Why crazy ideas are critical: A Nobel-winning chemist's view

August 30, 2012: 11:53 AM ET

Roald Hoffmann talks to Fortune about the benefits of accepting complexity and how to make sure your team feels comfortable with offering seemingly batty ideas.

FORTUNE -- Nobel-prize winning chemist Roald Hoffmann has had anything but a simple path to success. He was born in Poland, and survived the Nazi labor camps. He came to America at the age of 12, attended the prestigious Stuyvesant High School in New York, then Columbia, then Harvard.

Hoffmann received a Nobel in Chemistry in 1981 at the age of 44, but certainly didn't rest on his laurels. The 75-year-old scientist has advised over 200 graduate students, Ph.D.s, and postdocs, taught introductory chemistry at Cornell, co-authored plays, and published poetry. Currently, he helps run a science and performance event on the second Sunday of every month at the Cornelia Street cafe in New York. He recently talked to Fortune about leadership, molecules, and the psychology of enabling crazy ideas. Here is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Fortune: You can think of your work as a kind of business, can you not?

Roald Hoffmann: Yes, so you can do an economic input-output analysis of what I do. Our product is 560 scientific papers plus countless talks and other things, but really the papers. I am in the business of making ideas and they're not patentable nor copy-writable nor anything. Interesting. Input is perhaps $200,000 - $300,000 per-year of research funds to employees and co-workers and the output is 560 scientific papers.

And that requires some of the management skills you see in business?

In science, almost all the papers we publish are written together with several people in research groups. But within that research group, somehow, we have mastered the ethics of collaboration.

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There's something about the way that the group leader tells people that an idea made by one of the other people in the group is not good or not right. The criticism is made in a way which allows the person, first of all, to come up with further evidence, but more importantly, doesn't shake them so that they're afraid of making another idea.

It is a fine line. And probably in management school, one tries to teach the psychological skills by which you create a situation where people aren't afraid to come out with crazy ideas. More

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