Power is originality's best friend

Dec 19 2007 by Max McKeown Print This Article

In 1779, Gilbert Blane graduated as a doctor from Edinburgh and Glasgow Medical Schools and set about securing introductions to the most important people in London society.

His persistence led to an invitation from Admiral Rodney of the British Fleet in the West Indies to accompany him, first as his personal physician and then, after impressing the Admiral with his coolness in adversity, as Physician to the Fleet during the American War of Independence.

On taking up his new post, it became apparent to Blane that the fleet had one overwhelming health problem. Scurvy had killed nearly 1,600 men in just one calendar year – over one in 10 of the fleet's 12,000 sailors.

Looking for a solution, Blane found an account of experiments carried out by Dr James Lind some thirty years previously while he was serving as surgeon on HMS Salisbury.

Lind had selected twelve men suffering from the effects of scurvy - loose teeth, bleeding gums, haemorrhages - and divided them into six pairs. Each pair was given one of the following additions to their usual diet: cider, elixir vitriol, seawater, garlic, mustard, horseradish, vinegar, and citrus fruit.

Lind's conclusion was that "oranges and lemons were the most effectual remedies". Exactly the same conclusion, in fact, that English sea captain James Lancaster had arrived at in similar circumstances some 150 years earlier, in 1601.

Thanks to a serving of three teaspoonfuls of lemon juice everyday to sailors on one of his four ships travelling to India, the crew remained healthy. In contrast, 110 out of 278 sailors on the other three ships died from scurvy – a death-rate of almost 40 per cent.

But it was Blane, whose position as Physician to the Fleet gave him influence, access and friends in high places - who was able to gain the support of Admiral Rodney and thus persuade the Admiralty that preventive medicine was the answer to the scourge of scurvy.

As Stephen Bown puts it in his book "Scurvy: How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail", Blane "was firmly aware of his exalted place in the social hierarchy, disdainful of those beneath him, and sycophantic to those above him. Even in his scientific papers he name-drops, to let others know of his acquaintance with higher powers [...] with the unquestioned support of Admiral Rodney he had to be obeyed."

What's more, Blane understood how to package his recommendations in way that was likely to gain support.

For example, he suggested that "50 oranges or lemons might be considered as a hand (or extra sailor) to the Fleet". In other words, rather than being forced to have crews that were twice as large as really necessary so that there were enough sailors to replace those who died, the navy could save money and manpower simply by providing crews with fruit - something that was officially adopted by the Admiralty in 1795

But it ought not to be a surprise that Lancaster and Lind's discoveries were ignored while Blane's recommendations were followed so successfully. Because all animals, including humans, rely on authority for direction and so tend to ignore the advice of unknowns.

As psychologist Robert Cialdini argues: "We are not the only species to give single-minded deference to those in authority positions. In monkey colonies, where rigid dominance hierarchies exists, beneficial innovations (for example using a stick to bring food into a cage) do not spread quickly through the group unless they are taught first to dominant animal. When a lower animal is taught the new concept first, the rest of the colony remains mostly oblivious to its value."

In one experiment, new tastes were introduced to two troops of Japanese monkeys. In the first, caramels were given to monkeys low on the status ladder and after 18 months half of the colony had acquired a liking for the new taste. But in the second group, the leader was given the new food – wheat – and within just four hours the whole colony was eating it.

So the support of powerful people is vital to promoting your ideas and covering your back.

Consider what happened to Ken Kutaragi, a Sony engineer who decided that games consoles were the future and secretly designed a groundbreaking computer audio chip for their competitors' new product – the Nintendo NES (or Famicom).

When executives at Sony found out about this they demanded Kutaragi's head. But he was rescued by Norio Ohga, Sony's CEO, who viewed the maverick engineer as his protégé.

Ohga approved the project retrospectively and allowed the chip to be completed. But he then went further, brokering another deal in the face of considerable opposition from within Sony to produce a product that would integrate Sony's CD technology with Nintendo's proposed 'Play Station' console.

All well and good – until Nintendo dropped a public bombshell at the 1989 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, announcing that they were abandoning the Play Station project to work with European electronics giant, Philips.

With both Kutaragi's and his career in the balance, Ohga came to the rescue, in the words of one commentator, "turning Kutaragi's pumpkin into a fine chariot".

The result? The PlayStation project went ahead without Nintendo and was eventually re-launched as the PS One - selling more than 100 million units. None of which would have happened without the combination of the channelled power of an advocate allied to the unfettered curiosity of an innovator.

Similarly, Blane understood that personal influence with men of power is as important to social change as the content of any particular scientific discovery – an insight which directly saved millions of lives.

The lesson for would-be innovators is clear. Powerful people need ideas. And most ideas need powerful people to facilitate, legitimise, popularise, and even legislate for their adoption.

Sure, ideas will still fail with powerful support, but very few ideas will succeed without it.

Blane, by the way, carried on innovating, finding a vaccine for smallpox before he died in 1834, laden with honours. And who can begrudge him?

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About The Author

Max McKeown
Max McKeown

Max McKeown works as a strategic adviser for four of the five most admired companies in the world. He is a well-known speaker on subjects including innovation and competitive advantage. His latest book, #NOW: The Surprising Truth About the Power of Now, was published in July 2016.