Innovation Insights from Teddy Roosevelt

Innovation Insights from Teddy RooseveltSometimes one stumbles across insights from unexpected places.  Most of the books I have read recently have fallen into the category of histories of other countries (Laos, China, Singapore, Myanmar, Colombia) or studies of how things work (buildings, bridges, rivers, archaeology).  I gravitate towards these subject areas because they are of great interest to me in my current and future travels.  As I was preparing for my next trip, I finished one book and was about to start another tome, but did not want to open one of the books I had already packed for my trip.  Scanning my bookshelf, I noticed a large hardcover book that I had not read for nearly two years –The Bully Pulpit by the renowned presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.  The subject matter, U.S. Presidents, interests me from time to time but I have not spent much time in this genre lately.  Moreover, this lengthy book is not the type that I would not take on a trip due to size and weight (I do not enjoy the e-book reading experience, so I always travel with physical books).  As Teddy Roosevelt has always fascinated me, I decided to begin reading Goodwin’s work.

Just a few pages into the book, something quite interesting happened.  I read a line about Teddy Roosevelt’s experiences as a young boy at Oyster Bay, his home on Long Island that is now a National Park.  The comment came from one of Teddy’s friends, Fanny Smith.  Fanny, a frequent visitor to Oyster Bay, recalled that the typical sojourn to Oyster Bay involved “riding, driving, boating, picknicking, games and verse-writing – no day was long enough” [emphasis added].  Last summer I visited Roosevelt’s longtime home at Oyster Bay – which he later named Sagamore Hill – and marveled at the home and surrounding landscape.

Roosevelt’s Home at Sagamore Hill

We typically think of a home near the water as sitting on flat land, but Sagamore Hill, as the name implies, is quite hilly.  The house is on a relatively narrow neck of land, known as Cove Neck, with Cold Spring Harbor on one side and Oyster Bay Harbor on the other.  By situating the house on top of a hill on the land, Roosevelt could see the water in Oyster Bay and capture cool breezes that blew across the land between the two bodies of water.  On the other side, the path from the house down to the Cold Spring Harbor waterfront wound through a hilly, tree-covered terrain that certainly was full of adventure for the young (and old) Teddy Roosevelt.

Fanny Smith’s line, as relayed by Goodwin, struck me as the most succinct description of the entire area in terms of how a young person would experience the place – “no day was long enough.”  I closed my eyes and could see the landscape at Sagamore Hill and imagined all the things that the children would do on a warm summer day and how they certainly would have never wanted each day to come to an end.  This led me to think about how experiences in Roosevelt’s formative years may have helped influence the great achievements of his lifetime.  Inevitably my thinking evolved into a focus on innovation and how these same formative elements, which did so much for Roosevelt, could also provide guidance for the modern innovator.

The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth

The image we have today of Teddy Roosevelt is of a powerful figure astride his horse, leading a charge of the Rough Riders up San Juan and Kettle Hills in Cuba in the Spanish-American War.  His name conjures up images of toughness, and he is well-known for delivering an entire political speech after being shot by an assassin.  Yet this was not always the case.  By his own admission, as a child Roosevelt was “a sicky and timid boy” and “a wretched mite.”  He suffered from a series of ailments including dangerous asthma attacks that often left him gasping for air.  According to his younger sister Corrine, “Roosevelt, whose name later became the synonym of virile health and vigor, was a fragile, patient sufferer in those early days of the nursery.”  When he returned as a hero after the Spanish-American War, he told journalists that although he felt bad for his comrades who had been wounded in the war, he himself felt “as big and strong as a bull moose.”

Innovation Insight – As innovators keep track of their ideas or projects, there always seems to be one or two projects that, whatever scoring method one uses to prioritize work, seem to end up at the bottom of the list.  This may be because the initiative has a low potential return on investment, or perhaps a low probability of success.  Alternatively, a low-ranking idea may be one that has few sponsors and seems to be far off the beaten path of other work efforts one is leading.  The lesson of the young Teddy Roosevelt suggests that one should not summarily write off these projects just because, at some phase in their lifecycle, they seem to be weak compared to other initiatives.  It is possible that these weaker ideas, given changes in circumstances, could become among the stronger ideas in one’s portfolio.

Take Advantage of One’s Surroundings

At the Roosevelt’s summer retreat at Oyster Bay, the young Roosevelt developed his skills as a budding naturalist.  The woods around the home were teeming with wildlife, and Roosevelt engaged in many of the activities of the modern birdwatcher (tracking flight patterns, listening for certain songs, and looking for colors, plumage, and other characteristics of different species of birds).  He studied textbooks and learned Latin alongside his efforts to categories the birds he found.  With help from his father and other experts, he learned how to collect bird specimens and displayed them in his home in what he referred to as the “Roosevelt Museum of Natural History.”  On one of his overseas trips as a child to Egypt, he thrilled in the capturing of new species of birds that he encountered during a two-month journey along the Nile River.  When one tours the Sagamore Hill house today, one sees the results of

Wooded trail to the waterfront at Sagamore Hill

his work as a naturalist, though it should be noted that from a modern perspective, one tends to see the huge numbers of animals in his home as something contrary to the concept of conservation.  However, at the time, collecting and displaying species was seen as the proper activity of a naturalist and was not viewed in a negative manner.

Innovation Insight – Roosevelt benefitted from an upbringing that brought him into contact with multiple environments.  Although he spent most of his time in New York City, because of his family’s home on Long Island he was able to spend time in nature in ways that would prove useful later in his life.  From horseback riding to shooting to being comfortable in a natural setting, Roosevelt made the most of his time at Oyster Bay.  It is possible that he would not have become the strong, outdoors-oriented President that he ended up being had he spent all of his life in the city.  For the innovator, the parallel here is to look around oneself and determine what advantages one has that one might not immediately appreciate.  If one’s innovation team has resources with vast experience in a certain type of technology, then it might make sense to spend time exploring whether there are ways to apply that technology to solve a current problem.  In other words, one should think about areas to explore in innovation based on the strengths of one’s teams, even if those areas at first glance seem to be far outside the perceived scope of the innovation program.

A Different Kind of Education

When Roosevelt was ten years old, his family embarked on a 12-month journey through Europe, visiting England, Scotland, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and France.  This was part of his father’s idea that “a real education for his children would be acquired more easily through travel.”  Rather than sitting in a classroom hearing a teacher lecture about the War of the Roses, Goodwin notes, Roosevelt would have the opportunity to walk through the battlefield itself while reading on the subject.  Although Roosevelt professed to miss some of the contact with his friends at home, his diary entries from the period suggest that he greatly enjoyed this extended education abroad.  The family repeated the overseas sojourn four years later, traveling to Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Athens, Smyrna, Constantinople, and Germany.  In his autobiography, Roosevelt called out this trip in particular as “a really useful part of my education.”

Innovation Insight – Roosevelt’s father understood that while his son’s peers would be studying ancient Rome in textbooks, Teddy would be walking the streets of Rome at the same time as he was reading about Julius Caesar, and he believed that this more immersive approach would yield greater returns in the long run.  Even in the modern era of instantaneous communication, live webchats, virtual reality, and hosts of other means of keeping track of others around the globe, there still is not substitute for physically being in a place.  When an innovator is trying to find a new solution to a problem, or trying to understand better a challenge facing his or her organization, there is a great deal to be learned by reading about the problem but, in the end, there is no substitute for experiencing the situation in person.  This may mean that an innovator spends time on a factory floor assembly line, monitors calls at a call center, or visits a site that requires an engineering solution.

Reading is Fundamental

Roosevelt was a voracious reader of books, and this habit started at a young age.  During their 12-month trip to Europe, the family brought along a veritable library of books of fiction and non-fiction.  After only four months of the trip, Roosevelt and the other children announced to the family that they had already read 50 books.  In addition, Roosevelt’s father read famous works of literature and history aloud to the family to instigate discussion.  Roosevelt considered books to be “the greatest of companions,” and he continued reading nearly nonstop through his adult life.  In his job as New York City Police Commissioner, Roosevelt kept up this habit.  One journalist who interviewed Roosevelt in his office noted that no sooner had the previous appointment departed that Roosevelt picked up a book on the Sioux Indian tribes and began reading even though his next appointment, the journalist, had just arrived.  Roosevelt told the journalist that “[i]t is surprising how much reading a man can do in time usually wasted.”  William Taft, who succeeded Roosevelt as President in 1908, once remarked that Roosevelt “always carried a book with him to the Executive Office, and although there were but few intervals during the business hours, he made the most of them in his reading.”

Innovation Insight – With the pervasiveness of electronic media and the presumably shrinking attention spans of the modern era, people seem to be spending less time reading detailed articles.  However, it is possible that people are spending more time consuming the written word, albeit in a different form, such as social media.  Nevertheless, there is little question as to the value of reading in terms of its ability to deliver information to the mind of the reader.  Innovators thrive on information, and the more information one has about a given topic one is investigating, the more thorough that investigation will be.  Likewise, the more information one possesses, the more likely one is to be able to discern useful directions of inquiry, and potentially avoid pathways that would lead to suboptimal outcomes.  Although we spend a lot of time reading today, much of that reading is in short form messages, ranging from text messages, article summaries, or social media posts.  This is quite different from the longer-form text of books, and it is difficult to capture the complexity of an idea in short form.  As such, our digital reading today may miss out on the nuances of an argument, or an author may choose to omit information that is not absolutely critical to the argument.


Although Roosevelt’s father was pleased with his son’s academic progress, he still had concerns about his son’s lack of physical prowess.  Upon returning from their year in Europe, he said to his son: “you have the mind but you do not have the body, and without the help of the body the mind cannot go as far as it should.”  He continued by recommending that his son find a way to “make” his body, acknowledging that it is “hard drudgery to make one’s body, but I know you will do it.”  Roosevelt accepted the challenge and launched himself into a physical fitness regimen, including boxing, that would see him gradually increase his strength and leave behind, forever, his childhood of weakness.  Roosevelt’s strategy entailed recognizing his weaknesses, such as his timid nature, and confronting them head-on.  Roosevelt wrote that in his younger years, “[t]here were all kinds of things of which I was afraid at first . . . but by acting as if I was not afraid I gradually ceased to be afraid.”  One friend noted that Roosevelt “constantly forc[ed] himself to do the difficult or even the dangerous thing,” which allowed Roosevelt to make courage a “matter of habit” rather than something that is rare.

As Roosevelt reached adulthood and worked in the politically challenging role of New York City Police Commissioner, he had the chance to demonstrate this lesson that he had learned at a young age.  As Commissioner he managed to tread on so many toes that his opponents organized a large parade in Manhattan to protest his policies.  The parade organizers mockingly invited him to participate and he surprised them by accepting the invitation and joining in the festivities, which consisted of anti-Roosevelt parade floats moving along streets lined with 150,000 spectators.  Roosevelt laughed heartily at many of the floats and asked one participant if he could keep as a funny souvenir the anti-Roosevelt banner they were carrying.  By confronting his enemies head on, he showed a great sense of humor and disarmed those who had sought to mock him.

Innovation Insight – One of the most difficult elements of being an innovator is constantly having to work in new areas.  Rather than continuously executing the same process over and over, as would be the case with some jobs, the innovator by definition is charged with creating things that are new and working them to brand new outcomes.  While innovators may leverage consistent processes in doing this work, the subject matter is almost always novel.  Moreover, innovators are usually tasked with solving the toughest challenges.  After all, if there were an easy solution to a problem , it is likely that someone working on that challenge in the past would have already found it.

The advice from Roosevelt in this area would be to confront one’s challenges in a direct manner.  In other words, an innovator should not be afraid to move quickly into an area where he or she does not have vast experience.  The innovator may do a lot of reading beforehand to get up to speed on the target area, but he or she will almost never be the person in the room with the most experience or knowledge of a particular topic.  Beyond knowledge and subject matter expertise, the innovator should also be cognizant of specific skillsets that he or she lacks (such as workshop facilitation or financial analysis), and work hard to develop those, just as Roosevelt worked relentlessly on his physical fitness.

Keep the Momentum

During their second overseas trip, the Roosevelt family spent an extended period of time in Germany.  Their days in Germany were focused on learning, and the children spent six hours of each day studying the German language, literature, music, and art.  Roosevelt concluded that the six hours were not enough, so he asked their tutor to extend the lessons further.  His siblings, particularly his younger brother Elliott, were not thrilled with having to work “harder than ever” in their lives.

Innovation Insight – One is often faced with the question of knowing how much of something is enough.  Too much idleness leaves a mind restless and underemployed, while too much intense focus on a topic renders it difficult for one to gain perspective on a topic.  In the case of Roosevelt in Germany, his request to spend more than six hours a day on his studies suggests that, even at a young age, he understood the importance of this structured education, even as he had completed many amazing months traveling around the Middle East.  It is possible that he was hungry for knowledge, having been inspired by his time visiting the great countries of the region.  It is also possible that he understood the importance of momentum, for having too many breaks in periods of focus on a topic might make it more difficult to resume one’s efforts at understanding that topic.  For the innovator, the lesson here is to think about momentum in work efforts to the extent that one tries to balance between diving deeply into a subject matter and wandering too far afield in spending time on other topics or distractions.

Question Authority

When Roosevelt entered Harvard, the general assumption concerning classroom teaching was that the students were in the room to listen and the professor was there to speak.  Students at the time rarely interrupted the flow of brilliant thoughts emanating from the professor.  Yet, according to one classmate, Roosevelt interrupted his professors “again and again.”  Roosevelt would ask questions of the professor and request clarifications on key points.  This led one professor to the point of frustration where he said “[n]ow look here, Roosevelt, let me talk [as] I’m running this course.”

Innovation Insight – Innovators are not students who sit in the back of the classroom and dutifully take notes to document almost verbatim the words they hear from their professor.  Although it is important for innovators to absorb and capture new information from experts, they should also keep their minds active while learning, probing different angles and asking questions where appropriate to obtain additional information.  There is a fine line between asking instructive questions and annoying one’s colleagues, and an innovator should be able to toe this line in group sessions.

Power of Concentration

According to friends and colleagues, Roosevelt possessed throughout his life an amazing ability to concentrate.  Referring to his propensity to read snippets of books in any small period of free time, Charles Washburn, one of Roosevelt’s Harvard classmates, noted that if Roosevelt were reading, “the house might fall about his head, and he could not be diverted.”  Other classmates recalled that Roosevelt would burst into their room in the midst of a conversation but, instead of joining in the discussion, would retreat to a corner and dive into a book “as if seated alone on a tree stump in the middle of the forest.”  This characteristic continued into his presidency.  The reporter Oscar King once observed that Roosevelt was able to carry on a conversation while sorting through his mail.  King wrote that Roosevelt “would glance over a letter, make an addition or alteration with his pen, and sign his name at the same time that he was keeping up a steady fire of talk about whatever subject happened to be under discussion.”

Innovation Insight – In the cacophony of today’s world of instant and ubiquitous communications, the ability to concentrate deeply on a specific topic is a skill that may be underrated in terms of its value.  Innovators need this skill, perhaps more so than other workers, because of the intensity of thought required to solve the challenges we face in our typical workday.  Coming up with a solution to a problem that has vexed an organization for months or even years requires the innovator to focus on that problem and synthesize data from various sources in a way that is highly unlikely to be achieved without a great deal of concentration.  Just as Roosevelt’s powers of concentration enabled him to continue learning and absorbing information at all times, so, too, should an innovator leverage focus and concentration to dial in intensively on examining and solving innovation challenges.

Prepare Far Ahead

Unlike some powerful figures in history, Roosevelt was not a perpetual procrastinator.  Rather, he demonstrated a lifelong propensity to start and finish work assignments early.  According to Roosevelt, completing a task early instead of waiting until the last minute enabled him to “free his mind” from fretting about the work effort and improved his ability to think clearly and with fresh ideas about a topic.  In one instance, Roosevelt knew he had to deliver a speech at Oxford University after a yearlong post-presidency trip to Africa.  Roosevelt endeavored to write a long draft of the speech in the final months of his presidency, ensuring that he did not face a great work effort upon his return.

Taft noticed this habit in his interactions with Roosevelt, noting that he “never knew a man who worked as far in advance of what was to be done.”  Indeed, this habit of early planning worked to the benefit of the entire country when Roosevelt, as Navy Secretary, sent a Naval Squadron to Hong Kong many months before hostilities broke out with Spain over Cuba.  This act effectively bottled up the Spanish fleet in Asia and made it easier for the US to win the Spanish American War in 1898.  As President, Roosevelt worked far in advance on his annual message to Congress and, according to journalists, he “made more progress in the preparation of his message to Congress than any of his predecessors ever did so far in advance.”

Innovation Insight – Like the power of concentration, the concept of starting and completing work efforts well in advance is a lost art in today’s society.  It may be that the speed at which one can produce new content (documents via word processing, electronic slide presentations, fast review of content via email, global ‘follow the sun’ workforces) has made us less likely to think we need to plan out work efforts far in advance.  It may also be that the sheer volume of work in the modern workplace renders early planning and completion of major projects impossible.  That being said, there is still value to the notion that by starting a project early and revisiting it frequently without the stress of a rapidly approaching completion date hanging over one’s head, an innovator may be more likely to develop clear and creative thoughts about a subject than would be the case otherwise.

Naturalist as a Career but a Hobby

Having spent so much of his childhood fascinated by nature, Roosevelt’s inclination was to pursue the career of naturalist.  He loved spending time outdoors and collecting specimens of flora and fauna to add to his personal “Roosevelt Museum of Natural History.”  Yet as he completed his college work, he had to weigh the life of a naturalist, which would have required many years of study abroad followed by prospects of a low income to support his future family (he had recently become engaged to be married), against a more traditional vocation, such as the law.  Roosevelt ultimately decided to put his love for nature on the sidelines and enroll at Columbia Law School.  According to one of his friends, “[n]atural history was to remain a genuine avocation [for Roosevelt], but it never loomed again as a feasible career.”

Innovation Insight – Young adults throughout history have faced the challenge of avocation (a hobby which one presumably enjoys doing) versus vocation (a career which one presumably does not enjoy doing).  Roosevelt faced this squarely and although his family was of means, he nonetheless chose the more traditional route.  As innovators, we face this dilemma in a slightly different manner.  When an innovator assesses his or her portfolio, one typically has a few ideas or projects that one favors more than the others.  Sometimes referred to as a “pet” project, this may be an idea that is very exciting to pursue but that may have limited utility for the organization or customer.  This may be a radically new technology that is far off in the future in teams of feasibility or would require investments that the organization is unlikely to make.  It is difficult to abandon these projects, especially if the projects remaining in the portfolio are less interesting.

Yet the innovator must make difficult decisions about how to proceed, which often requires abandoning a favored project.  The insight from Roosevelt is that the pursuit of a more traditional pathway does not preclude continued interest in the “pet” project.  Roosevelt remained a committed naturalist throughout his life, embarking on strenuous expeditions to Africa and Brazil after his presidency.  For the innovator, the parallel would be continuing to read up on a topic even if it fell out of the innovation portfolio.  After all, in the long run, that idea might return to the forefront.

What Law is vs Ought to Be

Roosevelt proved to be a diligent and industrious student at Columbia Law School.  According to Goodwin, his professors remarked on his “deft grasp of materials” and he left behind over 1,000 pages of detailed notes showing his intense study of the subject.  Yet in his first year at Law School, he reached a revelation concerning the law that would accompany him throughout his political career.  Roosevelt in his journal stated that “some of the teaching of the law books and of the classroom seemed to me to be against justice [. . . and that] we are concerned with [the] question of what law is, not what it ought to be.”  This normative approach to the law would color his progressive political leanings later in his lifetime.

Innovation Insight – The concept of “is” versus “ought” can serve a useful purpose for the innovator.  Innovation is the realm of what ought to be, not what is.  We often forget the normative aspects of our work when we are studying a problem to find new solutions.  We sometimes get bogged down around the detailed metrics of a problem, or the business case for a new solution.  Innovators should always remind their colleagues that a good innovation to solve a problem should answer the question of what “ought” to be.  The realm of what “is” can be more easily ascribed to the current process or issue.  The young Roosevelt looked at the study of law and immediately flagged this dichotomy.  An innovation workshop facilitator could leverage this technique to divide easily ideas generated in brainstorming sessions by categorizing them as “is” or “ought.”  This can help solve the problem of participants focusing too much on the “as-is” process and not enough on the “to-be” process.

Following in the Footsteps

As a first-year law student, Roosevelt was following in the footsteps of his father, who had made quite a name for himself in New York.  Roosevelt joined the boards of several charitable organizations with the expectation that the “philanthropic work might prove fulfilling.”  After all, his father had devoted much of his life to similar work.  Yet Roosevelt realized that he was not well-suited to this type of work.  As he remarked to his friend, the journalist Jacob Riis, “I tried faithfully to do what father had done but I did it poorly . . . [I] joined this and that committee.”  “Father had done good work on so many;” he continued, “but in the end I found out that we have each to work in his own way to do our best.”

Innovation Insight – Transition and change are hallmarks of the modern corporate world and, indeed, play a similar role in the innovation realm.  Innovators often find themselves arriving at a new organization or working for a new client and inevitably that new group will have a history of previous innovation projects to consider.  Rare is the innovation program that starts with a blank slate, no matter how enviable such an operation might be.  While it is important to study these previous work efforts to understand what they entailed, an innovator should not fear moving in a new direction, even if the past work consisted of substantial investment of resources.  Roosevelt realized that he would not be successful trying to mimic the previous work that his father performed, and although abandoning that work must have been quite a momentous decision for a young man who so admired his father, in the end it proved to be the right decision for him.  Goodwin notes that Roosevelt in this situation “demonstrated a confidence and clear-minded assessment of his own interests and capabilities.”  The innovator, too, should take into consideration his or her own interests and capabilities when inheriting the previous work of others.

Climb Any Mountain

Roosevelt and his beloved Alice left on their honeymoon the day after law school classes ended in May of 1881.  Their honeymoon took them to Europe and consisted of visits to “castles, cathedrals, and museums, with sailing excursions on inland rivers and carriage rides through the Alps.”  At the Swiss Alpine town of Zermatt, Roosevelt decided to confront the challenge of climbing the famous, and dangerous, Matterhorn.  Accompanied by two guides, Roosevelt completed the arduous climb to the rocky summit.  Roosevelt told his sister that he was “anxious to go up it because it is reputed very difficult and a man who has been up it can fairly claim to have taken his degree as, at any rate, a subordinate kind of mountaineer.”

Innovation Insight – The innovator is often faced with challenges that require quick thinking.  Although these do not entail the danger of a rocky alpine ascent, they are nonetheless important milestones.  For instance, an innovator may be given the chance to make an elevator pitch for a project when he or she is given a brief audience with a key executive or potential project sponsor.  Likewise, an innovator may have a chance to present an idea to a large grouping of individuals who could influence the outcome of the project.  One always prefers to have lots of time to prepare for such occasions, but this is not always the case.  As such, the mindset of Roosevelt, whose decision to climb the Matterhorn on his honeymoon hues to the more modern expression of alpinists who seek to climb great peaks “because they are there,” demonstrates an aggressive mindset for the innovator.  At a political speech in Chicago in April 1900, Roosevelt noted that “if we shrink from the hard contests where men must win at hazard of their lives and at risk of all they hold dear, then the bolder and stronger peoples will pass us by, and win for themselves the domination of the world. . . . It is only through strife, through hard and dangerous endeavor, that we shall ultimately win the goal of true national greatness.”

Writing All the Time

Roosevelt was a prolific and successful author, completing 40 books during his lifetime.  He started his first major work as a senior at Harvard – The Naval War of 1812.  The inspiration for this work was a speech by a pro-British historian on the war and a realization that no one had written about the war from the American perspective.  Roosevelt continued work on the book in law school, and even kept spent time writing during his honeymoon (presumably to the chagrin of Alice), taking along with him trunks full of papers and other research materials so he could continue to make progress on the work while traveling across Europe.  He published the work after resuming his law school coursework in the Fall, receiving positive reviews from the New York Times.  Roosevelt would continue this technique of writing constantly throughout his lifetime, resulting in well-received works (books and articles) on topics including “hunting expeditions, meditations and natural histories on wolves, the grizzly bear, and the black-tailed deer, biographies of public figures, literary essays, commentaries on war and peace, and sketches of birds.”  Roosevelt even completed a “four-volume history of the American frontier [that] would win high praise from the eminent historian Frederick Jackson Turner.”

Innovation Insight – The innovator is often faced with the challenge of maintaining progress on multiple projects simultaneously.  One idea might be at an early stage in the pipeline and require nurturing, while another may be nearing the prototyping phase and require intensive physical work.  Roosevelt’s strategy, which led to his success as a writer, was simply to always be writing.  When he spent years on a ranch in the Dakota Territory after the death of his wife Alice, he wrote articles for Century magazine chronicling his experiences hunting on the Great Plains.  For the innovator, a parallel approach would be to always keep projects at hand no matter what phase they are in, and to always keep investing time and effort in them, even if that is only a small amount of time and energy.  A good innovation cadence would include frequent checkpoints on all projects on a regular basis, even if one’s inclination is to spend all of one’s time working on a project that seems to be at a critical phase or is receiving the most attention.  This small amount of work, invested on a regular basis over time, can result in substantial progress.

Everything is of Interest

One characteristic of Roosevelt that many commentators noticed was the breadth of his intellectual interests.  The French ambassador, Jean Jules Jusserand, observed that “[e]verything was of interest to him, […] people of today, people of yesterday, animals, minerals, stones, stars, the past, the future.”  The British statesman Viscount Lee noted that Roosevelt was “equally at home […w]hether the subject of the moment was political economy, the Greek drama, tropical fauna or flora, the Irish sagas, protective coloration in nature, metaphysics, the technique of football, or postfuturist painting.”  Roosevelt was the epitome of the polymath, demonstrating interest and expertise in a wide array of subjects.

Innovation Insight – Innovation is a field in which the range of ideas and projects upon which one might work is perhaps broader than that of other fields.  Innovators need to be able to demonstrate interest in, and learn quickly about, a vast set of ideas and concepts.  A single phrase uttered in a workshop could lead to the idea that serves as a breakthrough to solve a major problem, but such a breakthrough requires the deft and adroit handling of the innovator to make the connections between that idea and the resulting implementation of the idea.  As such, the innovator needs to be a quick study who is interested in any topic, as one never knows which pathway will lead to a breakthrough.

Turn Enemies into Friends

Early in his political career as the youngest member of the New York State Assembly, Roosevelt was accosted by three men in a bar outside of Albany who jeered at his appearance and lack of a winter coat.  Roosevelt tried to ignore them but eventually had to defend himself.  After placing his glasses in his pocket, he quickly dispatched two of the men to the floor, whereupon the third assailant gave up entirely.  After the fight, according to a journalist who witnessed the episode, Roosevelt surprised everyone by inviting the three men to join him in a glass of beer.  Later in his career, Roosevelt exhibited a similar willingness to forgive in his encounter with the journalist Richard Harding Davis.  Davis met Roosevelt on two occasions in the 1890s, and the second meeting resulted in a “caustic interchange” between the two men where Roosevelt stood up for his young country’s traditions and statesmen while Davis lauded the aristocratic British heritage and besmirched the United States.  Roosevelt could have written off the journalist, yet he found a way a few years later to cultivate Davis as a key reporter during the Spanish-American War.  Embedding Davis with the Rough Riders resulted in a series of stories that helped cement the importance of Roosevelt in the eyes of the American public and helped him become a national political figure.

Innovation Insight –Innovation can sometimes be a tense field of endeavor, especially when one is working on ideas that will force changes to existing organizations.  An innovator will inevitably run into friction at some level of the organization, whether in the form of a person whose organization will be impacted by a transformation or someone who had sponsored a previous work effort that the new innovation will replace.  In workshop settings, exchanges can sometimes become heated, particularly when jobs are at stake.  What the innovator must remember is that no matter what happens in a confrontational episode, it never serves one well to cultivate enemies in the workplace.  The Roosevelt model of cultivating alliances rather than enemies is a more appropriate example to emulate.

Crediting Antagonistic Views

As President, Roosevelt frequently utilized a rhetorical technique designed to disarm his adversaries.  This technique, which Goodwin characterizes as a “on the one hand, on the other” style of articulating antagonistic views, consisted of long, introductory sentences that stated one point followed by a “yet” or “but” preposition that would introduce an antagonistic clause that aligned more closely with Roosevelt’s actual views.  In one example from a speech before Congress, Roosevelt stated that “[t]he captains of industry who have driven the railway system across the continent, who have built up our commerce, who have developed out manufactures, have on the whole done great good to our people, […] yet it remains true . . . there have been abuses connected with the accumulation of wealth.”  This technique allowed Roosevelt to demonstrate a manner of “evenhandedness” in dealing with issues, yet also enabled him to state his true position.

Innovation Insight –The innovator in his or her career will spend a great deal of time in front of audiences.  The audiences can range from a small group in a presentation to executive sponsors, to a medium group in an ideation workshop, to a large group in a presentation to an entire team or organization.  The challenge for the innovator, besides the typical nervousness of public speaking, lies in the discrepancy of interest between the presenter and the audience.  The innovator, having invested blood, sweat, and tears working on a project or idea, will be extremely passionate about the topic at hand.  The audience, on the other hand, will almost certainly be less interested, even if the innovation will ultimately benefit them in the future.

The innovator can benefit from leveraging Roosevelt’s rhetorical technique as a way to establish a connection with the audience (by vocalizing support for what they have accomplished in the past in this area) then subsequently presenting the new idea.  This grounds the new idea in the foundation of the organization’s past operations, gives credit to those in the room who may have worked hard to develop the operations in the past, and presents the new idea in the context of the old.  One can contrast this approach to a less-nuanced perspective in which the innovator begins the presentation by jumping directly into the new idea and its potential benefits, implying a lack of value in the old operation.

Building on Failure

Roosevelt invested a large portion of his inherited fortune in a cattle ranch in the Badlands of Dakota Territory, working with his ranching partner Bill Merrifield.  Although he greatly enjoyed the time he spent working at the ranch, external forces resulted in this becoming one of the major failures of his life.  In 1886 the price of cattle dropped precipitously, threatening the viability of the operation.  Soon thereafter, an enormous blizzard decimated his herd, resulting in tremendous financial losses for Roosevelt.  Rather than brooding on his failure, Roosevelt considered this phase of his life to be among the most instructive.  He viewed his time on the frontier as “the most educational asset” of his life and “instrumental to his success in becoming president.”  According to Goodwin, he concluded that his time on the ranch allowed him “to interpret the spirit of the West,” which he used to build “a genuine national perspective foreign to most eastern politicians.”

Innovation Insight –Failure constantly stalks the work of the innovator.  Because one is working in an area that is brand new, there are few guideposts to follow.  Moreover, leveraging a new technology or new idea that is by definition not proven or tested can be a recipe for failure.  Yet failure is a key ingredient to the long-term success of the innovator if one has the mindset to learn from that failure.  The learning can be very tactical, such as changing a single step in a process or a single component in a device to address a previous failure in a test, or can be philosophical, in terms of changing an overall approach and leveraging that insight in future work.  Roosevelt demonstrated the latter in his experience with his failed cattle ranch.  Rather than brooding over the financial losses, which were quite significant, he looked to the positive aspects of the experience, which gave him the wisdom, insight, and character to become President of the United States.


Photos courtesy of the author

Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013).

Specific references from Goodwin:

Sickly and timid, p. 34.

Oyster Bay and naturalist, p. 38.

Tour of Europe, p. 38.

Read 50 novels, p. 39.

Make my body, p. 39.

Willpower and courage, p. 40.

Birds on the Nile, p. 40.

Extend lessons further, p. 41.

Useful part of education, p. 41.

Break into lectures, p. 42.

Always with a book, p. 43.

Power of concentration, p. 43.

Prepare far ahead, p. 43.

Naturalist as a hobby, p. 48.

Law is vs ought to be, p. 64.

Not following in father’s footsteps, p. 64.

Climbing Matterhorn, p. 65.

Writing all the time, p. 66.

Everything was of interest, p. 66.

Fight then buy ale, p. 67.

Century Magazine article, p. 111.

Failure of cattle ranch, p. 125.

Parade of derision, p. 210.

Early prep on Spanish-American War, p. 224.

Journalist Davis, p. 228.

Kettle Hill, p. 230.

Bill Moose, p. 231.

April Chicago speech, p. 261.

Multiple topics of interest, p. 286.

Multi-tasking, p. 287.

Progress in speech in advance, p. 293.

Crediting antagonistic views, p. 295.

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scott_bowdenScott Bowden is founder and CEO of Bridgeton West, LLC, a firm consultancy focusing on historical innovation. Scott previously worked for IBM Global Services and the Independent Research and Information Services Corporation. Scott has a PhD in Government/International Relations from Georgetown University.

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Scott Bowden

Scott Bowden is founder and CEO of Bridgeton West, LLC, a firm consultancy focusing on historical innovation. Scott previously worked for IBM Global Services and the Independent Research and Information Services Corporation. Scott has a PhD in Government/International Relations from Georgetown University.




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