Search the site

News categories

News archives

RSS feeds

Leading Science

What science leadership really means

Cafè Einstein, Unter den Linden, Berlin (More)
Three items illustrate the link between effective leadership, as we now understand it, and the achievement of superior research and R&D generally. As a recent review says, one can infer that leadership of R&D activities would be different but there is no evidence that it is.

The three items are an extract from Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman, an extract from an article “Managing Professional Intellect: Making the Most of the Best”, by James Brian Quinn and others aand a recently completed study of the impact of transformational leadership on R&D projects.

That the same behaviours of transformational leadership achieve results in science and R&D organisations just as they do in organisations generally is not recognised widely. A failure to understand this is not the principal reason for whatever difficulties there are in scientific and scholarly organizations. Those difficulties, like reform at Universities, might be solved simply by giving all academics copies of articles on transformational leadership. But understanding the commonalties and recognising the validity of the results to date are not irrelevant by any means.

Recruitment of leaders in this area would undoubtedly be assisted by such understanding. It is not enough to have done excellent research and to be a member of academies!


“All that had to be done was tell them what it was”

During the Los Alamos (atomic bomb development) project Richard Feynman, who was to (jointly) win the Nobel Prize for physics in 1965 for his work on quantum electrodynamics, was able to draw on his keen sense of concern for people, his belief about motivation and his passion for getting people to understand how things worked. (He was known to dismiss the assertion that just because one knew the name of something – say birds – one therefore knew all about it.) As he tells it [1]:
The army had selected fellows from all over the country for a thing called a special Engineer Detachment-clever boys from high school who had engineering ability. They sent them up to Los Alamos. They put them in barracks. And they told them nothing.

“Anyway, we decided the big problem – which was to figure out exactly what happened during the bomb’s implosion, so you can figure out how much energy was released and so on -required much more calculating than we were capable of. A clever fellow… realised it could possibly be done on IBM machines. IBM had machines for business purposes…and a multiplier you put cards in. [He] figured out that if we got enough of these machines in a room we could take the cards and put them through a cycle…

“Then the soldiers came to work, and what they had to do was work at IBM machines-punching holes, numbers that they didn’t understand. Nobody told them what it was.”

The work was going slowly. Feynman became impatient.

“I said that the first thing there has to be is that these technical guys have to know what they were doing. Oppenheimer [Robert Oppenheimer] was the head of the project] went and talked to security and got special permission so I could give a nice lecture about what we were doing, and they were all excited. ..They knew what the numbers meant. They knew what they were doing!”

“Complete transformation! They began to invent ways of doing it better. They improved the scheme. They worked at night; they didn’t need anything. They understood everything; they invented some of the programs that we used. So… all that had to be done was tell them what it was. As a result, although it took them nine months to do three problems before, we did nine problems in three months, which is nearly ten times as fast.”

“I was born not knowing and have only had a little time to change that here and there”Richard Feynman (quoted by James Gleick in Genius Richard Feynman and modern physics (Little, Brown & Co, 1992)


Leveraging Professional Intellect and Innovation

In “Managing Professional Intellect” James Brian Quinn and colleagues of Dartmouth College review innovation, research and development and the practices which will most likely encourage the development of professional intellect [2].

A corporation’s success today lies more in its intellectual and systems capabilities than in its physical assets. Managing human intellect — and converting it into useful products and services — is fast becoming the critical executive skill of the age. It is therefore surprising that so little attention has been given to that endeavour.

This oversight is especially surprising because professional intellect creates most of the value in the new economy, in service and manufacturing industries alike. But few managers have systematic answers to even these basic questions: What is professional intellect? How can we develop it? How can we leverage it?

An organization’s professional intellect operates on four levels:

cognitive knowledge, advanced skills, systems understanding, and self-motivated creativity. They argue that organizations that nurture self-motivated creativity are more likely to thrive in the face of today’s rapid changes.

The authors offer best practices for developing professional intellect: recruiting the best people, forcing development and increasing challenges, and evaluating and weeding. And they illustrate how organizations as diverse as Merrill Lynch and NovaCare have leveraged professional intellect by linking new software tools, incentive systems, and organizational designs. The authors contend that or generations can tailor themselves to the particular way their professional intellect creates value by inverting the traditional hierarchical structure and by creating self-organizing networks.

Quinn and associates conclude:

“How groups communicate and what they voluntarily communicate are as important as the advanced knowledge each center of excellence may have. For virtually all purposes, however, encouraging shared interests, common values, and mutually satisfying solutions is essential for leveraging knowledge in these structures. Research suggests that to accomplish this goal, network managers should force members to overlap on different teams in order to increase continuity of contact, joint learning, and informal information sharing; purposely keep hierarchical relations ill defined; constantly update and reinforce project goals; avoid overly elaborate rules for allocating profits to individual nodes; develop continuous mechanisms for updating information about the external environment (for example, tax code changes, customer needs, or scientific results); involve both clients and peers in performance evaluations; and provide node members with both individual and team rewards for participation. Such consciously structured management interactions can mitigate the most common failures and frustrations.

“The other key leverage factor in most spider’s webs is technology. Electronics allow many more highly diverse, geographically dispersed, intellectually specialized talents to be brought to bear on a single project than ever before. Because public telecommunications networks allow interconnection almost anywhere, the key to effective network systems generally lies in software that provides a common language and database for communications, captures critical factual data about external environments, helps players find knowledge sources (usually through electronic menus, Web browsers like Netscape, or bulletin boards), and allows interactive sharing and problem solving. Each node will of course have its own specialized analytical software. But networking, groupware, and interactive software — along with a culture of and incentives for sharing — are the keys to success in these systems.

“Much can be done to leverage professional intellect through extraordinary recruitment, training, and motivational measures. But, increasingly, managing human intellect alone is not enough. More radical organizational structures, supported by specifically designed software systems, are essential to capture, focus, and leverage capabilities to the fullest. Such systems have become the glue that both joins together highly dispersed service delivery centers and leverages the critical knowledge bases, intellectual skills, and accumulated experience in professional organizations. They also bond professionals to the organization by providing them with databases, analytical models, and communication power that they cannot find elsewhere. These tools enable professionals to extend their performance beyond their personal limits, allowing them to achieve more inside the organization than they could on their own.

“No organizational form is a panacea. In fact, many different forms often coexist successfully in the same company. Properly used, each helps a company attract, harness, leverage, and deploy intellect for a quite different purpose. Consequently, each requires a carefully developed set of cultural norms supported by software and by performance-measurement and reward systems tailored to the organization’s specific purposes.


Inspirational vision and intellectual stimulation drive R&D project success.

Teri Elkins and Robert T. Keller of the University of Houston have completed a substantial meta analysis examining the literature concerning leadership in R&D organisations [3]. Although early research in the R&D area comprised simple examinations of leaders’ traits and behaviours, recent research has moved beyond that.

The findings of the study of the empirical literature on leadership in research and development (R&D) organisations suggest that transformational project leaders who communicate an inspirational vision and provide intellectual stimulation and leaders who develop a high-quality leader-member exchange (LMX) relationship with project members are associated with project success. Boundary-spanning activity and championing by the leader are also found to be important factors for project success. Further, a number of moderators and contextual variables such as project group membership and rate of technological change may make leadership in R&D organizations different from that in operating organizations.

One of the earlier studies of R&D leadership examined teams of scientists at a NASA research center: effectiveness of leadership behaviour depended on leaders’ skills. When supervisors were perceived as possessing less technical skill, higher performance was associated with giving subordinates more freedom to explore, discuss, and challenge ideas. Critical evaluation of subordinates’ work was associated with innovation for technically skilled supervisors. In long-term project teams, team performance was higher when functional managers performed roles related to technology, such as disseminating information about technical advances and current professional activities. In newly formed teams, on the other hand, information dissemination was not associated with high performance for either project or functional managers. But being informed about current professional activities was associated with high performance for project managers but not for functional managers.

Another study found leader assistance behaviours including supportiveness, task emphasis, technological skill and participation to be positively related to contributions to scientific knowledge and applied practices. This relationship, however, was moderated by group isolation and subordinate experience. Leadership behaviours of this kind were more important when groups were isolated from other scientific groups and when scientists were less experienced.

Projects actively championed by the leader come to be better supported across the organization and less likely to be cancelled than those not championed, especially when the leaders exert influence at higher levels of the organisation.

Research examining climate issues has focused primarily on two questions: What aspects of the organisational environment can influence innovation, and what is the role of leaders in this relationship? In addressing the first question, theorists have identified antecedents of innovation and creativity including vision, participative safety, climate for excellence, norms of support for innovation, operational autonomy/freedom, good project management, encouragement, organizational resources, recognition, time, challenge, and pressure.

Research examining the second question indicates that leaders may influence innovation by creating an innovative climate. A climate of innovation “can be created by the use of both structure and behaviours, such as providing subordinates with multiple tasks, time pressures, administrative as well as technical tasks, technical collaboration with colleagues, and clarity of fit between work and organizational goals”.

Influence focusing on work challenge and expertise rather than authority as well as a climate of project personnel involvement and willingness to disagree has been found to be associated with higher project manager performance.

The following sections will review this research, which includes studies examining transformational leadership, path-goal theory, leader-member relations (LMX) theory, and strategic leadership.

The Ardeche Gorge, Provence (More)

A longitudinal study examining leadership behaviours exhibited by project leaders in three R&D organizations, found that transformational behaviours were positively related to project quality and budget/schedule performance., more so for research projects than for development projects. Transactional behaviours are more important in development projects. Moreover, intellectual stimulation, charisma, and individualized consideration are influential qualities -0 leading to superior results – in the case of higher-level R&D managers, but not project leaders.

Elkins and Keller say, “The first conclusion we have drawn is that the R&D project leader not only has to lead internally and inspire the team members but also he or she should engage in multiple roles including external ones. Namely, the leader should also boundary span with important constituents outside the project group, such as managers and personnel in marketing, manufacturing, and operating divisions, as well as with customers from outside the firm. This kind of activity to champion the project can be critical to the survival and success of the project. However, others in the project group can be project champions as well, and an open question with little existing research is who should do the project championing activity–the leader or someone else?”

They continue, “… based on the literature … the inspirational motivation of providing a common vision for the project enables team members from different disciplines to work together to bring a technological innovation to fruition. In addition, the leader’s use of intellectual stimulation encourages team members from disparate disciplines to look at problems from new vantage points that can enhance innovation. We think that project effectiveness will be highest when transformational leadership behaviours are displayed by project leaders in research rather than in development projects. In development projects, we see the role of the higher-level transformational leader as providing contextual support in the form of a helpful organizational climate. Hence, our second proposition for future research suggests the following interaction:

Elkins and Keller conclude by noting a void in the literature: comparisons of R&D leaders with other leaders to determine directly that uniqueness exists in the R&D context. Although one can infer that there are differences concerning moderator and context, there are no studies showing direct differences in effective leader behaviours between R&D and other contexts.

[1] Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman” (Counterpoint, London, 1986)
[2] James Brian Quinn, Philip Anderson & Sydney Finkelstein, “Managing Professional Intellect : Making the Most of the Best”, Harvard Business Review 74/2, p71, 10p, p 71 (1996)
[3] Teri Elkins and Robert T. Keller, “Leadership in research and development organizations: A literature review and conceptual framework”, The Leadership Quarterly Vol 14/4-5, p. 587-606 (2003); substantial reference is made to the various research articles by Bernard Bass, Gary Yukl, Robert House and G.F. Farris on which this introductory statement is made; this essay does not include those references