Champions of Change
by Tom Bryan (Ethanol Producer Magazine) Past FEW Award of Excellence winners reflect on decades of research advocacy and leadership — Marty Andreas, the late Archer Daniels Midland Co. executive, once followed Charles Abbas out of a boardroom after a fervent discussion about, of all things, thermophiles.
Abbas, a veteran research team leader at ADM, had just implored the company’s board of directors to renew its support of a thermophilic fermentation project. The executives were ready to drop the work before Abbas spoke up. “I went in and told them—I mean, I really told them with conviction—that the work should go on,” Abbas said. “After I left, Marty came out, shook my hand and said, ‘The board passed it. They believed in what you said because of how you said it. They saw your passion.’”
That moment, for Abbas, is illustrative of the conviction researchers must convey when they champion ideas. “Believe in what you say,” he says. “Give people something to adhere to. A lot of researchers don’t think it’s their job to sell ideas. I disagree. If it’s worth fighting for, you need to stand up and show people that you’ll own it.
Passion alone, however, isn’t enough. Abbas says he’s been an effective innovation champion during his three decades with ADM because he’s built rapport with plant personnel and gained the trust of company executives.
A temperament for balanced advocacy is just one of the many characteristics that define Lewis (Steve Lewis, Poet’s chief science officer), Abbas and other past recipients of the International Fuel Ethanol Workshop’s Award of Excellence. Since 2000, the award has been given to accomplished researchers and technical professionals who exude competency, leadership, vision and determination in the face of scientific adversity.
Retired USDA Agricultural Research Service scientist Kevin Hicks, the 2013 Award of Excellence winner, says an inexhaustible spirit can be useful in science, which tends to deliver a dozen failures for every one success. “You’re not going to walk into a lab and change the ethanol industry in 15 minutes,” Hicks says. “You’re going to spend the time it takes to make sure your work holds up, that it’s repeatable and stands the test of time. There’s nothing quick or easy about that.”
In fact, it can take a decade to produce transformative innovation, yet today’s young scientists are unlikely to work for the same company, or even the same industry, for half that time.
By leading teams over time and through myriad experiences, Lewis says, research managers become less like musicians and more like orchestra conductors. “It’s somewhat of a myth that innovation is the result of the lone person working in a lab,” he says, citing author Steven Johnson’s premise about the recombinant nature of innovation, which supposes that great ideas are borrowed, adapted and made better by many people over time. “It’s a back-and-forth process. So much innovation that happens today is recombinant. We’re always recombining ideas—figuring out what they are and aren’t consistent with—in a constant flux of confirmation and refutation.”
Lewis warns that the benefits of recombinant research must be weighed against the risks of information overload, however. “Today, information is increasing at an exponential rate,” he says. “The problem is, the number of spurious correlations, or incorrect insights, that you can develop also goes up. So, the counterintuitive truth of living in a world with so much information is that, in some respects, innovation has gotten harder because we’re trying to find needles in bigger and bigger haystacks.”
The notion of recombinant innovation isn’t lost on John Caupert, executive director of the National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center in Edwardsville, Illinois, which has been a virtual idea incubator since its inception in 2003. “We’ve always preferred to be in a position of collaboration than competition, if for no other reason than when you compete somebody loses,” says the 2015 Award of Excellence winner. “When you collaborate, everybody involved has an opportunity to win.”
Lewis says companies need to take risks to stumble on good fortune. 3M, for example, developed Post-It Notes by mistake. “It wouldn’t have happened in the era of Six Sigma, he says. “It was the result of making an adhesive that didn’t work well.”
And serendipity is also real, Lewis says. “It’s the good result you didn’t envision—an unintended consequence that turns out to be more viable than what you were originally searching for. READ MORE