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0 for 16: Reflections on Corporate R&D(1)



I worked as a research scientist for a major French industrial company for 16 years. In that time and since my retirement not one new product or service that I worked on has made it to the market. It is not just me, this was true for my particular research & development (R&D) group in total. This occurred in spite of the fact that this company is very well respected, well run, and profitable. This article recounts my reflections on these incongruent facts.

In this article I will not name the company nor any person, but it is easy enough to determine the company by reviewing my research record (Ira M. Katz (‪Ira Katz – ‪Google Scholar). I will follow this practice here to emphasize the general nature of my reflections that I believe apply beyond this one organization.

The first important point to grasp is the size of my company, tens of billions in sales, tens of thousands of employees, mainly based in France, but with major operations, including R&D, spread around the world. While it is a traditional company, the families of the founders are still involved in the management, it is run as a thoroughly modern company. In short, the company is run by a technocratic (but I will explain, not necessarily technical) and bureaucratic elite. In the essay Will The West Eat Itself? – by Aurelien (, the modern bureaucratic way of thinking is explained.

“This kind of thinking values surface novelty as a release from boredom, but cannot really produce new ideas: it therefore turns to derivatives of existing ones. It reacts to setbacks by doing the same thing again but more. Its motto when things go wrong is “do it again:” it never asks if it should be doing something else. It adds controls, oversight, layers of supervision and management, because it cannot conceive of a big picture. It’s always the next reorganisation, the next layer of oversight, that will solve the problem. And the next and the next. It deals with corruption, for example, about which I’ve recently written, by producing more and more regulations and more and more layers of control and oversight. The actual solution, a culture of honesty, can’t be measured and reported on, and only exists as an overall, right-brain concept.”

I had the exceptional experience of participating in several Mises Circle-like seminars in Paris organized by Guido Hulsmann with his students and other invited guests. One (in a rather shabby modern university building proximal to the Pantheon) began by the reading of a paper on the characteristics of government bureaucracy by one of the students. My comment was that I saw similar behavior in my company everyday. For example, our group went through some kind of reorganization in about three-year intervals.

Aurelian mentions a “right-brain concept.” This alludes to the brilliant expositions by Iain McGhilcrist on human understanding of reality by the two hemispheres of the brain. Here is an introductory passage in the capstone chef-oeuvre of his career The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World. (In quotes from this book I have removed numbered references to notes.)

“We have been seriously misled, I believe, because we have depended on that aspect of our brains that is most adept at manipulating the world in order to bend it to our purposes. The brain is, importantly, divided into two hemispheres: you could say, to sum up a vastly complex matter in a phrase, that the brain’s left hemisphere is designed to help us ap-prehend – and thus manipulate – the world; the right hemisphere to com-prehend it – see it all for what it is. The problem is that the very brain mechanisms which succeed in simplifying the world so as to subject it to our control militate against a true understanding of it. Meanwhile, compounding the problem, we take the success we have in manipulating it as proof that we understand it. But that is a logical error: to exert power over something requires us only to know what happens when we pull the levers, press the button, or utter the spell. The fallacy is memorialised in the myth of the sorcerer’s apprentice. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that while we have succeeded in coercing the world to our will to an extent unimaginable even a few generations ago, we have at the same time wrought havoc on that world precisely because we have not understood it.”

Notwithstanding the relevance of McGhilcrist’s brain hemisphere argument, he hits the mark on his descriptions of the modern, managerial approach. For example, in a meeting presenting to a big boss from headquarters (siège or seat in French) my colleague explained the potential of several research avenues, the boss responded by noting that this was all very interesting but we simply need the return on investment to make a decision. My thought was if decisions are simply made based on a very uncertain metric, why do we need big bosses at all?! In this way real innovation was always, in the end, stifled. As McGhilcrist further notes,

“Creativity is predicated on uncertainty. Strive for certainty and you kill creativity. As Smolin [Lee Smolin, a theoretical physicist who wrote The Trouble with Physics] says: On a personal level, to think in time is to accept the uncertainty of life as the necessary price of being alive. To rebel against the precariousness of life, to reject uncertainty, to adopt a zero tolerance to risk, to imagine that life can be organised to completely eliminate danger, is to think outside time. To be human is to live suspended between danger and opportunity.”

McGhicrist has more to say on the modern managerial culture.

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