Idea Agent: Leadership that Liberates Creativity and Accelerates Innovation
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Idea Agent: Leadership that Liberates Creativity and Accelerates Innovation

by Lina M. Echeverria

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There is perhaps no leadership challenge more daunting than managing creativity—and more urgent than delivering breakthrough innovation. How do you harness some of the most passionate, intelligent people in your organization without stifling them? How do you simultaneously unleash their energy and channel it into something


There is perhaps no leadership challenge more daunting than managing creativity—and more urgent than delivering breakthrough innovation. How do you harness some of the most passionate, intelligent people in your organization without stifling them? How do you simultaneously unleash their energy and channel it into something tangible?

Lina Echeverría offers seven proven principles through which new ideas come to fruition, from unleashing passion and drive, and embracing productive conflict, to emphasizing excellence and structure while living values that liberate creativity. As team catalyst, the leader delivers results while nurturing intuition and growing talent.

These principles apply well beyond traditional creative domains, propelling innovation across entire organizations. Drawing on the author’s considerable experience assembling and nurturing cutting-edge teams at Corning Inc., Idea Agent shows readers how to juxtapose creative freedom with management rigor and lead dedicated professionals as they generate and execute one great innovation after another.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A geologist-turned-manager at Corning, Echeverría proves skillful at managing scientists to develop cutting-edge products, such as the glass panels used for televisions and other displays. The book’s strength is in Echeverría’s personal stories, from standing up for herself as a Stanford graduate student to mentoring physicists. She boldly addresses the challenges facing women and gays in the workplace—topics that are often missing from leadership books. Yet as soon as Echeverría attempts to generalize her experience, the book collapses into clichés. The book jumps around her career, organizing her experiencing loosely around so-called “Seven Passions of Innovation.” These vague concepts include “insisting on excellence and results.” At the sentence level, Echeverría is downright confusing: “While acknowledging that companies often stifle their creative talent by leaving it hidden in the working trenches and instead end up developing carbon copy leaders who don’t innovate, recommendations often focus on establishing strong, clearly articulated, and clearly implemented leadership competency models....” If Echeverría had trusted her own creativity as much as she trusts that of her scientists, this could have been a powerful book by a true pathfinder. Instead it is a generic business book by an ungeneric leader. (Nov.)
From the Publisher

"Unleash passion. Fuel drive. Embrace productive conflict. Emphasize excellence. This book shows you how." --CIO Insight

“The book is superbly well written, extremely clear…one of the best books on liberating creativity that I've read.” --Inland Empire Business Journal

“…practical methods for pulling strong-minded, visionary individuals together to solve incredibly complex problems." --New Equipment Digest

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Leadership That Liberates Creativity and Accelerates Innovation
By Lina M. Echeverría


Copyright © 2013 Lina M. Echeverría
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8144-3217-4

Chapter One


Conflict in Art and Science

MY FIRST ENCOUNTER with creative people was from the sidelines in my native Colombia. Creativity appeared in our lives and slowly, without our realizing it, became the dominant aspect of our household. In her forties, my mother—until then a housewife who enjoyed her role and was good at directing her cooks and other help to run a household—had taken an interest in art and the intellectual world. In her late teens and early twenties, she had taken art courses and was considering spending a few years in Italy to study it more seriously when the Second World War broke out. Now, after twenty years had gone by, she saw her interest blossom. She enrolled in an art institute, took lessons in the evenings, and befriended the local art community. It did not take long for our house to become the intellectual center of the city. My mother would often entertain Colombia's leading intellectuals and artists and their peers visiting from around the globe. Botero, the Colombian painter; Yevtushenko, the Russian poet; Mejía Vallejo and Oscar Hernández, the Colombian writers; and La Chunga, the Argentine dancer, all became household names for my siblings and me, who watched at first and interacted with them as we grew older.

They were not yet the highly recognized painters or laureate writers that they became, but their love for their activities, their ability to follow that inner voice, was palpable then. I have clear memories of passionate discussions, of acrid critiques, of excited reactions to new ideas or proposed techniques. The passions ran high, but no matter how extreme the opinion, there was room for it. And the characters would always come back the following day or week to start again. For these creative people—painters, novelists, sculptors, dancers, poets, art critics—the exchange was a source of energy and inspiration, the reaction from others a source of ideas.

These memories resonated in my mind when I entered the high-stakes world of corporate innovation and learned my first lessons about the importance of creating an environment where healthy conflict can thrive. I was hired in the early 1980s by Corning Incorporated, one of America's titans of innovation, with a history of accomplishment, from bringing Thomas Edison's light bulb to market to ushering in the telecommunications era by commercializing the first optical fibers, with a number of other world-changing inventions in between. At Corning I joined the core research group, which was chartered with exploring for the future. We were pretty much left alone, with little guidance or inspiration but with no opposition either. We fed on each other's ideas, and that was fine with us.

After three years in research, I was transferred into a development group and assigned to a project working on ceramic substrates for automotive emissions—cleaning engine emission gases before releasing them to the atmosphere. Corning, which had fifteen years of experience in ceramic substrates for emissions control for the automotive industry, was facing a fast pace of change in this industry, which demanded an equally fast response from the leader in substrates. The improvement of thermal shock resistance and the ability to control properties became a corporate priority. The project scientists were reliant on the theories that had been developed over the previous fifteen years, but a breakthrough was eluding them. As I joined the project, I looked at the substrates in a fresh way, using traditional techniques from my background in geology and coupling them with the understanding of glass-ceramics, a family of materials invented by a Corning scientist decades earlier.

My findings ran contrary to the established understanding, but rather than the dialogue or even passionate discussions I expected, I felt I was not given a fair hearing by anyone—not my teammates nor the senior scientists responsible for developing most of the theory. I was proposing a new hypothesis using techniques that were familiar to me, but, as always in science, there was no certainty that I was right. I was just being driven by a clear intuitive vision based on data I was generating. And the passion of that vision was my driving force. But I felt I was not given time during team meetings and that my views were not included by program managers in their technical summaries to management, and I saw my theories derided. Not finding support within the group and looking for a forum to put my hypotheses to the test in an atmosphere of open discussion and questioning—or continuing to lose my self-confidence—I sought the input and feedback of senior scientists in other parts of the lab. I discussed my hypotheses with senior glass scientists, joined forces with physicists and computer scientists to model the system, enlisted the support of the plant statistician to compare my data with that of years of plant production, and asked the support of the analytical personnel to test my hypotheses. Their analyses and discussions helped me gel my views and keep my sanity. I could clearly see the total picture, and I could understand the system well enough to be able to predict the results of experiments and subsequently prove them. I could feel the drive. And I predicted, and proved to my satisfaction on a small scale, that it was possible to achieve the challenging result that Corning needed: an increase in mechanical strength with a concomitant decrease in thermal expansion. I was having the rare experience that, much later as a seasoned manager, I would describe as "scientist on a roll."

Regardless of my efforts, I was not heard, and my frustration only deepened and my self-confidence eroded, shaken as much by my perceived low credibility with my teammates as by my own inability to establish a productive dialogue with them. So my request to Joe Sorelli, the project manager, was not for him to decree that my theories were right, but to give me equal discussion time, to at least back me up by giving credence to my background and expertise in the techniques I was introducing to the team. In other words: give me space, give me respect, give me support.

But Joe, a competent, jovial guy everybody—including me—liked, was baffled in trying to understand how difficult such a situation can be for a creative person. He was in the middle of two fires; my team members were coming to him as well, complaining that I could not take their critiques. And although it was easy for him to see the benefit of disagreement, an essential force in scientific pursuit, he had a harder time understanding when argument becomes unleashed as a force of destruction, when a creative person is being ostracized from an effort because of personal interactions, what happens when a leader fails to create an atmosphere of inclusion. Though not for lack of trying, Joe did not jump headlong into the fire. He did not deal with the forces of scientists who were passionate about their differing understanding of the system. And so he failed to create that much-needed atmosphere of inclusion and mutual respect.

My pain grew by the day. I started having unsettling recurring dreams of being exposed, unprotected, and surrounded. The message was clear. The gregarious Lina I knew did not even feel like attending group gatherings or office Christmas parties. So I did what most people with potential and gumption do under similar conditions: I looked for jobs outside Corning. It was a difficult decision, as my husband and I were a dual-career couple with young children nicely settled in their schools. But it was clear that my energy was gone and the gamble worth it. I had my first interview with a large company in Delaware when Donald Jameson, then manager of the glass research group, came down to my office to offer me a transfer into his group. The lab was a smaller community in the early 1980s than it is today, and managers knew people in other groups well. He had seen me make presentations during some of the exploratory project reviews, and no doubt the senior scientists I had consulted in developing my hypotheses gave him their views. He was throwing me a lifeline that I welcomed. And he capped it by offering me a position reporting to Mark Hewlett, a research fellow who not only was at the top of the technical echelon but was also an evolved soul and could bring perspective and wisdom to any situation in life from human to scientific, a wisdom that was to bring me much guidance and richness for decades to come. Yet it did not feel like a triumphal exit. "Your nose has been bloodied" was how the director of the development group described it. My confidence was shattered, my inspiration hijacked. My relief was peppered by shame as I moved on to new territory.

Some time later, when I was first given responsibility for a small group of scientists, it was apparent to me that I needed to create a culture where healthy conflict was more than valued and given space, but passionately engaged, as in the salons of my childhood. Though my experience of the opposite extreme had been painful, Joe Sorelli had given me my first lesson on the importance of managing for a level of healthy and productive conflict, one I would never forget. As I grew and started to manage technology delivery teams, getting to know the scientists, no longer as their peer but as their leader, all my childhood memories came back. It felt like déjà vu with a couple of changes: the setting was quite different, with state-of-the-art science and technology rather than art and literature as the subject matter, and with teams, rather than individual artists, as drivers. But there was something strongly reminiscent in the two worlds: the idiosyncrasies of the players, the intensity of their passion, the strength of their convictions, and, yes, the presence of strong egos. It felt very important to liberate that creativity and allow it to reach its potential, just as those artists and writers I had known had reached theirs, in contrast to my own first project experience. Furthermore, it felt important to learn to understand at what time argument—an essential force in scientific and creative discovery and advancement—becomes unhealthy. If a little conflict can be good and too much can be destructive, where is the break? How does a manager deal with a creative group that is becoming dysfunctional? These were the very questions Joe had grappled with and that, through his puzzlement, left an indelible mark on me. Many years would go by before we exchanged views during my process of writing, when he would recollect for me: "Your work was a very big success. Your inventiveness and your tenacity forced others to look differently at a situation, and knowledge was advanced. Nonetheless, in this process you were made to feel unwelcome, disrespected, and disowned. The project was a technical success, but we lost a creative member of the team; the company almost lost you and you were miserable, and no one should be made to feel that way. I acknowledge that this was a management failure. I would not, however, like you to think it was for lack of trying."

So, in my mind, the question was how to create a model where there could be room for all opinions? Where the characters would always come back to start again? Where the exchange could be a source of energy and inspiration, and the reaction from others a source of ideas? Where ego and pride do not get in the way? Where conflicts get resolved and there would never be anyone who did not come back?

Unlikely as it may seem—years later I would have responsibility for the groups delivering research in this very area, and, in an effort at fairness and impartiality, I stayed away from what had been my own research—I would have to wait almost a quarter-century to find out that my ideas had been incorporated into the work that followed. As I was about to retire after a draining battle with aggressive breast cancer, Luke Papadakis, the plant statistician I had consulted back then—somebody whose openness of mind and scientific curiosity had always made me feel comfortable—came to my retirement celebration and, with some pain, shared his experience. He explained how, based on my understanding of the system and my proposed firing schedules, they have learned how to do it right and the plant can now tailor the system to deliver a broad range of properties.

A year later, when touching base with players for accuracy and consent for this manuscript, Joe Sorelli would say to me: "Your discovery, which I maintain was one of the most important discoveries in that technology, allowed us to optimize firing schedules from the point of understanding how to control crystal size and microcracking. This was used in both substrate and filter processes, especially when new compositions were developed. Your ideas greatly influenced the work that continued. I suspect that you never got the proper recognition for your work. I tried to rectify that in my 'legends' talk, but too little and too late. The failure was the effect on you and on the team effort. When it was over, the team had lost a creative and valuable member and wasted a lot of energy making heat rather than light. In the end, of course, your efforts became a big success and you should feel good about it. Furthermore, the fundamental understanding you elicited was a big deal. It would have been a great scientific paper, but for proprietary reasons, we would never have allowed it to be published—too valuable."

I was reminded, once again, of why it is important for leaders to give space to the passion that drives creatives, for they "know without knowing why" and they can be ahead of the curve that leads to opportunities. And, yes, Joe is right: today I do feel good about it—though back then all I could feel was the extinction of my creative fire. And now, I cannot help but think of the last lines of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises: "We could have had such a damned good time together ..."


Into the Ring of Fire

AS ANYONE WHO HAS BEEN SURROUNDED by creative artists, writers, or musicians knows, creativity often comes along with strong—even conflicted—personalities who will not stop in the face of obstacles along their way. The drive to materialize their vision is stronger than themselves, and today we enjoy the beauty they have created. Painters and writers such as Van Gogh and Hemingway come to mind. The former never sold a painting in his lifetime, and his wonderful contribution was cut short. The demons of the latter were never conquered, and we are left to wonder what he left unsaid. But even when the best of circumstances are provided, the personalities, the egos, the insecurities, the jealousies, create conflict. Though the world created by the Medicis was enviable to anyone outside its aura, even the two creative geniuses sheltered by it, Michelangelo and Da Vinci, could not escape the sting of rivalry.


Creativity can be a hot fire and you have to love it to gain from it. Fear of managing the passions of creative scientists will only lead to missed opportunities. Not being afraid of moving to free up and channel the energy and the creativity, on the other hand, can open worlds of opportunities. But on most days, this does not feel comfortable. It is not about running teams that are always agreeable and polite, where everybody respects the turn of the other and the unexpected does not happen. It cannot be stressed enough: it is about understanding each one of the players for who they are, where they come from, what drives them, and what they can bring to the solution. And from this understanding, leadership that liberates creativity is about managing conflict—not preventing conflict from arising, but stepping into the ring of fire and managing all its actors and stages.

Double Duty

Balance Personalities to Realize Team Dynamics

Peter Murray, a forceful and creative scientist and one of my early hires as we expanded the glass research group to meet Corning's growth goals in the mid-1990s, personifies the hot fire of creativity. A midcareer hire from one of the national labs, his zeal for all things was palpable from the first day of his interview. His interests were broad and he excelled in everything he did, from playing classical piano, to understanding complex glass systems and predicting their behavior as their composition changed, to cooking any cuisine or debating on any subject. Bright, articulate, and forceful, his presence was felt as he walked into any room. Feedback from some during his interview process was, "He is too good for Corning. He won't last long." It was clear that he was a winner, but it was also clear that we had a good challenge in our hands if we wanted him—and Corning—to succeed.

I assigned him to a project addressing a manufacturing issue in Corning's U.S. display glass plant. Years earlier, Corning had developed a process for making the highest quality ultra-thin glass in the market, used today to manufacture specialized thin glass for display purposes ranging from large-area LCD screens to laptop computers and smartphones. With the world's voracious appetite for large-area displays, the applications continued to expand, and with them the need to develop new glass compositions to meet new needs. When we hired Peter, Corning was beginning to open what was then a new market space that today represents a leading business for the corporation.


Excerpted from IDEA AGENT by Lina M. Echeverría Copyright © 2013 by Lina M. Echeverría. Excerpted by permission of AMACOM. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

LINA M. ECHEVERRÍA is an innovation leadership consultant with 25 years experience in science and technology. From scientist to vice president, she helped drive new products at Corning Inc. that now underpin our technology-based economy, from faster optical fiber that powers the Internet to flat-panel glass used in everything from smart phones to LCD TVs.

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