Creating Hot Spots of Innovation & Energy in Your Organisation

Leaders can ignite creative energy by asking incisive questions and nurturing cross-boundary collaboration, writes Lynda Gratton from the London Business School.

Date Posted

1 Nov 2008


Issue 5, 14 Nov 2008

Walk around any organisation and you will see people going about their daily routines. Sometimes as you walk the corporate corridors, you will come across something different, something that causes you to pause and consider how you might encourage it to happen throughout the organisation. It might be an excited debate among team members where enthusiasm and commitment is tangible. It might be an overheard conversation about a brilliantly simple idea. It might be a conference call on which, instead of being separated by time zones, people appear to be energised and working to the same goal.

For leaders and their human resource (HR) partners, these moments are organisational magic. For all the grand debates in the boardroom, the strategy retreats, the visions, this is what leaders strive for: the crackle of imagination in pursuit of organisational goals. I call these Hot Spots. They are when our energy and excitement are inflamed through an igniting question or a vision of the future. They are times when positive relationships with work colleagues are a real source of deep satisfaction. They are the times we remember and when we add the most value—personally and professionally.

I began my exploration of the phenomenon of Hot Spots over a decade ago at companies like Nokia, BP and Goldman Sachs. Since 2006, my colleagues and I have significantly widened our research base and we are now studying organisations and teams across the world—and have recently launched a major research project on Hot Spots in Singapore1.

Our interest is in those companies and teams that have more than their fair share of Hot Spots and, in bringing this about, we believe that leaders and their HR partners can play a crucial role. First, let us take a closer look at the role of the leader in creating a context in which Hot Spots of energy and innovation emerge.


We have discovered that leaders create high energy and innovative Hot Spots by asking difficult igniting questions, creating a network of friendships and opportunities for boundary-less cooperation, and championing and supporting the unique signature processes that create the context for the emergence of Hot Spots.

The Leader as Questioner

Some companies have developed an internal environment in which any form of doubt is perceived as ignorance or weakness and all forms of questioning are interpreted as either manipulation or affront. This kills the spirit of inquiry and reduces conversations to ritualised, dehydrated talk. The first task of the leader and their HR partner in creating good conversations is to institutionalise questioning and expressing doubt as a normal and routine part of the way in which the company operates. The ability to ask incisive questions requires careful cultivation. Spotting potential weaknesses or fallacies in an argument is a bit like luck; both need prepared minds.

The ability to ask incisive questions requires careful cultivation.

To be effective questioners, leaders need to constantly expose themselves to a variety of information and stimuli inside and outside the company so as to be able to generate independent and insightful thoughts. To encourage and support this, there is an important agenda here for talent development strategies. For example, the professional firm PricewaterhouseCoopers encourages potential leaders to spend time developing their networks outside of the firm by encouraging potential partners to spend significant amounts of time outside of the firm in the community.

Asking igniting questions can also be supported through management practices. Take, for example, Lou Gerstner’s approach as CEO at IBM. In his very first meeting with senior managers, he made a new rule: no overhead projectors and no slides would be allowed into the room. In IBM, meetings had become totally ritualised, with formal presentations of information using well-crafted colour slides. Managers spent an enormous amount of time preparing these presentations, which took up all the available time during the meetings. Instead of fancy presentations, Gerstner wanted quality conversations. Hence his new rule: no slides.

Individual habits and organisational inertia lead to the persistence of poor conversations in companies. Most leaders can think of any number of such simple rules that break habits and inertia. What matters is that the leaders and their HR partners consciously ask the questions: “What is blocking quality conversations in our organisation? What can we do to eliminate the blockages?”

The Leader as the Creator of Friendships

Creating friendships is also crucial to the emergence of Hot Spots. Our research on cooperation has shown the creation of a culture of cooperation begins with the quality and depth of relationships the members of the leadership team have with each other. Poor-quality relationships have a profoundly negative effect on the capacity of the company to thrive. But more than this, they send out strong messages to the other members of the organisation about what is legitimate and what is not.

The first task in creating good conversations is to institutionalise questioning and expressing doubt as a normal part of the way in which company operates.

Sometimes, these friendships require real courage on the part of leaders. While the advertising agency OgilvyOne had been a friendly place under the direction of its founder, David Ogilvy, its original entrepreneurial culture had, by 1992, ossified into highly autonomous factions led by barons who were more interested in protecting their turf than in building the business. “The London office was horrible,” a senior manager told us, “with constant backbiting and a lot of bad blood.”

Where Hot Spots flourish, we found practices and processes that are unique and extremely valuable to a company.

The change started with Charlotte Beers, the then CEO of Ogilvy, who invited all the business leaders to a two-day off-site meeting. Breaking with the norms, she began the conversation by asking direct questions: “How do we feel about one another? Why can’t we work together? Do we recognise what that is doing to our clients?” That meeting was the turning point. Initially, the discussions were very difficult. “We simply did not know how to talk openly to each other,” the same senior manager told us. “We were so used to being defensive and polite. It took two years and eight meetings—and some changes in the cast of characters—before we learned to deal with emotions and feelings, to be authentic. It’s only through that process that we learned the power of friendship.”

The Leader‘s Unique Signature

Hot Spots emerge; they cannot be ordered to appear. However, in each company where Hot Spots flourish, we found a handful of practices and processes that are unique and extremely valuable to the company. These are not best practices imported from elsewhere; rather they are the practices and processes that resonate with the values of the company. I call these signature processes, and leaders and their HR partners play a crucial role in defining and sponsoring them.

Exceptional leaders use signature processes as a means to communicate their values and the values of the company. To do so requires that the leader be very clear about what those values are. This is a key role for leaders and their HR partners. I saw this very clearly at the mobile phone company Nokia, known for its creative and unusual organisational structure. I can still recall the pride in senior executive Mikko Kosonen’s voice as he talked of Nokia’s signature process—their modular structure: “One of the distinctive characteristics of Nokia is the organisational architecture. It is avant-garde.” Over hours of discussions, Nokia executives tried to describe the structure, their ideas behind it, how it worked, and what it meant. Figures were drawn, analogies made, and examples given—all with enthusiasm and caring.


It is clear to me that HR can play a key role in encouraging and supporting igniting questions, purpose and vision. Here are three ways that the partnership between leaders and HR can become a real source for the emergence of Hot Spots:

Support the Creation of Great Tasks

One of the most significant roles HR can play is to support the creation of great tasks. When developing tasks, three questions should be asked:

Does this task have meaning for people? Igniting tasks, like British Telecom's (BT) Challenge Cup, create a sense of meaning. Meaningful tasks resonate with employee's sense of values and, by engaging in these tasks, people believe they can have an impact on others or on the company. People working on the "force for good" initiative at BP or for BT's challenge knew that their contributions and energy created something that had impact and meaning.

Igniting tasks create a sense of meaning that resonate with employees' sense of values.

Is the task challenging and exciting? Tasks are more likely to ignite energy when they are challenging, exciting, and ambiguous. When tasks are too simple and obvious, they generally fail to really engage people.

Does the task provide opportunities for personal growth? Employees are more likely to be engaged with and enthused by a task that provides an opportunity for them to develop their knowledge and know-how. It could be a task that develops their social capital by providing opportunities to span boundaries and enhance the quality and depth of their network. It could be a task which provides an opportunity to develop emotional capital through increased self-awareness or feedback. The actual developmental focus is unique to each task. Yet no matter how development occurs, it can play a crucial role in ignition.

Champion Purposeful Conversations

HR professionals can play a key role in supporting the ignition of latent energy in the company by supporting a culture of constant questioning. Tough questions need to be asked, and tough questions need fuel. Often, the fuel from a single work group or business unit is not sufficient. Some of the most interesting igniting questions come as a result of an individual’s or group’s exposure to a variety of information and stimuli from inside and outside the organisation. The challenge here for HR and talent development is to create development opportunities that expose potential leaders to a broad and invigorating set of ideas and people.

Shape the Space and Time for Reflection

The formulation of igniting questions requires courage and connections. It also requires space and time devoted to the activity. Otherwise, the igniting questions go unspoken and unanswered, and the mundane triumphs. Our research has shown that it is often a lack of space and time that overwhelms the igniting purpose. Ignition needs both chronos—the compression of time, making the most of every moment, as well as kairos—the extension of time. Between the two, we move from the efficiency of compression to the slack of extending time, from the brainstorming that brings out ideas and data to the “brain-stilling” of depth and reflection. Here are three questions to ask about space and time:

Is the layout of the office conducive to broadening networks? The layout of the space inwhich people work can play an important role in supporting the creation of wide networks and creating space for reflection.

Is reflection built into development? Hot Spots of energy and innovation arise when broad networks are built and reflective questions asked. Both require periods when people can “play”—when they can have the unusual conversation, read an out-of-the-ordinary book, meet people outside of their normal network. All this requires that the tight rein of speed be relaxed. So an important question for HR is whether there are opportunities for broadening and reflection in the development of talented people.

Do we encourage a “third place”? Beyond the constraints of work and the roles of the family, there is a “third place”, a place beyond work and family. It could be walking in the hills, yoga in the morning, engaging in a community project, time reading and thinking. The “third place” is unique to everyone and my research has found that being able to relax in a “third place” is crucial to reflection and building broad networks. Yet too often, work fills every available space, taking away any opportunity for quiet reflection. So the question for HR is how the organisation can support and encourage broader and deeper development and acknowledge the importance of the “third place”.

And the acid test for this? I believe that the leaders and their HR partners who make this shift will walk the corporate corridors in anticipation rather than trepidation. And that has to be worth the effort.


Lynda Gratton is Professor of Management Practice at the London Business School. Her latest book is Hot Spots: Why Some Teams, Workplaces and Organisations Buzz with Energy—And Others Don’t (published by Berrett-Koehler in North America and Financial Times/Prentice Hall in the UK). Her previous bestsellers were Living Strategy: Putting People at the Heart of Corporate Purpose (Financial Times/Prentice Hall, 2000) and The Democratic Enterprise: Liberating Your Business with Freedom, Flexibility, and Commitment (Financial Times/Prentice Hall, 2004). In 2007, Gratton was named by The (London) Times as one of world’s top twenty business thinkers and was ranked second in Human Resources Magazine’s Top 100 Most Influential poll.


  1. In this action-based research, the Hot Spots Research Institute was commissioned by MOM to explore ways to support companies in the region to achieve optimum productivity and innovation. The research team is working with 10 companies in Singapore to experiment with a range of state of the art diagnostic profiles and e-learning methods. The study is designed to both support the development of the teams whilst assessing the applicability and performance of the various diagnostics and learning methods. The research began in September 2008 and will be completed by March 2009.


For an overview of Hot Spots

  • Gratton, Lynda, Hot Spots—Why Some Teams, Workplaces, and Organizations Buzz with Energy and Others Don’t (San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2007).
  • Gratton, Lynda, “Hot Spots—the way to manufacture genius in the workplace”, The Times Online, 19 March 2007.

How to foster collaboration in teams

  • Gratton, Lynda and Erickson, Tamara J., “Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams”, Harvard Business Review, November 2007.

How to manage complex teams as a leader

  • Gratton, Lynda, Voigt, Andreas and Erickson, Tamara J., “Bridging Faultlines in Diverse Teams”, MIT Sloan Management Review 48 (2007): 22-9.

The challenges of virtual teams

  • Gratton, Lynda, “Working together...when apart”, Wall Street Journal, 16 June 2007.

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