Leadership, innovation and glass-ceramics. (no typo)

I'll try to use some material science to illustrate a personnel and leadership challenge. We'll see it it works:

You can melt some sands into glass, and glass is amorphous, thus quite fully transparent. Maybe you don't want to create glass, though; maybe you want a glass ceramic. First; why becomes glass amorphous?
The reason is simple, the only relevant alternative is to create a crystal (glass-ceramic), but crystals are being created in two steps; first you need to create a few tiny crystallized spots (German Keime ~ seeds). This requires to have the material at a certain temperature range at which this happens the most.
The second step is to change the temperature such that it's now optimal for crystal growth. This is a different, higher temperature range.
Normal cooling of molten glass first passes the optimum temperature for crystalline growth, then the optimum temperature for creation of crystallized spots. That's the wrong sequence, so glass stays amorphous instead of becoming crystalline.
You need to re-heat the material after forming the first few crystallized spots and heat it up to the crystal growth temperature in order to grow the crystals and create glass-ceramic.

- - (no transition whatsoever here) - -
It's a common misconception that innovation can be controlled and forced in width and depth. That's the same as with crystal growth; it doesn't really matter how much energy you put into it unless you have champions for innovation (the seed crystals).
Their importance can hardly be understated. I know the style of reports about deficiencies; plenty people know about deficiencies, plenty report them, plenty describe them - but rarely ever does anyone the critical step and becomes obsessed about the problem as an institutional insider. This obsession coupled with some charisma, supporters (and the good luck of being mostly correct) is what creates successful innovations.

Not yet another Guderian pic
Organizations don't become incapable of innovation only because they grow too big: They become largely incapable of innovation and instead waste much money in poor R&D because they focus on growing innovation instead of paying attention to the chance event that someone becomes obsessed about something and thus a potential champion for innovation.
The inter-war years' armies were able to purchase armoured vehicles on tracks and mount some gun on top. They were also able to buy enough trucks and cars to equip move entire divisions on motor vehicles. But the development of functional, well thought-out mechanized forces depended on having an insider champion for this innovation (such as Guderian).
I suppose both civilian and military examples of such champions for innovation are well-known, so this example shall suffice.

To make good use of such people isn't easy; it may require a lot of modesty and self-discipline on part of their superiors. People with enough self-confidence to become a zealot are rarely easy to handle and often times they'll run into trouble with others (including promotion boards) and need to be saved by superiors out.
You can - just in case you expect to make a career -  try to get it right yourself: Keep the eyes open for people who have the ambition to improve something, and maybe you're even the one who tips them over so they become zealots against something that's unsatisfactory, for something better.

related: 2013-12 Champions for change

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