Why innovation leaders should be controlled schizophrenics

Innovation requires a special kind of leadership requiring high tolerance for ambiguities and paradox. Professor Jan Buijs of the University of Delft has examined the characteristics, describing them as requiring a behavior pattern akin to ‘controlled schizophrenia’.

Jan Buijs is not a psychiatrist. This makes his newest contribution to innovation theorizing doubly risky. He stands accused of crudely misrepresenting and perhaps belittling a serious clinical condition. He also stands accused of the kind of political incorrectness that has recently beset users of the term brainstorming as a technique for enhancing group ideation.

According to Buijs,

Innovation leaders need to show a special kind of leadership. This leadership must be balanced, people-focused and must include a high tolerance for ambiguity and paradoxes. They have to be nice and nasty at the same time


Maybe the innovation process can be split up to provide the nice fuzzy warm stuff at the front end and the tough deadline scrambling at the pointy end. That’s how some textbooks present it.

But neat and tidy stage models of innovation are only approximations of a more complex and iterative reality. Buijs argues persuasively that innovation teams are cross-functional, and that

members … are responsible for the contribution of [various departmental contexts]. They also act as a postillion d’amour’ between the innovation team and their home departments.

To illustrate the iterative nature of the process, he presents the classical creative problem-solving model not in its customary linear form, but reconstructed as an elegant network diagram attributed to Dan Cougar.

The model is particularly worth preserving, because the distinguished author is sadly no longer with us to carry on his exceptional bridging work of the mostly separated islands of Information Systems and creativity.

Professor Buij makes a metaphoric claim in suggesting innovation leaders benfit from possessing schizoid characteristics. But even the metaphor would lose its force, if it were not embedded within a model of innovation as a non-linear process. Otherwise freedom to be creative could be confined to an early part of the process of innovation, perhaps granted to those ‘special creative types’. In a linear model, the case of special leadership skills is less convincing. By re-introducing Cougar’s non-linear model, the idea acquires additional strength.

Are innovation leaders that special?

A case could be made that innovation leaders are part of a wider set of leaders whose circumstances require in them a capacity to deal effectively with two potentially differing personal impulses.

This management of ambiguity is increasingly identified in studies of effective leadership, as ambiguous situations become more and more common. It is why leadership researchers are more aware than ever of the dilemmas of leadership.

An example is from the celebrated studies of high-performance professionals by Murnighan and Conlon

We determined from the data that the string quartets we studied faced three important paradoxes: the leadership versus democracy paradox, the paradox of the second fiddle, and the conflict paradox of confrontation versus compromise

The more general point about dealing with ambiguities is a key point in the influential ideas of group dynamics by Smith & Berg.


The article is fun, bubbling over with flights of imagination expressed in metaphors, some more vivid than others. Indeed, it even has its quota of creative spelings. In other words, it is consistent with the author’s thesis of innovation as a buzzing blooming confusion of activities, mistakes, ever-changing games, and rules of the game. The concept of the innovation leader as a metaphorical and controlled schizophrenic way be of wider application than is suggested.

2 Responses to Why innovation leaders should be controlled schizophrenics

  1. Procratination King says:

    Why not just hire some folk with schizophrenia to work as part of the team along side some more ‘controlled people? ‘ Might be a nicer working environment.

    Creativity is also available to those with patience and sound mind. They key is taking breaks and working at the right time. Some fresh air perhaps. Would Mr Uncertainty, Werner Heisenberg have had his breakthroughs without what Jacob Bronowski characterised as professorial woodland walks in Gottingen?

    I have procrastinated on the creativity and mental illness debate, as have many others from Pete Doherty to Socrates. I am uncomfortable with Buijs. No body should behave like mentally ill people at work. That they do and appear productive indicates to me that something is very wrong.

  2. Tudor,

    A few years ago, following pressure from my 7 year old-daughter to tell her a bedtime story, one night I came-up with the story of The Little Pink Ant. After telling this story, I would never have thought about it again if she had not pressed me every subsequent night for another chapter. Thus, under pressure but with freedom to be fanciful, I was innovative.

    But as the nights went by I ran out of new stories, and my daughter began suggesting new topics. However, she was much more fanciful than me — and under pressure I told stories that were totally ridiculous. This is where the ‘control’ aspect broke down.

    Creativity (and innovation) needs a conducive climate, but can easily get out of control.

    The result of all this is a series of stories that try to be innovative but are not “spaced-out”, although this depends very much on the reader: Click here:

    The Buijs concept has a significant element of truth (even though I think I am of “sound mind”). King may be right about the value of patience, but I want to offer this comment with some force:

    Most people do NOT want to think, or to imagine in any coherent way. Life is so much easier to go with the flow. The Buijs people are restless and lack patience. The King people are, somtimes, too patient — so that nothing ever happens.


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