Visionaries, Not Diplomats

By Robert I. Sutton  |  Posted 02-13-2003 Print Email

Visionaries, Not Diplomats

Further, don't let arrogant people do the diplomatic work needed to win crucial support for their innovations. Geoffrey Ballard is a good example. His belief in the eventual superiority of fuel cells over internal combustion engines and batteries inspired a skilled and persistent team to join him in his quest, despite numerous technical and financial problems. But the same unshakable belief that inspired his team caused Ballard to be ridiculed in scientific circles. Even Ballard realized how overbearing he could be, which was one reason he brought in more modest and charming people to help sell his ideas. Some of these more "reasonable" people eventually forced Ballard out of his company because they saw him as stubborn and arrogant, often upsetting potential investors and executives from automobile companies who were considering developing cars powered by fuel cells. Ultimately, without him, Ballard's technology was sold to companies, including DaimlerChrysler, Ford, Nissan and Honda, all of which are considering mass-producing fuel-cell powered vehicles during the next few years.

But be forewarned: Arrogance can make people especially persistent in the face of failure. Barry Staw, a professor at the University of California's Haas School of Business, has spent more than 25 years studying "sunk cost" situations where good money is thrown after bad. Staw suggests that people who start a project, especially those who have expressed repeated confidence in its ultimate success, shouldn't decide whether it should live or die. He suggests that separate groups should make those decisions. This is why most banks use one group to sell loans and another to decide whether to pull the plug on troubled ones.

The upshot? Arrogance isn't always bad.

People with overbearing pride and confidence shouldn't be in jobs where they must please diverse constituencies or lead work that requires constant cooperation and compromise. And they probably should be kept away from customers, too. But to develop ideas that really are new and different, bringing in a few overconfident ego-maniacs and managing them carefully might increase the odds of innovation. Just don't expect these people to be very nice.

ROBERT I. SUTTON is a management science and engineering professor at Stanford University and author of Weird Ideas That Work: 11 1/2 Practices for Promoting, Managing and Sustaining Innovation. Sutton also co-leads Stanford's Center for Work, Technology and Organization. His next column will appear in April. Please send comments to editors@cioinsight-ziffdavis.com.



 

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