers
  2. Simplifying and streamlining what you do
  3. Optimising information and knowledge assets
  4. Ensuring successful business change

Follow the links for more information about RiverRhee Consulting, and about principal consultant, Elisabeth Goodman.