What Dostoevsky Taught Me About Innovation

As Provost, I have oversight of the academic endeavor here at Wheaton, including 500 faculty and academic support staff, curriculum, and students. I graduated from Wheaton in 1983 and went on to NYU to get my doctorate in industrial / organizational (I/O) psychology, which is the study of behavior at work: job design, HR, teamwork, leadership and personal motivations. (This last one represents my area of interest, particularly focusing on the meaning of work.)

I knew my Wheaton College liberal arts education had totally taken hold of my view of life when, in my third year of graduate school, I attended a national conference for I/O graduate students. On the last day of the program, a group of distinguished professors in our field were scheduled to hold a panel discussion on the topic of what to study. I anticipated that these great minds would tell us what they were reading to shape their understanding of what it meant to be an I/O psychologist. Would they mention their favorite works? Would any of them draw insights from valued writers such as Milton, Shakespeare, Melville, Kant, Descartes, let alone Austen, Wolf or Angelou? I was hungry to know what they were studying besides the research for which they were famous.

But when it came time for the panelists to offer their wisdom, I was sorely let down. The panel did not address my ideal notion of what to study, but how graduate students should design their programs of research so that we would be marketable when we finished our dissertations. Their understanding of “studying” was much narrower than what I had grown accustomed to since my Wheaton days.

I was really hoping against hope that one of them would share my passion for Fyodor Dostoevsky and his thoughts about human frailty and inner motivations, especially in The Brothers Karamazov. In the novel, there are three brothers. The older two, Dimitri and Ivan, are engulfed in different ways by the empty promises of worldly desires, while the younger brother, Alyosia, is a novice monk who struggles against them (and his own doubts) as he seeks the love of God in a world in which he sees little evidence of grace. In the middle of the book, there is a famous passage, a poem really, known as “The Grand Inquisitor.” The lecherous older brother Ivan taunts Alyosha for his beliefs, castigating him with his own vision of the return of Christ. Only in Ivan’s version, Jesus shows up in sixteenth-century Spain, where after a few quiet miracles he is promptly arrested by the Grand Inquisitor, who lectures him on how, in his earthy life, he failed at opportunities for the church to thrive after his death, resurrection, and ascension. The Inquisitor tells Jesus that he should have given in to the Devil’s temptations and taken all earthly power as his own so that after his death the church could more easily seduce people with security instead of faith–the difficulty of a heavenly salvation promising freedom from sin. “Nothing,” the Grand Inquisitor adds, “has ever been more insupportable for a man and a human society than freedom.”

Ivan goes on spinning his tale, with the Grand Inquisitor recalling Satan’s taunt that if Christ was the son of God, he could turn a stone to bread and satisfy his hunger. As we know, Christ refused, replying that man should not live by bread, but by the word of God. The Grand Inquisitor retorts that most people are too weak to live by the word of God when they are hungry. Christ should have taken the bread and offered mankind freedom from hunger instead of freedom of choice. People would have preferred bread to freedom. And so, the Grand Inquisitor scolds Jesus:

You knew, you could not fail to know that peculiar secret of human nature, but you rejected the only absolute banner that was offered to you and that would have compelled everyone to bow down before you without dispute—the banner of earthly bread, and you rejected it in the name of freedom and the bread of heaven. Just take a look at what you did after that. And all of it again in the name of freedom! I tell you, man has no preoccupation more nagging than to find the person to whom that unhappy creature may surrender the gift of freedom with which he is born.

Hearing nothing meaningful that day from people I truly admired in other ways, I knew then that I wanted to use my graduate psychology degree to understand the basics of humanity as we go about our work. Do managers offer bread or freedom when they motivate employees? Does organizational culture infantize the very people who must act with courage day in and day out? How can leaders create authentic community where people can exercise their own agency? Do employees want empowerment or are they content with doing what they are told to do, living within the boundaries of expectations but anxious when presented with “other duties as assigned”? Simply put, do most employees just want bread?

This question is actually quite complicated. In the age of neuroscience, there are plenty of scientists who will tell you that the brain is so quick at processing information that much of our decision making happens before we are even aware of it. So, what is free will, what is the mind, what choices can people actually make? In the previous decade, when I was a professor, this would be the first question I asked my new doctoral students to wrestle with; I gave them a compendium of readings by neuroscientists, psychologists and philosophers and asked them to write their first doctoral paper on the question of whether people have free will. The consensus of my doctoral students was that people do have free will; however, they choose not to use it. Score one for the Grand Inquisitor.

I had asked similar questions of myself when composing my master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation: Under what conditions are people willing to step out and exercise the gift of their free will. Psychologist Barry Schwartz has pondered, in a much more elegant manner over the past thirty years, whether people are willing to exercise free will. The gist of his answer is yes. People are more likely to give up certitude, to take risks in the workplace, when they have a sense of competency about what they are doing. Our own Professor of Philosophy, Jay Wood, would also add that the practice of free will is more likely when people are aware of their own slothfulness. We think of slothfulness as laziness, but it is also being frozen by indecision. It’s not just the liberality of knowledge but knowing how to act on it – that is the hallmark of a fully orbed liberal arts education.

Practical wisdom, what the early church called prudence, is necessary to know how to choose the right thing to do at the right time, and to be able to act on that knowledge. Behaving with prudence inclines students to choose both proper ends and means to those ends. It is not being skilled merely in weighing costs and benefits, irrespective of the ends pursued. Prudence connects knowledge and reason with moral activity, shaping the answers to the question of how we ought to live in the world.

The practice of prudence gets exponentially more difficult with greater organizational responsibilities. While, as leaders, we may not have reflected on what we personally would give up for the certitude of “bread,” not a day goes by when I am not yearning for some sort of certitude, or “silver bullet” that would relieve my anxiousness in making consequential decisions. This desire for “silver bullets” seems to be at the heart of what I call “airport leadership” books; those books that you can pick up to read on a four to five-hour flight that promise some form of certitude. One of the better books is Atul Gawande’s 2009 book, The Checklist Manifesto. Dr. Gawande argues that the increasing complexity of professional responsibilities can be dealt with by breaking down the complexities by examining and documenting re-occurring patterns; creating checklists helps to take some of the mysteries out of complexity by recognizing the minimum necessary steps, and then making them explicit.

I like checklists, breaking down the complex and understanding processes. In fact, twenty-five years ago, in 1994, while a management professor at Seattle Pacific University, I started my consulting career at Microsoft by mapping processes for their IT group. As you can imagine, this was during a high-growth time, when existing work flows were not scalable. We needed to create consistent entry points and responses to internal customers, clarifying roles and responsibilities to reduce the conflict and ambiguity that was not only problematic for IT employees but for the company, as a whole. It was very satisfying to work with engineers to create consistent expectations for work, collaboration, and customer satisfaction.

Two years later, I had been hired away from academia by Microsoft to manage the support staff for external retail customer service. At that time there were three call centers only in the US and we were moving to a “follow the sun model” to ensure that we had global coverage for customers. But my engineers were stymied on where to begin. They knew how to come up with technical solutions, but they had difficulty in defining the problem. Likewise, they were not confident that they could come up with the best solution. They were frozen in a form of slothfulness, unable to practice prudence.

Whether they realized it or not, they were tackling “wicked problems.” Such problems are not wicked as in evil. Instead, a wicked problem does not have a single possible solution, as the issue is comprised of opaque, changing, incomplete, or contradictory factors. Even when a decision is made, there may be unintended consequences. And because there is no single solution, there is no determinable stopping point so that it is impossible to know if we ever truly choose the best solution. It’s not so much about making the right decision as it is about making necessary choices, and sometimes its living with the least bad choice. What I found at my time at Microsoft is that if I pointed people in the right direction, they were “all in.” But they were frozen, slothful as it were, when it came to work that was not clearly defined. They had the technical knowledge, but they lacked the prudence to take on a wicked problem.

Wicked problems enlarge whatever strengths or weaknesses already exist in organizations. Work is meaningful, good, and God ordained. As we are made in the image of the triune God, we are meant to work together. Sometimes, I worry that too many people think that God-ordained work exists only inside the gates of Eden. Even in Christ-centered organizations, people are sinful, and work can be toilsome. By our very natures we are prone toward self-deception. We are easily anxious and disposed to toward political gamesmanship in the face of scarcity.

Yet work, since it is God ordained, is also part of His redeeming purposes. God seeks to restore the whole world, which means that He seeks to redeem work. Not only that, but God seeks to redeem the world through work. Even more so, God uses work for our own sanctification. Recognizing that God has a calling on our lives, our vocation is not just serving Him but being shaped by God through work.

But those redeeming purposes are tinged with the toil of wicked problems in a sin-filled world. Innovation is not just about new ideas, its about purpose, virtue, and prudence. To those ends, here are some principled insights:

  • I must have a telos or purpose that helps me to see problems where others don’t. My telos, based in Christ, gives me hope.
  • I must work with humility, recognizing that the world is larger than my own understanding, knowing that I will never fully know what I don’t know about God, let alone myself.
  • I must listen and read with charity. Anger or dismissiveness distorts God’s good purposes. Loving others at work is God’s will and my joy.
  • I must take God’s long view. My hope is in God alone, which gives me strength, even when my heart is broken.
  • I must hold people accountable because I recognize that they are made in the image of God, so I don’t excuse or look away as if their humanity, whatever shape it is in, doesn’t deserve my engagement.
  • I must remember that work is a form of worship to God, even when I am tempted to make my work its own idol.

Dostoevsky’s Ivan, whose Grand Inquisitor is so haughty in his scolding of Jesus, recognizes at the end that the certitude that he, an old man, wanted from Christ can only come at the cost of love, forgiveness, and hope.

[The Grand Inquisitor] has seen that the Prisoner has listened to him all this time with quiet emotion, gazing straight into his eyes and evidently not wishing to raise any objection. The old man would like the other to say something to him, even if it is bitter, terrible. But He suddenly draws near to the old man without saying anything and quietly kisses him on his bloodless, ninety-year-old lips.

Innovation requires wicked problems. Such problems are a gift that God has given us as co-laborers in his Kingdom, which is redeemed but not yet perfected. Innovation is not just an outcome. It is also a process that requires knowledge and reason, along with purpose, love, character and prudence. Innovation requires Christ-centered liberal arts.

Dr. Margaret DuPlissis Diddams ’83 is Wheaton’s chief academic officer and second ranking administrator, reporting directly to the President. She oversees the undergraduate and graduate programs of Wheaton College through the Dean of Arts, Music and Communication, the Dean of Humanities and Theological Studies, and the Dean of Natural and Social Sciences. Dr. Diddams is also responsible for the Billy Graham Center, Global Programs and Studies, Institutional Research and Academic Support, and the Library and Archives. In addition, Dr. Diddams holds faculty status as Professor of Psychology.

Dr. Diddams is a 1983 graduate of Wheaton College with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. She earned a Master of Arts in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from New York University in 1988, where she also earned a Ph.D. in Industrial and Organizational Psychology in 1994. Dr. Diddams formerly taught at Columbia University and Seattle Pacific University and was a Senior Manager at Microsoft.