With its backfield of “Mr. Inside & Mr. Outside,” Army football in the 1940s proved to be innovative. That’s instructive, as many companies talk about innovation yet few include a Mr. Outside. With only half a backfield, it’s unlikely they’ll be innovative.
From 1944 to 1946, Army football went 27-0-1 and won two national titles. They were led by two running backs, Felix “Doc” Blanchard and Glenn Davis, dubbed “Mr. Inside & Mr. Outside” by the New York Sun. Blanchard ran inside the tackles, trampling defenders. Davis was a lithe halfback who could outrun anyone outside the tackles. It was an innovative tandem, scoring 97 touchdowns and overwhelming opponents.
There’s a lot of talk today about innovation. Most of it is “rubbish,” writes The Economist. Clayton Christensen attributes this to a dilemma.1 Two technologies drive business. The first is sustaining. It maintains the prevailing model. The second technology is disruptive. It upends the system. The dilemma is disruptive technologies drive innovation but few organizations include a disruptive voice, what Daniel Kahneman calls “the outside view” or “the devils advocate.”2 Most businesses try to innovate with only insiders. Bad move.
Insiders are hampered by habituation writes Jonathan Schooler, a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “Habituation is why you don’t notice the stuff that’s always there.” It’s the “inevitable process of adjustment” inside an organization where people begin to think the same way. Michael Jennions calls it “publication bias,” the tendency of scientists to prefer positive data. This is what statistician Theodore Sterling discovered in 1959, that 97 percent of all published psychological studies with statistically significant data found the effect they were looking for.3 Insiders find ways to confirm their preferred hypothesis, disregarding what they don’t want to see.
The solution is bringing in the outside view, what Stephen Sample calls “contrarian leadership.”4 During his tenure as President of the University of Southern California, Sample saw USC rise 25 points in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, going from 51st in 1991 to 26th in 2008. This was largely attributed to hiring a “Mr. Outside” to serve at the board level. This is a move that increasing numbers of companies are making.
Quirky is a manufacturing company that builds products dreamed up by a global throng of amateur inventors. It believes opening up challenges to a diverse group of people is powerful. “Big companies can’t invent that well,” says founder Ben Kaufman. “They know too much.”5 He says outsiders often present the most interesting answers to complex problems, not despite their lack of expertise, but because of it. Quirky is an example of what Erik Brynjolfsson, a management professor at MIT, and Andrew McAfee, call “combinatorial innovation.” The inside and outside view is combined.
This is the same finding of Karim Lakhani and Lars Bo Jeppesen. In studying Innocentive, an online clearinghouse for unanswered questions in science and other fields, they discovered that the people most likely to solve the most complex problems weren’t professionals in the discipline in question. In fact, being an expert in an area distinct from the field of the challenge was a “statistically significant predictor” of success. The secret ingredient was what Lakhani, a professor at Harvard, calls “interdisciplinary expertise” – the ability to draw connections between one subject and another. This called for the borderline expert, the outsider, who approaches the answer from an unusual angle. “Ninety to 95 percent of the time, the individual who comes up with the awarded solution does not have the background and résumé of someone you would hire to solve the problem,” says Alph Bingham, Innocentive’s founder and former CEO. “You have to be close enough to comprehend the technical aspects, but not so close that you are biased by the way those immersed in the problem tend to think.”
Recent findings in neuroscience support this conclusion. Iain McGilchrist, a researcher in neuroimaging, says the left hemisphere looks for “the single solution” that seems to best fit what it “already knows – its process is predictive.”6 It’s the inside view. It is only in the right hemisphere that we consider other options. It’s the outside view. “It alone can bring us something other that what we already know.” The right hemisphere actively watches for discrepancies, acting “more like a devil’s advocate.” McGilchrist says the right hemisphere is “prophetic.” The central theme of his book is that Western society is dominated by left hemisphere thinking, to the exclusion of the right. Organizations – and this includes the church – are not-for-prophet enterprises.
This inside/outside dynamic explains the success of King Arthur’s Roundtable. Outside the table, behind Arthur, stood Merlin, the wise sage. Seated to Arthur’s right was Dagonet, the court jester, or devil’s advocate. Both played the role of Mr. Outside.
Twenty years ago, Henry Mintzberg unsettled the business world by claiming that most strategic planning is ineffective. The problem was what he called “right-handed planners.”7 Since the brain is “contralateral” (the left hemisphere controls the right side of the body while the right hemisphere controls the left), Mintzberg was saying so-called “innovative” planning involves only the left hemisphere. It’s only Mr. Inside. The lesson we’re learning is that innovation is not an inside job. Nor it is episodic.
Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble, two professors at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, say innovative companies build “dedicated innovation machines.”8 They spend the necessary bucks to bring in leaders – women or men – who provide the outside view by facilitating regular innovation labs. This completes the backfield, increasing the likelihood that the organization will be as innovative as Army Coach Earl Blaik’s teams were in the 40s.
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1 Clayton M. Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book That Will Change the Way You Do Business (New York: HarperCollins, 2000)
2 Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011), pp. 245-254.
3 Jonah Lehrer, “The Truth Wears Off,” The New Yorker, December 13, 2011, pp. 52-57.
4 Steven B. Sample, The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership (San Francisco: Jossey–Bass), 2001.
5 Derek Thompson, “Finding the Next Edison.” The Atlantic, January/February 2014.
6 Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).
7 Henry Mintzberg, The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), p. 393.
8 “The innovation machine.” The Economist, August 28, 2010, p. 57.