This is What it Takes to Unleash Great Ideas: Interview with Lina Echeverria

Sep 14, 2017
9 Min Read
This is What It Takes to Unleash Great Ideas

This is What It Takes to Unleash Great Ideas


When asked to describe the personality of a scientist, some might revert to the Sheldon Cooper stereotype made popular on “The Big Bang Theory” and describe an anti-social, uncreative, analytical and somewhat dull personality.

But Lina Echeverria knows better. As an engineer and scientist with a PhD in geology and more than 30 years of experience as a scientist and a senior manager at Corning, she knows that scientists aren’t dull or uncreative. She knows scientists like to jitterbug. And cook. And collect butterflies.

It’s those more creative attributes of scientists and other workers, she says, that help drive innovation in an organization – and too many companies and leaders are ignoring them to the detriment of the bottom line.

When Echeverria was at Corning, she was known for constantly asking team members how they felt about things, whether it was a project or hobbies in their life. Such conversations often led her to a better understanding of how to help her team members stretch and grow. She learned that technicians – who loved to cook gourmet meals – don’t always have to be assigned to technical roles, and can fit better into a human-relations role.

“Your hobbies let you be unrestrained,” she says. “That’s the same flow of energy you need at work to be innovative. A manager’s job is to discover what you have to offer and then let you unleash it.”

She says she encourages team members “to bring their whole selves to work. If you leave your creativity at the door, you’re leaving a lot of richness behind.”

In many cases, it’s leaders who are the real roadblocks to innovation, she says. Leaders are often Type A personalities, with a need to control processes and the people who work for them.

“Leaders also think they can help workers develop ideas,” she says. “But what workers need is freedom and an environment that lets them know they’re not being pressured. They’ve got plenty of their own ideas. They don’t need help from managers.”

Echeverria, who oversaw projects for several breakthrough technologies for Corning, advises leaders to instead embrace the idea that their position is not about power, but about “serving others to be the best of themselves.” That’s also the best way, she says, for managers to maintain their “inner peace” as they keep detractors at bay while encouraging their team to innovate.

“This whole idea of letting employees have the freedom to innovate can be very tough for managers because they’re going to be bombarded by all sorts of people saying it will never work,” she says. “You really have to stick to your guns.”

Echeverria is author of “Idea Agent: Leadership that Liberates Creativity and Accelerates Innovation,” a sort of roadmap to help managers be more effective in helping employees develop more innovative ideas. Among her suggestions:

  • Embrace creativity and conflict. Everyone has personal passions, even scientists or technical workers. When you ask them to unleash those passions – that creativity – on the job, there is going to be conflict. Some colleagues may not be used to some individual idiosyncrasies, so there may be friction. But managers must ensure that there is a safe space for team members to challenge, argue and disagree about ideas in a respectful way, even if it’s a deviation from the cultural norm. Such a strategy is the best way to ensure better answers emerge from such interactions, she says.
  • Stand firm on values. As mentioned earlier, scientists might be seen as pretty dull, analytical individuals, but Echeverria knows from firsthand experience that some of the most successful scientists or engineers are also intuitive, subjective and follow their hearts. What this means for managers is that if they want to unleash innovation, they’re going to have to be willing to deal with the impassioned personalities that come from all parts of an organization. It will be important for managers to ensure the passion of these team members is respected and create a culture that allows freedom – but also demands integrity and flexibility. “You have to give everyone the space to be themselves, but they also still have to have the same accountability as everyone else,” she says.
  • Insist on results. Echeverria says one of the ways she was able to provide a “cocoon” for her team to work on innovation was because she was able to show results. Leaders must clearly define expectations and commitments and make sure a team sticks to them. “An insistence on excellence is not a cult of perfectionism. It is a way of life based upon high expectations and full engagement,” she says. “As a leader, you must live and breathe your values. You must encourage others to have the attributes you yourself must have.”
  • Define a culture of respect. While the freedom to innovate is important, that doesn’t mean it’s a free-wheeling atmosphere where anything goes. Team members must be assured of respect. They aren’t allowed to bully or act childishly, and should be reminded of that by the leader.
  • Establish order. By clearly defining the organization of the team and the process, the second-guessing and “it-can’t-be-done” knee-jerk reactions can instead become an efficient delivery process. “The time invested in defining a structure, with roles, links, and responsibilities clearly understood by all, is time well spent,” she says.


The leadership role that Echeverria defines in her book might be best described as a conglomeration of coach, mother, rabbi and guard dog. She laughs at the idea, but says it’s often true. If leaders want to unleash the innovation on their team, they’ve got to be ready reach deep and do things differently than they may have done before – or been trained to do by the organization.

“Leadership isn’t about power,” she says. “It’s about serving others to be the best of themselves.”


What do you think it takes to unleash great ideas?

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