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July 20, 2013

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China needs 'idea managers' to unleash scientific creativity

BE critical, be excellent.

That was what President Xi Jinping said on Wednesday when he visited the Chinese Academy of Sciences and encouraged scientists to be more innovative. He also suggested that our society cultivate a culture that tolerates failures to facilitate the nation's innovation drive.

It's an open secret that scientific research in China often succumbs to bureaucratic power or the power of a few academic pundits. There's little room for critical thinking and out-of-the-box work on the part of the rank-and-file researchers.

In a commentary published last year, People's Daily pointed out three major problems plaguing China's efforts in scientific innovation:

1. A few bureaucrats or pundits in academic institutions often get research projects much more easily than ordinary scientists. After they get the projects, these people in power usually outsource them to their assistants, but enjoy the authorship of final papers anyway. Call them reckless foremen.

2. The dominance of administrative power over science leads to a loss of academic independence. The state administrative departments largely dictate the use of funds for large-scale research projects. As a result, scientists waste time jostling for state funds.

3. Scientists' pay is relatively low, so that experienced scientists go for state funds, while young, entry-level scientists offer themselves as cheap, uncritical labor for whoever has well-funded research projects.

Lack of managers

To be sure, China has never lacked brilliant scientists. What it lacks are brilliant managers of scientists - managers who know how to bring out the best from scientists for the benefit of our nation in need of innovation. These managers, or "idea agents" as innovation leadership consultant Lina M. Echeverria calls them, hold the key to China becoming a truly innovative nation.

One can reasonably infer from the People's Daily commentary that many of the current managers of scientists in China care more about their own power of control than about the well-being of others or society at large.

"True leadership is marked by a commitment to the well-being and success of others rather than by an attraction to the mirage of control, power and admiration," says Echeverria in her latest book, "Idea Agent: Leadership that liberates Creativity and Accelerates Innovation."

Colombia-born Echeverria is a world-renowned engineer with a PhD in geology and more than 30 years of experience as both a scientist and a senior manager at Corning Inc. That 150-year-old American company has a history of technical innovation that has produced everything from optical fiber to pollution controls for cars to the windows in NASA spacecraft to the durable screens in smart phones.

For potential Chinese "idea agents" who want to liberate the creativity of scientists and accelerate China's innovation, Echeverria's book is an especially useful and pleasant read. It's the best book on innovation I have ever read, and certainly the most unique one in the eyes of Charles O'Reilly, professor of management at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

"Her experiences as a world-renowned scientist and manager give her insight and empathy not available to those who simply observe and describe," says O'Reilly. He compares many other authors on innovation to "music critics describing a symphonic performance," and Echeverria to "the conductor or musician who actually makes it happen."

Two anecdotes in the book are illustrative. One is about the author's childhood memory of her artist mother who befriended all kinds of artists - all with strong egos. The other is about her confidence being shattered after her revolutionary idea - later proved right - went unheeded in the team where she worked.

Her mother's pursuit of art was disrupted by World War II, but 20 years later, her mother's interest in art blossomed again. "She enrolled in an art institute, took lessons in the evening, and befriended the local art community," Echeverria recalls. "My mother would often entertain Colombia's leading intellectuals and artists and their peers visiting from around the globe."

Here's the point: the house party was not always pleasant. "I have clear memories of passionate discussions, of acrid critiques, of excited reactions to new ideas or proposed techniques," Echeverria writes. But her mother, as an idea agent, managed to let everyone blossom. "The passions ran high, but no matter how extreme the opinion, there was room for it. And the characters would always come back the following day or week to start again."

"These memories resonated in my mind when I entered the high-stakes world of corporate innovation and learned my first lessons about the importance of creating an environment where healthy conflict can thrive," Echeverria says.

Unable to differ

She joined Corning Inc in the early 1980s and soon found herself in a team where not everyone was able to differ. That meant that even Corning - which brought Thomas Edison's light bulb to market and commercialized the first optical fibers - could stumble at innovation.

Her team was working on ceramic substrates for automotive emissions. But the project hit a bump and breakthrough technology remained elusive. After she joined the project, Echeverria made a new proposal, partly based on her background in geology.

"My findings ran contrary to the established understanding, but rather than the dialogue or even passionate discussions I expected, I felt I was not given a fair hearing by anyone," she writes. Her confidence was so undermined that she wanted to quit Corning, but finally she joined another department. Many years later, she learned that her unconventional idea had proved right and helped Corning achieve a breakthrough in many areas.

When she finally became a senior manager of scientists at Corning, "all my childhood memories came back."

Although her mother's home parties were different from corporate business, "there was something strongly reminiscent in the two worlds: the idiosyncrasies of the players, the intensity of their passion, the strength of their convictions, and, yes, the presence of strong egos. It felt very important to liberate that creativity and allow it reach its potential, just as those artists and writers I had known had reached theirs, in contrast to my own first project experience."

So, be an idea agent, and let everyone be critical and excellent.


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