“Mad scientists”—rule-breaking geniuses whose resistance to convention sometimes produces radical innovations—are both a blessing and a challenge to R&D organizations. Recent studies suggest how such rogue innovators can shape a company’s culture and what can be done to channel their influence.

As organizations grow, the need for efficiency leads to a tendency to rigidify the channels of information and decision-making. This loss of operational flexibility eventually creates a white space from which the mythical “mad scientist” emerges.  But many companies start out as nothing but a collection of mad scientists and then slowly rigidify, gradually transitioning these individuals out of the company as they move towards finished products. Others hire them as they need more ideas in their pipeline as a result of over-stratification and stagnation. The mad scientist is really an organic part of an organization’s evolution, not an anomaly that emerges heroically. He or she is a counterforce; an offsetting mechanism against the rigor of the established order, which may threaten to stifle creativity.

The question then becomes how an organization fosters the emergence of these brilliant innovators and harnesses their strengths to fill the innovation pipeline, without altering the conditions that catalyzed their appearance to begin with or imposing a stifling bureaucratic structure. Established firms grapple with this challenge frequently, making innovation culture a centerpiece of discussions wherever R&D leaders gather.

Initiating a Dialogue

In mid-2011, the Industrial Research Institute (IRI), a nonprofit association based in Arlington, Virginia, gathered a group of distinguished, retired R&D executives for an online discussion of “the rebel in R&D organizations.” Bruce Lyne, a professor at the Royal Institute of Technology, asked the group whether “the rebel who operates with clandestine projects . . . [is] a myth or a necessary actor in truly innovative R&D organizations?” And, he wondered, are there management approaches that could foster such activity without causing too much disruption to strategic planning and company budgets?

…are there management approaches that could foster such activity without causing too much disruption to strategic planning and company budgets?

Participants eventually focused their discussion on several case studies of successful breakthroughs emerging from company “undergrounds.” The famous case of Post-It Notes, invented by 3M’s Art Fry and Spencer Silver, stood out as an example of a radical innovation produced by such an underground since the individuals were able to balance the secretive aspect of unsanctioned research with the need to push their discovery to its limits. It also stood out because 3M management maintained a structure which gave enough space for that to happen. However, the group noted, there was a distinct lack of useful resources on the subject. The discussion ended with a call for more dialogue on the leadership tactics involved in cultivating and harnessing the power of such individuals.

Current Literature on Mad Scientists

As the IRI discussion group highlighted, the available literature has so far failed to provide a clear set of tactics for managing mad scientists in a way that best utilizes their talents. A 2008 article by Peter Augsdorfer, professor of technology and innovation strategy at the Fachhochschule Ingolstadt in Germany and associate professor at the Grenoble École de Management in France, does, however, offer one of the more comprehensive looks at “Managing the Unmanageable” (Research-Technology Management, 2008, Vol. 51, No. 4, pp. 41-47).

In Augsdorfer’s view, managers need to be willing to look the other way as scientists explore new ideas. Once a manager asks about an underground project, the researcher may feel the managerial walls closing in and become less interested in it. Uncertainty about the effect of such off-the-books activity on a person’s career can deter further examination until the “coast is clear,” pushing the idea deeper into the underground or killing it altogether.

…these thinkers operate best at the “fuzzy front end” of innovation.

Interestingly enough, once a rogue idea proves viable, according to Augsdorfer, the mad scientist often loses interest in getting the product to market, creating a new puzzle for R&D leaders. How can a company get a new idea to market if its creator refuses to do the needed work? Augsdorfer argues that these thinkers operate best at the “fuzzy front end” of innovation, coming up with new ideas and proving their initial viability. But the long-haul development of a product, and the more dedicated series of problem-solving sessions involved, does not seem to interest these creative minds.

In discussing the organizational changes at the Dow Chemical Company, Greg Stevens, president of WinOvations, Inc., and Kurt Swogger, a senior consultant with the Cincinnati Consulting Consortia, offer another take on the mixture of people on innovation teams in their two joint articles (Research-Technology Management, 2009, Vol. 52, No. 1 pp. 35-50, and No. 2, pp. 22-28). They separate R&D workers into two categories, Starters and Finishers; managers need to understand which personality profile a researcher fits so that they can use that person at the appropriate stage of the innovation pipeline. Managers must also make sure that the ratio of Starters to Finishers fits the company’s needs (new ideas vs. finished products, respectively).

In digging toward the core of the matter, IRI-sponsored research-on-research (ROR) working groups have set out to explore this aspect of innovation culture more deeply. Several groups presented concepts and findings at the IRI Member Summit in New Orleans, Louisiana, in early November. One such ROR group, led by members from PepsiCo, Corning, and RPI, is investigating the challenge of “Institutionalizing Innovation Competencies.” Their latest research has so far focused on the paradox of innovative companies that don’t let researchers innovate and the roadblocks to innovation that tend to emerge in established companies. The mysteries of the mad scientist—and his or her place in an innovative culture—are a big part of this group’s investigation. Although this newly formed group is still exploring the implications of its subject, their work will likely prove helpful for figuring out how companies can cultivate great thinkers to fill their new-product pipelines.

Giving Researchers Space to Innovate

These mad scientists are an integral, yet fringe, component of most R&D labs and organizations. What drives them, what makes them behave in secretive ways, and how valuable they can be, is something that innovative organizations need to understand if they are to leverage the power of the mad scientist to enhance their competitiveness. The management of mad scientists is not about exercising authority; quite the opposite. Innovation, after all, requires freedom—freedom to explore ideas that seem risky or difficult or even outlandish. What this freedom generates, however, can be chaotic and uncontrollable. Innovation may need freedom, but efficiency needs organization.

Innovation may need freedom, but efficiency needs organization.

These thinkers need space, but balancing that space with company budgets and strategic plans is vital to an established organization. Talk to your researchers. Perform anonymous surveys of how many ideas they think they could come up with if given more freedom. Finding the right balance between approved projects that emerge from a recognized development process and those that originate in an unauthorized R&D underground is an essential aspect of the R&D manager’s job. There is no single right mechanism for achieving that balance.

Some labs maintain a “15 percent rule” which gives researchers the freedom to spend 15 percent of their time on independent work. Others grant a “Freedom Friday” every other week, giving all researchers free rein to explore ideas outside company mandates twice a month. Other companies run “lunch-time competitions” among underground projects, allowing a two-hour lunch every day to socialize and work on a project or idea that will eventually be entered into a competition each quarter; lunch is occasionally provided by the company as an added incentive.

But joining the conversation and helping researchers—like those in IRI’s ROR groups—to map where these individuals belong, where they come from, how they work, and what motivates them is a worthy venture. R&D leaders would do well to take part. How do you manage your mad scientists? How much space do you put between yourself and the underground as an R&D manager? How well do you understand the correlation between that space and the quantity of ideas entering your pipeline? Have you performed any metric studies regarding that correlation? Perhaps it is time to do so.

By Greg Holden

About the Author

Greg Holden is a Business Writer for the Industrial Research Institute (IRI) in Arlington, VA. He formerly worked as Chief Editor of an international trading brokerage in Tel Aviv, Israel. He is in charge of producing content based on IRI-generated research and assists with writing articles for IRI’s journal, Research-Technology Management (RTM).

About IRI

The Industrial Research Institute (IRI) is an organization of 200+ industrial and service companies having a common interest in the effective management of technological innovation. IRI member companies span diverse industries and represent a substantial portion of our nation’s gross domestic product. IRI is the only cross-industry organization creating innovation leadership solutions and best practices in innovation management developed through collaborative knowledge creation. For more information, call 703-647-2580 or visit