The Bright Side of Fanaticism

Tom Peters

If you are at all traditional in your approach to management, my commentary this week probably will make you cringe. After all, I am about to suggest that the only way to achieve constant innovation—and therefore the only way to ensure that your organization will survive—is to turn your back on excessive planning and hire madmen and madwomen who will pursue irrational dreams.

To my mind, James Brian Quinn is the most brilliant student of innovation in America. The soft-spoken, 57-year-old Dartmouth business professor soberly reflects on 30 years of research on such stalwarts as Bell Labs, Xerox, General Electric, and IBM. He concludes decisively, “[F]ew, if any, major innovations result from highly structured planning systems.” What are the ingredients of successful innovation? “Fanaticism is crucial,” he asserts. He then warns that the essential people (whom I call “champions”) are likely to be “obnoxious, impatient, egotistic, disruptive, and perhaps a bit irrational.”

George Bernard Shaw states that “the reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man. The man who listens to Reason is lost; Reason enslaves all those whose minds are not strong enough to master her.” Peter Drucker declares in his 1982 autobiography, “Whenever anything is being accomplished, it is being done, I have learned, by a monomaniac with a mission.”

A British researcher found that attributes that distinguish Nobel Prize winners in science from their non-prizewinning peers included “peasant toughness,” “a streak of brutality” and “killer instincts”; they were also considered “good finishers.” The most exhaustive biography of Thomas Edison states that the inventor succeeded by forcing himself to live up to his “boundless exaggeration.” (In fact, Edison often called press conferences to announce forthcoming inventions and only then went home and invented them.)

The veteran MIT researcher, Ed Schon, finds that “the new idea either finds a champion or dies. No ordinary involvement with an idea provides the energy required to cope with the indifference and resistance that change provokes.”

Numerous systematic studies support these dramatic quotes. An IBM in-house study of 18 projects found that the determined innovator was the “major distinguisher between success and failure.” An Industrial Research Institute study of 54 successful innovations (contrasted with a like set of unsuccessful ones) concluded, “Almost without exception, there was a project champion.”

The madman who changes the world pursues mad ideas. A recent George Will column in Newsweek praised Manhattan developer Donald Trump: “[He] is not being reasonable. But, then, man does not live by reason alone, fortunately. That explains why explorers risked sailing off the edge of the earth to find America. … [I]n this heap of humanity [Manhattan], Trump plans to build a 150-story superskyscraper. … The superskyscraper is necessary because it is unnecessary. … Big projects arouse what [economist John Maynard] Keynes said is an important ingredient in capitalist success. Rationality? No, animal spirits.”

George Gilder’s book, The Spirit of Enterprise, is a tribute to entrepreneurs. In it he argues that economists—on the left or right—want “capitalism without capitalists.” That is, they want growth and prosperity to flow from professional planners and analysts rather than from dreamers. A chapter in Gilder’s previous book, Wealth and Poverty, is appropriately titled “The necessity for faith.” Here he persuasively argues that development of our nation’s railroads would not have survived a financial analyst’s close scrutiny: “When they were built, they could hardly be justified in economic terms.” He adds, “Such irrationality is the secret of economic growth.” Finally, Gilder laments: “The investor who never acts until statistics affirm his choice, the athlete or politician who fails to make his move until too late, the businessman who waits until the market is proven—all are doomed to mediocrity by their trust in a spurious rationality and their failures of faith.”

An executive at Lawrence-Livermore Labs comments on the invention of a breakthrough supercomputer by a team of just two: “[The inventors] were considered off-the-wall crazy because it was well known that the big computer companies would have done it if it would have been possible. Just because people say you’re crazy doesn’t mean you’re going to win, but sometimes it sure looks like the necessary condition for success.”

I am not proposing anarchy, nor demanding that you drop your plans and shoot from the hip. Thoughtfulness, analysis and high research spending are imperative. But I don’t believe that an expensive plan alone will allow us to find the right needle in the haystack. I do believe the system, within bounds, must tolerate some sizeable numbers of “monomaniacs with missions” to search beyond the haystack.

To induce innovation at a rate that ensures survival, both the wee companies and giant firms must challenge their cherished assumptions. An honest analysis of the sources of past innovation in your organization is likely to be painful. But the alternative will cause you to fall into the trap of believing that you can plan your way around the pain to success.

(c) 1986 Not Just Another Publishing Company

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