Managing the Butterfly: Words of Wisdom for Scholars

By Jack W. Schuler 12/21/2016

This is a speech Jack orginially gave to athletes at Northwestern University.

Managing a butterfly is of course a contradiction in terms.

Now you may ask – what is this all about? This is about creativity, innovation and uncertainty. I eventually hope to pull this together and give you some advice on how to plan for your future.

More than 50 years ago, I had the opportunity to study Zen Buddhism at Keio University in Tokyo during a summer when I was at Stanford. A few years later with my young family, I lived for two years in Tokyo managing a U.S. subsidiary. This Zen experience got me thinking about innovation, the random event and uncertainty.

I have chosen the butterfly as my analogy because I believe that creativity or innovation is essentially an oriental or Eastern-like phenomenon, one that is more mystical than metaphysical.

Perhaps some of you know the ancient Eastern tale of a man who slept under a tree and dreamed that he was butterfly. The dream was so vivid that when he awoke he did not know if he was a man who had dreamt that he was a butterfly or was a butterfly that was dreaming that he was a man.

To the Eastern mind, the butterfly is understood by identifying so closely with it that the man and the butterfly become inseparable in a way that cannot be explained. To the Western mind, the butterfly is something to be caught, dissected and explained.

If we want creativity and innovation in an organization, we must recognize its essential characteristics and identify with and embrace them. If we try to capture and explain it, we will destroy it. Some of you probably feel that there are actions that we can take that will create innovation.

As members of a Western culture, we inevitably feel that we can do something specific and create innovation as a result. My message is one that is probably already troublesome to you; we cannot create it. We cannot take actions that will cause creativity. I cannot outline for you a series of steps or a collection of policies that will bring innovation to your organization.

And, indeed, that is not even our objective because it is already there. If we truly understand the nature of innovation, we will also understand that our objective is to stop destroying it. Traditional wisdom holds that the large organization is the least hospitable environment for innovation.

We regularly celebrate the classically American lone ranger, on his own, developing a brilliant idea and achieving greatness. And, I would have to say that the record is quite clear that the vast majority of the fundamentally important basic discoveries come from one individual or from within a small organization.Think Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Albert Einstein! The record for large industrial organizations is rather poor, with very few exceptions.

But why? What is it about most large organizations that seem to suppress innovation? After all, that is where 80% of people work and they are smart people.

Large organizations try to manage the butterfly. The emphasis is on rigorous planning and control. Large organizations, after all, are generally led by people who have climbed the organization ladder by having some specific characteristics. They are action oriented.They believe that for every action there should be a predictable reaction – the desired positive result. They want to control events, not have events control them. They want a firm hand on the rudder. They believe that the environment can be controlled and nature can be subdued. And above all, they want no surprises.

But here is the problem. Innovation, by its very nature, is a surprise.

It is dependent on the random event that stimulates an insight. I can hear what some of you are saying to yourself: “Is this guy serious? When he was President of Abbott Laboratories 30 years ago – did he open the annual meeting by saying he was hoping for some random event this year that will propel sales?" No, large organizations, like society, are made up of many different parts bound together by rules and controls.

But let us not for a moment forget that we are talking about bonds. We are talking about restraints. We are talking about limits. So these organizations cannot exist without them but they can strangle it, as well. The larger the organizations become, the more important they are for their existence and yet the more threatening they become to their future. And so, at least for me, the best thing that a leader can do to create innovation is to stop trying to create anything of the sort.

Instead, he or she must realize that new ideas are occurring throughout the organization and that it is the nature of large organizations and the environment that their cultures produce that keeps those new ideas from taking hold. Once that realization occurs, the leader will be able to let creative ideas, inventions, the random events that are occurring every day, every hour and at every part of the company have a chance to survive.

At Abbott, we had 70,000 employees and had factories in 50 countries. On one hand, I knew that we needed procedures and budgets, to hold us together, but I also know that this bureaucracy was like a cancer that was strangling us. I tried to continually strike down the bureaucracy that makes the pursuit of a new idea a painful and torturous process. I tried to blast open the rigid thinking that actively opposes innovation because it is contrary to someone’s earlier conception.

I once experimented by selecting a group of scientists and ordered them to go off campus and check back in two years. They were told to operate as a small company and ignore Abbott rules. This group eventually developed an instrument which became Abbott’s most successful product. I know very well that what I am suggesting is not easy. Look at yourself in the mirror.

Are you willing to believe in uncertainty? Are you willing to acknowledge and even to embrace the concept that random events will control your life?

But they do. There is nothing that you can do about it. What is important is whether we recognize they’re occurring and recognize their power, and understand that what really matters is how we react to them.

Some of you can perhaps read Chinese characters. This is the character for crisis. But when you breakdown each character – one is for danger and one is for opportunity. The next time a random event enters your life – don’t turn from it because you do not like change – look for the opportunity it opens up. You may say I don’t like the idea that random event will control my life. But let’s face it, they will. You cannot control these random events – but you can prepare yourself for them. Start by getting a good education – which you are doing now – increase your competencies. But more important, embrace uncertainty and relish the exhilarating ride it will take you on.Think how boring your life would be if it was already pre-programmed and you knew exactly where you will be in 5, 10 year from now.

Now how does this all translate into advice I can give to you?

You should be thinking about what you will do next semester, this summer and after college.

First of all – you are well positioned. You have already been accepted at one of the top colleges in the world. But when you graduate despite your great capabilities and that you know a lot – you are not prepared to do anything in the professional world. You cannot build a bridge (engineers excluded), defend someone in court, or fix a broken arm. 

To me, you should plan to get a graduate degree from a top school. Be it an MBA, PhD, Law School or Medical School.

Should you apply to Graduate School right after college or should you wait two to four years? I recommend the latter. Why?

First, most graduate schools won’t accept you right out of college. They want you to gain some more experience and also to be sure you know what you want.

You think you know what you want to do? My experience is that at this stage you do not know yourself well enough to decide what you want to do. In the first few years after you leave this marvelous cocoon of college life – and get out in the real world – you will learn about yourself.

Another bit of advice. Only choose a graduate school that is tops in its field. If waiting another year to apply enables you to be accepted in a better school – wait. The reputation of the school will open doors for you the rest of your life.

This has been my experience. I am the son of an immigrant. I attended public school in a small Wisconsin town – but somehow, I ended up getting my MBA from Stanford more than 50 years ago.

Even today when I enter a room and meet people for the first time who do not know me and learn I graduated from Stanford, they assume I am smart. They know nothing about me except where I went to school. I can tell you that not anyone in my Stanford class 50 years ago was smart. But they make this conclusion. So why not use this to your advantage? You already benefit by the great reputation of attending a top college– but top it off with a great graduate school degree.

I have had a crazy career becoming president of Abbott in my mid-40’s and later creating some companies that have changed the way medicine is practiced. People took great risks with me and I believe a lot that in the assumptions they made about me was based on what schools I attended.

Another bit of advice is to consider is to parachute overseas for a year or two.

This really worked for me. My undergraduate years were in Boston at Tufts. Then you could fly to Europe on Islandic Airlines for $150.

Rather than driving back to work in Whitefish Bay for two summers, I flew to France and got a job there. As a result, I learned to speak French and also learned a lot about myself. My first job out of school I joined Texas Instruments as a salesman. Talk about the random event – from the time I accepted the job and I actually showed up for work, they invented the first integrated circuit. They realized that now they were going to be a big company and had to build a business in Europe.When they discovered that I was the only engineer in the company that spoke French they asked me if I was willing to move to France to help them get started.

Talk about luck and random events. My career changed completely. We took on Europe and built a great company. I was 4 years in France, two years in Germany, where I met my wife and the last two years in Tokyo running their Far East business. And I was still only 31 years old. My decision to take a summer job in France changed everything.

Consider doing something similar. For example, find every alumni from your school that lives in Santiago Chili or Barcelona Spain and email them if they would be interested in hiring you for a year. One may take you up on your proposal. You don’t need 100 jobs – only 1. Don’t be afraid of sending out 100 emails and getting 99 rejections.

Use Your Contacts.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Think of 100 people who know you and who could give you advice or least lead you to other people based on your network of contacts.

One more thing. My experience in with talking with many Scholars over the years is that you typically want to “save the world” - you want to give something back and are thinking of joining the non-profit world.Be careful. A lot of non-profits are not that great of a stimulating environment. You do not want to end up filing in the back room for some non-profit.

For your first job out of school look at a highly effective organization. One that will stimulate you – help you grow. Your first boss will be very important to you.  

My fear is that some of you might not be thinking big enough. You are probably underestimating the role you can play in a society.

With what you have already accomplished you should be swinging for the fences. GO FOR IT - relish the uncertainty that is coming. Enjoy the ride! For a butterfly – you can never schedule a flight – it never flies in a straight line - and you never know where it will land.


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