Only Half a Backfield

Michael Metzger

With its backfield of “Mr. Inside & Mr. Outside,” Army football in the 1940s proved to be innovative. That’s instructive, as many companies talk about innovation yet few include a Mr. Outside. With only half a backfield, it’s unlikely they’ll be innovative.

From 1944 to 1946, Army football went 27-0-1 and won two national titles. They were led by two running backs, Felix “Doc” Blanchard and Glenn Davis, dubbed “Mr. Inside & Mr. Outside” by the New York Sun. Blanchard ran inside the tackles, trampling defenders. Davis was a lithe halfback who could outrun anyone outside the tackles. It was an innovative tandem, scoring 97 touchdowns and overwhelming opponents.

There’s a lot of talk today about innovation. Most of it is “rubbish,” writes The Economist. Clayton Christensen attributes this to a dilemma.1 Two technologies drive business. The first is sustaining. It maintains the prevailing model. The second technology is disruptive. It upends the system. The dilemma is disruptive technologies drive innovation but few organizations include a disruptive voice, what Daniel Kahneman calls “the outside view” or “the devils advocate.”2 Most businesses try to innovate with only insiders. Bad move.

Insiders are hampered by habituation writes Jonathan Schooler, a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “Habituation is why you don’t notice the stuff that’s always there.” It’s the “inevitable process of adjustment” inside an organization where people begin to think the same way. Michael Jennions calls it “publication bias,” the tendency of scientists to prefer positive data. This is what statistician Theodore Sterling discovered in 1959, that 97 percent of all published psychological studies with statistically significant data found the effect they were looking for.3 Insiders find ways to confirm their preferred hypothesis, disregarding what they don’t want to see.

The solution is bringing in the outside view, what Stephen Sample calls “contrarian leadership.”4 During his tenure as President of the University of Southern California, Sample saw USC rise 25 points in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, going from 51st in 1991 to 26th in 2008. This was largely attributed to hiring a “Mr. Outside” to serve at the board level. This is a move that increasing numbers of companies are making.

Quirky is a manufacturing company that builds products dreamed up by a global throng of amateur inventors. It believes opening up challenges to a diverse group of people is powerful. “Big companies can’t invent that well,” says founder Ben Kaufman. “They know too much.”5 He says outsiders often present the most interesting answers to complex problems, not despite their lack of expertise, but because of it. Quirky is an example of what Erik Brynjolfsson, a management professor at MIT, and Andrew McAfee, call “combinatorial innovation.” The inside and outside view is combined.

This is the same finding of Karim Lakhani and Lars Bo Jeppesen. In studying Innocentive, an online clearinghouse for unanswered questions in science and other fields, they discovered that the people most likely to solve the most complex problems weren’t professionals in the discipline in question. In fact, being an expert in an area distinct from the field of the challenge was a “statistically significant predictor” of success. The secret ingredient was what Lakhani, a professor at Harvard, calls “interdisciplinary expertise” – the ability to draw connections between one subject and another. This called for the borderline expert, the outsider, who approaches the answer from an unusual angle. “Ninety to 95 percent of the time, the individual who comes up with the awarded solution does not have the background and résumé of someone you would hire to solve the problem,” says Alph Bingham, Innocentive’s founder and former CEO. “You have to be close enough to comprehend the technical aspects, but not so close that you are biased by the way those immersed in the problem tend to think.”

Recent findings in neuroscience support this conclusion. Iain McGilchrist, a researcher in neuroimaging, says the left hemisphere looks for “the single solution” that seems to best fit what it “already knows – its process is predictive.”6 It’s the inside view. It is only in the right hemisphere that we consider other options. It’s the outside view. “It alone can bring us something other that what we already know.” The right hemisphere actively watches for discrepancies, acting “more like a devil’s advocate.” McGilchrist says the right hemisphere is “prophetic.” The central theme of his book is that Western society is dominated by left hemisphere thinking, to the exclusion of the right. Organizations – and this includes the church – are not-for-prophet enterprises.

This inside/outside dynamic explains the success of King Arthur’s Roundtable. Outside the table, behind Arthur, stood Merlin, the wise sage. Seated to Arthur’s right was Dagonet, the court jester, or devil’s advocate. Both played the role of Mr. Outside.

Twenty years ago, Henry Mintzberg unsettled the business world by claiming that most strategic planning is ineffective. The problem was what he called “right-handed planners.”7 Since the brain is “contralateral” (the left hemisphere controls the right side of the body while the right hemisphere controls the left), Mintzberg was saying so-called “innovative” planning involves only the left hemisphere. It’s only Mr. Inside. The lesson we’re learning is that innovation is not an inside job. Nor it is episodic.

Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble, two professors at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, say innovative companies build “dedicated innovation machines.”8 They spend the necessary bucks to bring in leaders – women or men – who provide the outside view by facilitating regular innovation labs. This completes the backfield, increasing the likelihood that the organization will be as innovative as Army Coach Earl Blaik’s teams were in the 40s.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

1 Clayton M. Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book That Will Change the Way You Do Business (New York: HarperCollins, 2000)
2 Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011), pp. 245-254.
3 Jonah Lehrer, “The Truth Wears Off,” The New Yorker, December 13, 2011, pp. 52-57.
4 Steven B. Sample, The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership (San Francisco: Jossey–Bass), 2001.
5 Derek Thompson, “Finding the Next Edison.” The Atlantic, January/February 2014.
6 Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).
7 Henry Mintzberg, The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), p. 393.
8 “The innovation machine.” The Economist, August 28, 2010, p. 57.


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  1. It often seems like the practice of “returning authority” would mean that the outsider would defer to the insider. Yet, here you seem to offer why that isn’t a good course. Can you help me get through this unnecessary distinction?

  2. Brody: Good question. Actually, “returning authority” means locating who is the best expert in a given situation, the one with the most experience. When it comes to sustaining technologies, insiders are the best authorities. When it comes to disrupting, the first step in innovating, outsiders are the best authorities.

  3. No, you have it backwards. It’s fostering desire among insiders for genuine innovation. They run institutions and have to see innovation as not an inside job. Insiders have to desire to include the outside view, since disruption yields innovation.

  4. The notion of “outsiders” tending to break paradigms and foster new discoveries and insights was addressed in the early 1960s by Thomas Kuhn in his groundbreaking work, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”.

    His conclusions helped me recognize much of the publication bias in much of modern science, particularly evolutionary biology and climate science.

  5. I agree with you that innovation is best developed by an outside source, there are all kinds of benefits there clearly helpful.
    You seem to be referring to the virtue of open-mindedness in your effort to promote innovation. But then it can’t be because in your explanation of neuroscience and it’s “findings”, virtues are nothing more than (from the right side) a certain arrangement of neurons and electrons firing in specific order. Alvin Plantinga deals with this argument in his book “Where the conflict really lies”. He also had a great interview in the New York Times a few weeks ago, if you google his name and the Times it appears at the top. This mainstream naturalistic Neuroscience is very lacking in serious thought.
    A different point – I don’t think that analytical and rationally lead thinking (left brain) is a western thing, it is rather a human thing. I think that Neuroscience would have to agree with that also.
    Curious to your response and thinking!

  6. Mark:

    Since you asked, I’m only advocating for the kind of open-mindedness that Chesterton encouraged – one that clamps down on something solid. However, regarding your concerns about naturalism, I think you’re confusing correlation with causation. I’m suggesting that recent findings from neuroscience correlate with the need for inside and outside voices. I’m not saying you have to “buy” any naturalistic basis or causation to hold to this view, as scripture essentially says the same thing.

    What Clayton Christensen describe as the dynamic of disruption producing innovation, the Bible calls “take and eat.” Take causes death, very disruptive to the plant, but leads to life. Disruption renews. I agree that many neuroscientist are naturalists, but that doesn’t deny solid research and findings.

    Finally, good neuroscience doesn’t teach that only the left hemisphere is rational. it’s a Western thing that thinking starts in the left hemisphere, which uses that part of language to “pin” things down. But figuring out what’s important to “pin” down is a function of the right, the outside voice. I’ll have more to say about this next week.

  7. Brody:

    The more I read your second comment, the more I see that I read you incorrectly. My bad. You’re correct – foster desires among insiders for disruption. The reason that’s difficult is that insiders rule the roost in institutions. They’ve got a good gig – so why upset the apple cart?

    Again, my apologies.

  8. I really wish I had more time regarding this topic but only a couple thoughts because I don’t want to distract from your main point of this article (outside brings innovation) which I have no issue with but just a response to your above thought.

    Naturalism and good scientific information are 2 separate things. John Polkinghorne once said in a lecture I heard -there are no good or individual scientific facts but worldviews that give interpretation to scientific facts. In other words scientific facts and naturalism are two different things, scientific facts say nothing by themselves – I think he had something there.

    Correlation and causation are two independent properties, agreed. Causation determines the ontological properties of a thing and correlation the existential or pragmatical function of a thing. My argument, if correct, was a causation argument. It seems the case that causation needs to be correctly identified before we can correlate, otherwise what are we correlating to?

    Please find these concerns respectfully! I look forward to finding time in reading next weeks article!

  9. Mark:

    I agree entirely with your last set of comments. Maybe I misread you (seem to be doing some of that today!). It sounded like you were throwing the baby out with the bath water – that if neuroscientists base their conclusions on naturalism then their research must be tainted. I agree that facts are inert objects, subject to metaphysical assumptions (i.e., world views) that frame the facts and give them meaning. I too have listened to Polkinghorne discuss this topic and he’s right.

  10. Isn’t the dynamic more productive when the individual is encouraged to be reflective/feedback on there own context, which in turns encourages groups etc to do the same. Each of us learning to honestly to reflect back to ourselves and others. Pain is a clear indicator of conflict. The complaints and technical department can impart alot of wisdom.
    Those on the front line know where the rubber hits the road. Creation around us shows the innovation that is possible, if we re-engage the aesthetic nature, adjusting from the constructs and constraints of models and technology. Individuals in community, not clones in boxes or clowns in a circus.For life is more than a mechanism or entertainment.
    Renovation has a place alongside innovation.
    Each generation has a part to play. Noting soccer, Aussie rules, Gaelic rules, rugby.
    Context and position as well as focus can effect persoective.
    Thanks for another excercise for both sides of the brain Mike.
    Remembering Apostles, prophets, teachers, pastors, evangelists is a recommended balance from inside to outside. Women at the well provoke Living Water for the thirsty.

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