#15 from R&D Innovator Volume 1, Number 5          December 1992

The Modern Prometheus
by Craig Loehle, Ph.D.

Dr. Loehle is a mathematical ecologist at the Environmental Research Division, Argonne National Laboratory.  He is writing a book to be called "Chaotic Science:  The Search for Pattern in Ecology."

In Greek mythology, Prometheus broke into Olympus, stole fire from the gods, gave it to mankind and was punished for his arrogance.  If modern technology firms are to survive, they must likewise depend on regular infusions of "fire from the gods" --something we call inventions.  What lessons can we technologists glean from the myth of Prometheus?

It has struck me over the years that individuals and organizations that successfully innovate tend to have their own arrogance. This is neither the arrogance of ability, something we see among people with outstanding talent, whether in sports, music or elsewhere.  These individuals are the best--they know it, and it shows.  Nor is it personal arrogance, which consists of emphasizing oneself at the expense of others.  This arrogance may be unrelated to ability.

Promethean arrogance is the belief that one can, by one's own powers, solve mysteries that have puzzled great minds.  This arrogance is necessary for scientific breakthroughs.  Prometheus, remember, not only dared to challenge the conventional wisdom--that mankind was not intended to have fire--he also disregarded the authorities in his quest.

This is exactly what a scientist or a technological innovator must be willing to do.  Yet science is conservative--old ideas are abandoned only when new evidence is overwhelming.   And technology is even more conservative--many inventions have been ignored just because the public could not be convinced to use them.  Many useful inventions that ultimately succeeded were not initially pursued because the scientist or organization was not willing to take the risk.

Within corporations, even those devoted to innovation, an invention may be seen as risky.  It could make other company products obsolete and thereby arouse corporate opposition beyond the research lab.  It could force a rearrangement of the research group.  Thus any innovating unit, whether an individual, research team or corporation, must fight conventional wisdom about what is possible, what is needed and what is useful.  In other words, just like Prometheus, it must challenge the power structure and overcome inertia.

Unlike his fellow mortals, Prometheus was confident that fire was worth stealing and that he was capable of stealing it.  The Promethean innovator has this same belief and confidence.  After all, constant scientific and technological progress demonstrates that the state of knowledge at any given moment is at best incomplete or even wrong.  New discoveries constantly prove that we have missed connections between existing knowledge, failed to find exceptions to our rules or failed to generalize accurately.  Lasers, for example, were once considered an amusing toy; now we use them to perform eye surgery and measure the distance to the moon. 

To put this in practical terms, every time a researcher, team or company believes that its device is about as good as possible, someone else comes out with a better idea or product.  I'm forced to conclude that most experts are wrong on many crucial issues and habitually overlook discoveries right beneath their noses.  The key discoveries that are being overlooked are not necessarily difficult.  As Prometheus showed, it's not hard to break into Olympus, but it does take courage.

The Promethean innovator, then, begins by questioning every assumption. What if genes are not fixed in place on the chromosome? Barbara McClintock dared ask this question and found jumping genes in maize, yet her discoveries were unintelligible to colleagues for decades afterward, due to their rigid mindsets. The discovery of retroviruses suggested the bizarre notion that DNA could be transmitted between species via a retrovirus, yet some evidence now supports this possibility.  Everyone knows you can't get blood from a stone, but the Promethean scientist asks "Why not?" and finds that crystallized blood in the crevices of stone tools can be studied thousands of years after the tool was last used to scrape a hide!

The grave danger facing an innovator is that Promethean arrogance, though a prerequisite to discovery, may become transmuted into personal arrogance. This is a natural tendency after a significant innovation, particularly one that was made despite ridicule from peers.  But personal arrogance --the feeling of invincibility that arises from overcoming adversity --is anathema to the discovery process.  It creates a rigid mindset that inhibits self-criticism and instills disdain for outside ideas or methods.

Indeed, because the next innovation may be in a new field or even supplant a previous innovation, the greatest enemy of innovation can be an individual's or organization's previous success.  For example, in the 1950s manufacturers of vacuum tubes were busily perfecting their product, ignored the transistor and went out of business. The cure for personal arrogance is remembering that the key to success--that "experts" frequently ignore the obvious--applies to everybody.

Finally, Prometheus' fate also applies to the R&D process: in retribution, the Gods chained Prometheus to a cliff and directed eagles to peck eternally at his liver.  Today's truly innovative work is often so far beyond the accepted wisdom that it's difficult to assimilate and likely to cause misunderstanding, controversy and animosity. 

Truly innovative individuals or groups tend to be considered loose cannons. They are viewed as critical, they "have an attitude." Because innovators tend to view the consensus as wrong or incomplete (as they've proven in the past), they have no use for committees and they chafe under close supervision.  Although these scientists are more apt to make useful discoveries, those discoveries tend, by the same token, to be disruptive, unauthorized and contrary to organizational objectives.  As a result, organizations find it too easy to punish the Promethean innovator.  Despite lip service to the contrary, ignoring, punishing and exiling innovators gives a loud and clear message to the organization:  Do not take the initiative.  Do not stick your neck out.

Thus the myth of Prometheus is full of lessons for modern innovators.  Prometheus was not the three-piece-suit type.  He was an audacious thief, or in modern lingo, an entrepreneur.  He was not someone who would feel comfortable in an organization with full-cost accounting efficiency, five-year plans and management-by-objectives.   He would be a troublemaker, and likely to be punished or ostracized.  

Yet an organization that's lucky enough to have someone who can steal fire from the gods should wake up and take advantage of that talent.  Otherwise, the modern-day Prometheus will take that fire elsewhere.

2006 Winston J. Brill & Associates. All rights reserved.