#174 from R&D
Innovator Volume 4, Number 9
Innovative Decision-making Through Leadership
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.)
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
among the prerequisites are independence and freedom of action.
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.