There’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 work…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.
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.]