The Malamud effect: ideas and the corporation

Razr_2There’s a wonderful story by Bernard Malamud about a painter who manages in a moment of inspiration to create a work of greatness. All his neighbors say so. The painter works through the night, burnishing, perfecting, and as the light of dawn fills his studio, it’s clear what he’s done. He’s ruined it. His neighbors all troop back in and everyone agrees. "Yes," they say (something like), "It’s true. You screwed it up."

This story sprang to mind when I was reading Scott Anthony’s treatment of the Razr, the phone that restored Motorola to its accustomed place of grandeur in the cell phone market. Anthony doesn’t say it in so many words, but you are left with the impression that one of the secrets was the sheer speed at which Razr was allowed to pass through the Motorola system.

The Razr idea was a great idea. The trick for Motorola: to get out of its way. Bless them, they did. When the dawn stole into the product development lab, there it was, a new phone, close enough to perfect to do astonishing things for the brand, sales and shareholder value.

Why do corporations inflict the Malamud effect on innovation? I think we know some of the answers here. I wish to read into evidence my experience as an employee of the Royal Ontario Museum, a great python of an institution, one through which, when I was there, innovations moved slowly, if at all.

In the early days, Royal Ontario Museum did a particularly good job of making itself up as it went along. But as it went along, the place began to discover the pleasures of stasis and to indulge itself in a particularly nasty combination of cowardice and bloody mindedness. By the time I got there, it was if the very achievements of the institution, its power and majesty, were being used to protect it from new ideas.

How bad was it? I told one of the incoming heads of the institution that he was about to assume leadership of a "culture of no." He laughed, very nearly patted me on the head, and said something like, "Just watch me."

Several years later, over moody drinks in the member’s lounge, he acknowledged that he was presiding over an institution that wished to perpetuate itself unchanged.

Sometimes the museum’s spirit of resistance was just laziness. Change, especially change in the deeper assumptions and processes of the museum, this would take workā€¦and who wanted that?

Sometimes, it was stupidity. Change takes a certain imaginative power and intellectual mobility, and the Museum had made some terrible HR decisions over the years. Some employees were willing to participate in a new Museum, but they were simply too dim to grasp what was being asked of them.

But sometimes the "innovation jamming" stemmed from the cunning understanding that a swifter, smarter, more engaged Museum must necessarily create an environment antithetical to job security. The time-serving functionary knew this new Museum would make him look bad just about all the time. Surely, idea infanticide was not such a bad thing, especially it could forestall patricide down the road. (Kill the innovation before it grows up and kills you.)

Sometimes, innovation jamming came from a motive deeper still. Many members of the institution were deeply wedded to the "identity capital" that accrued to anyone working at the Royal Ontario Museum. They lived for that delicious pause at a cocktail party that followed their answer to the question, "and what do you do?" The very mention of the ROM made people stop a moment, and this pause is the Canadian way of giving deference. No one wanted to mess with this.

We have all seen this kind of corruption at work. It’s not peculiar to the ROM, the museum, not for profits, or the corporation. Every organization has a system. This system works as a ballast, a bulwark, a benediction against chaos.

But, thanks to the Malamud effect, the system is also the way good ideas turn into moronic, or merely ordinary, realities. What we need is a formula that shows that the value of a new idea (to the brand, to volume and profit, to shareholder value) is diminished the more time it spends in process, in committee, in corporation. The faster we bring a new idea to market the more likely it is to deliver real value there. Speed of delivery doesn’t very often feel like the sensible thing to do. But it is sometimes the only way to escape the Malamud effect.

References

Anthony, Scott. 2005. Motorola’s Bet on the Razr’s Edge. Harvard Business School Working Knowledge. September 12, 2005. here.

Bernard, Malamud. [I read this 30 years ago. Grateful if anyone can identify it.]

6 thoughts on “The Malamud effect: ideas and the corporation

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  3. jens

    beautiful story.
    maybe it was better in the first draft though…


    no, joking.
    very beautiful story.
    (with a slightly longish middle part)

  4. steve

    The need for speed may be an overdetermined phenomenon. Market urgency and a desire to reduce development costs also lead some firms to run new-product projects on a “timebox” basis (set a deadline and go with what you have regardless of whether it’s met all goals 100%).

    Your suggestion that speed also protects innovations from internal resistance is an original one. My only question is which comes first–do we need to have already overcome resistance in order to move the project along? One traditional tactic for overcoming internal obstacles is to create special “tiger teams” or “skunk works” outside the normal organization structure. Such groups also tend to move a lot quicker (with fewer formal procedures). That solution would correlate speed and lack of resistance in a non-causal way, i.e. speed and lack of resistance would be the joint results of an organizational choice.

  5. Matt

    When everyone in the organization needs to have his own input into the final product, it tends to drag quality down and schedules outward. When examining the phenomenon from the inside this is quite obvious. Hence I would conclude that there is a causal relationship involved, but that it’s not between speed and quality, but rather between good organizational dynamics and both speed and quality.

  6. John McCreery

    Gene McCracken, I write as an admirer who has used Culture and Consumption I in my seminars at Sophia University in Tokyo and has just discovered your blog. FYI, I, too, am an anthropologist, by training a student of Chinese popular religion who once wrote a dissertation on “The Symbolism of Popular Taoist Magic.” Through various odd quirks of fate I wound up in Japan, spent 13 years as a copywriter and creative director for Hakuhodo, the second biggest Japanese agency, and have written a book of my own, Japanese Consumer Behavior: From Worker Bees to Wary Shoppers (Curzon Press and U. of Hawaii Press, 2000), looking at changes in Japanese consumers through the eyes of the Japanese researchers at the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living. Would be delighted to share thoughts and observations on culture and consumption in our various parts of the world.

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