#174 from R&D Innovator Volume 4, Number 9          September 1995

Fostering Innovative Decision-making Through Leadership
by Robert S. Root-Bernstein, Ph.D.

Dr. Root-Bernstein is professor of physiology at the Center for Integrative Studies at Michigan State University in East Lansing.  He was a recipient of a MacArthur Prize (“genius”) Fellowship and wrote Discovering: Inventing and Solving Problems at the Frontiers of Scientific Knowledge (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1989).  He is also a research management consultant.

Fostering creativity and innovation has become a major focus in our increasingly organized and bureaucratic culture.  The economic solutions to increasing productivity—planning, organization, streamlining the process, utilizing standardized and interchangeable parts (or people)—that have worked so efficiently in industry in the past fifty years are also, unfortunately, antithetical to change in general and to research in particular.  Related social innovations of the past generation, such as consensus decision-making and emphasis on conformity in training, work habits and opinions, also prevent innovation and creativity. 

One finds that in the history of virtually every field of human endeavor, the truly great innovations have come from individuals who have unusual backgrounds, and who have worked outside of, on the peripheries of, or across the boundaries of, the organized institutions of their professions.  This generalization is as true of the scientists and technologists who developed the microchip and genetic engineering as it is of the artists who invented the post-impressionistic movements or the musicians who have created modern polyphonic, atonal and random forms of music.  In each instance, the innovators have had to break with existing institutions and create new ones of their own in order to work in the ways most appropriate to their idiosyncratic personalities.

I don’t, however, believe that it’s necessary for innovations to be the products of “outsiders”; nor do I believe that it’s healthy to force highly creative individuals beyond the reach of the rich resources that large institutions have at their disposal.  On the contrary, there’s every reason to believe that bringing innovation within the purview of major institutions could very well increase the rate at which progress is made, and facilitate (rather than conflict with) the creative process. 

By studying the conditions necessary for innovation and creativity to flourish, those conditions that are most conducive to fostering change can be reproduced within existing institutions and harnessed for their use.  While one cannot plan discoveries, as Nobelist Irving Langmuir said (having directed much of General Electric’s research), “one can plan the kinds of work and create the proper conditions for discoveries to be made.”  Clearly, groups such as AT&T’s Bell Labs, or the Bauhaus group in the arts, exemplify the potential of this fostering approach to innovation.  (Conversely, of course, one can create systems under which discoveries will never be made.  Learning to recognize the characteristics of such systems would be as important to mitigating their effects as would creating systems to foster innovation.)

I speak here from personal experience of consulting with several major corporations to create groups whose job is expressly to invent new, breakthrough technologies.  My consulting experience stems from writing Discovering, in which I attempted to analyze the “tricks of the trade” of a series of Nobel Prize winners over the past century.  My conclusions were then summarized in a series of short research management articles that attracted widespread attention.  I was asked by several companies to implement my concepts.

Criteria for Success

I found that decision-making criteria leading to significant research advances, in companies I’ve consulted with, are similar to those that led (mainly in the public sector) to Nobel Prizes.  What are these decision-making criteria? 

A common theme is that the decision to pursue the research went against consensus opinion regarding the state of the field.  The program was either deemed unlikely to succeed, contrary to current practice, or too risky to take a chance on.  (We may interpolate that the ideas were threatening to those satisfied with their current practices or state of knowledge.) 

The decision to go forward with the project was made not because everyone agreed that it would work, but on very different criteria:  first, that it was controversial, striking at the heart of the field; second, that it hadn’t been tried before and was therefore likely to yield new knowledge regardless of the outcome; third, that it was designed in such a way that it would easily be seen whether it worked or not (i.e., criteria for evaluation were clear-cut); fourth, the research was relatively inexpensive compared with the possible pay-off if success were to occur (high payoff-to-investment ratio); fifth, the idea had a champion (or leader) who was willing and eager to risk his or her time and effort to implement the program (i.e., the risk was voluntarily assumed or self-generated); and finally, in reality it was a program whose strength was not in its funding but rather in its people.  Faith was put in the people who were exploring new ideas—faith that they would find something (be it what they went in search of, or something else) worth finding.

One other important factor was also present in each case: a person or small group of people with administrative powers and decision-making freedom who were willing to foster risk-taking by assuming some of the risk themselves.  Each of the managers involved in these projects said that rather than listening to the advice or opinions of the people they employ to evaluate ideas, they listen to the types of arguments that these people make.  If the arguments are of the form, “It can’t work because it contradicts the law of....” or “We tried that last year, and it was a disaster because....” then the idea dies.  Experience kills the idea, not consensus. 

But if the arguments are of the form, “It’s so simple someone must have done it before, and it must have failed or we would have heard about it,” or “But he’s go no data,” or, “But it goes against current practice (or policy),” then the idea flies—it flies precisely because it’s clear that it addresses an area of ignorance which further investigation will help to dispel.  It will generate experience, and experience is always more valuable than opinion.

Risk and Reward

For the leader who decides to foster innovation, the risk of failure is real not only for oneself and one’s team, but to the overall organization as well.  To the credit of all the people I’ve seen who managed an important breakthrough in industry, each created an atmosphere in which failures are openly reported, lessons from the failures drawn, and rewards for trying given, so that continued innovation—with an occasional outrageous success—continues.  In other words, everyone is encouraged to act on the basis of his or her convictions, and rewarded for the process of acting, rather than the success or failure of any specific action. 

This reward system builds tolerance for disagreement and, indeed, harnesses it into a goad to action:  “So you think I’m wrong.  Well, let me show you....”  And similarly, “That can’t be.  Prove it to me....”  The final criterion is not how convincing the arguments are for or against the idea, but rather what can be done with it.  As Herbert Dow, the founder of Dow Chemical Company, once said, “I can find a hundred men who will tell me why an idea won’t work; I want to find one man who will tell me how it can be made to work.”


One final word is necessary regarding the concept of leadership, which I believe to be intrinsic to the creation of functionally innovative institutions.  Leadership is a quality that I characterize as creating movement (or a movement) by means of personal example.  Leaders act.  They go in the direction they go because they believe that it’s necessary to do so.  They don’t ask for backing, nor do they wait for permission—let alone consensus—before acting.  Leaders do what they do because they must, and it’s their courage and their vision that compels others with similar vision but less initiative to follow.

Leaders are therefore actors—not in the usual sense of actor, but in the sense of someone who acts and who creates actions in others.  They can be clearly distinguished from politicians, administrators, managers, and organizers, whose jobs are to formulate or create consensus, to accumulate and utilize resources most effectively, and to oversee the organization of people to perform a well-defined function.   (This is not to say, of course, that great leaders may not also have the characteristics of good politicians, administrators, managers, or organizers, but more simply that the latter can, and usually do, exist without the quality of leadership.)

In short, innovation depends upon the cultivation of leaders, and leadership in turn requires the cultivation of the idiosyncratic actor.  If we’re to foster innovation, we must therefore foster those people with the desire and energy to act on their own vision.  This means that institutions that want to harness innovation must learn to recognize the people most likely to be leaders, and must empower them to act by creating appropriate conditions of work and decision-making.  Primary among the prerequisites are independence and freedom of action. 

Ultimately, we must also recognize that risk-taking is risky only insofar as it involves actions that are contrary to what most people would do, just as innovation is creative only insofar as it involves actions that others have not thought to take, or which they refuse to take.  Thus, in the end, innovative decision-making requires the ability to act idiosyncratically, and the power to allow others to so act.  The key to managing such idiosyncrasy is to make it effective.

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