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In countless R&D labs the world over, a pitched battle rages on, generally quietly, behind conference room doors and in presentations. The battle pits the evolutionaries against the revolutionaries.
The evolutionaries argue that genius insight is overblown and that the ultimate value of innovation is lost without dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. The revolutionaries, on the other hand, argue that their counterparts are wasting their time on trivialities, and that without drastic, game-changing inventions, the world is doomed. Who is right? Is there even a right? Does it matter?
You can see the fortunes of each camp rise and fall over time, similar to the swing of a pendulum, along with their respective corporate champions. At times it seems the evolutionaries gain the advantage, with companies focusing on core competency, trimming away blue skies research, and outsourcing everything but manufacture of the product — and sometimes even that. At other times, the revolutionaries sweep across the field, dazzling customers and audiences with brilliant new gadgets or discoveries, and burning through the competitive field like wildfire.
In popular culture, the ones held as heroes are clearly the revolutionaries. No Six Sigma Black Belt ever had a fighting chance against the sweeping charisma of a brilliant inventor. And marketing geniuses that come up with dazzling ways to communicate to and compel masses of consumers have an almost unfair advantage when pitted against those with the decidedly unglamorous tasks of, for instance, ensuring regulatory compliance. Think of revolutionaries such as Nikola Tesla, Albert Einstein, and Steve Jobs, and of evolutionaries including … well, you probably can’t think of any famous counterparts. They just don’t make it to the pinnacles of science or business stardom.
But when you get past popularity contests, does the same advantage hold? Is there a similar imbalance between the two camps when you look at actually producing innovation and making it available to the world? Can those naturally inclined toward one or the other learn something from those favoring the opposite approach?
There are, in fact, notable examples where “slow and steady” wins the day, and brilliant insights amount to little more than a flash in the pan. If you look at how Toyota got to be the world’s largest car manufacturer, it certainly wasn’t because of unique design or inspired innovation; it was mainly because of reliability at affordable prices — a guiding mantra maintained over decades. And gorgeous and pioneering as it might have been, the luxury electric car Fisker Karma is no longer available, as its manufacturer went bankrupt just seven years after it got started.
Similarly, in biomedicine, clinical diagnostics company Sysmex is continuing a decadeslong rise from small player in the domestic Japanese market to world leader in hematology analysis. In the process, it has caught up with and edged out Beckman Coulter, the company that invented automated hematology analysis — the Coulter principle of cell analysis being named after one of its founders — and acquired Partec, a company that pioneered flow cytometry.
On the other hand, the Fisker Karma showed people that electric cars didn’t have to be boring. And automated hematology analysis would not have gotten started without Wallace Coulter’s famous 1948 demonstration of counting blood cells by passing them through a handmade pinprick hole in a cellophane sheet from a pack of cigarettes and detecting the resulting spike in electrical resistance across the orifice. And if Dr. Wolfgang Göhde hadn’t started Partec in the 1960s and grown it into a significant player in the market, it wouldn’t have been an attractive acquisition target for Sysmex.
It seems that the world needs both — the evolutionaries, who stick to an effort long enough to work out all of the bugs and actually make a practical difference in the lives of end users, patients, consumers, and other businesses; and the revolutionaries, who, by their greater appetite for risk, move entire markets and areas of human activity into new territories, even when they fail.
Revolutionaries who end up making a real difference do so by either deliberately or instinctively dismantling common, unacknowledged assumptions about the world in which we live. Who says we can’t directly image HIV viruses infecting T cells in real time? Who says we can’t enumerate every single base pair in the billions that make up the DNA of an organism? Who says we can’t shoot blood cells from a nozzle in single file, at tens of thousands per second, intercept them with a laser beam, tell them apart based on single-digit percent differences in DNA content, and even sort them accordingly?
Ultimately, the revolutionaries succeed by uncovering what had been an accepted truth, proving it isn’t true, and going on to show what you can do once you’ve dispelled that particular myth. But without armies of evolutionaries putting in practice and perfecting what a revolutionary invents or discovers, those inventions and discoveries would end up having little to no impact.
Each of us may naturally gravitate toward either the evolutionary or the revolutionary mindset. Even entire companies tend to fall largely in one or the other camp. It is extraordinarily difficult for a company culture to simultaneously nurture a risk-taking attitude and a risk-avoiding one. Most don’t do it, and many of those who do, don’t do a good job of it.
Perhaps, as some of us enjoy the surprise of invention and discovery, while others prefer the predictability of steady execution, companies are actually better off specializing in one or the other. Pretending to be something they’re not is probably best left to professional actors.
Meet the author
Giacomo Vacca, Ph.D., is president of flow cytometry instrumentation developer Kinetic River Corp. and chief science officer at BeamWise Inc., an optical system design software company, both in Silicon Valley, Calif. He is the recipient of 44 U.S. and international patents and two SBIR awards from the National Institutes of Health, and provides expert witness and technical consulting; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.READ MORE